Why do people overeat? We all EAT for for a variety of reasons. By taking a look at some of the things that don’t involve honoring our body cues, we can take back the power from overeating
#1 Stress or Floating Head Syndrome
Stress. When most people experience the “fight or flight” stress response, they have laser focus and activate “go mode” to address the stressor. This means the to-do list, your boss, kids, health goals, or whatever your primary stressor is– becomes consuming. This may even feel like you have tunnel vision and forget other things because you’re so focused. Many folks feel like they live in their head all day because of this, or they’re simply a “floating head.” We might forget to eat, forget to drink water, or even forget to pee. It’s hard to self-care when we’re out of touch with our body’s needs. Stress disconnects the mind-body connection.
This stress state is meant to help us cope with short-term stress. The body responds by mobilizing blood flow to our lungs, heart, brain, and major muscle groups: it’s time to run away from a bear, fight them, or outsmart them. The body shuts down other systems: the digestive tract slows and goes on “standby.” You don’t need to digest lunch or know whether you’re hungry if you must deal with a bear! But in our modern world, our threat response is helping us have a laser focus on emails that never end and a to-do list that seems to grow as the day goes on. This makes it incredibly difficult to stay connected to your body’s cues.
Many folks notice less hunger during the day until a point. You know, the moment when you’re so hungry you’re ready to eat the refrigerator?? This famished feeling seems like you went from no hunger to starving. But what really happened was you ignored your body cues for too long. Now, they’re ringing the alarm to get your attention.
Take a break to disconnect from your devices and tune inward to check in with the mind-body connection.
#2 Undereating or Being “Good”
Skipping breakfast, eating a light lunch, and avoiding snacks. Being “good” is code for “dieting.” This is a great way to end up WAY too hungry at dinner time. Even undereating yesterday can be a trigger for today’s overeating. Here’s an example you probably relate to. Have you ever had the flu lost your appetite for several days, and once it comes back, it comes back with a vengeance? SO. HUNGRY. This is because your hunger/fullness cues are not regulated hour-to-hour or even one day-to-day. Our bodies want us to avoid starvation at all costs, so whenever we eat less, our ghrelin increases exponentially to urge us to eat more. Being “good” implies a set of rules that can be broken, and we’re either being good or bad.
The illusion of being “good” or “bad” concerns a power struggle between you and your body. Being “in control” of food is a message we’ve been taught by diet culture and health culture urging us to control our weight, which is code for “control your body; you can’t trust it.” A lot of language is floating around us, degrading our relationship with our bodies. Can you think of an example of moments when you decided your body is “bad”? Most of us can list several critical moments at a young age when an adult taught us to hate our bodies. Maybe it was role-modeled. Perhaps it was an adult who hated their body, so that’s what you learned is typical. It could be an adult criticizing your body and telling you, “Bodies are bad, or at least something is wrong with your body.”
Another language that might have impacted your relationship with your body might come from health culture, like “the war on obesity,” which not-so-subtly implies that violence and weapons and any means necessary are needed to control weight. Or it might come from religious institutions where messages about the body being sinful and the spirit being good further divides us from a kind relationship with our bodies. Objectification of bodies further divides our bodies into parts, which we hear all the time: “I hate my belly” or “She has a great smile.” Our relationship with our body has been so splintered, and it’s hard to imagine even a neutral attitude about it, let alone a loving, kind relationship with our body.
Reflect on ways you offer kindness to a close friend. How would you want them to talk about their relationship with their body? Use this as a reference point. What would it be like to extend a tiny bit of kindness toward your own body?
#3 All-or-Nothing Thinking aka. Being “Bad”
“I was ‘bad’ today. I already ate a pastry with my coffee this morning, so I might as well go out eat “all the things.” Being “bad” is code for “I broke a diet rule.” This is the all-or-nothing mentality that comes from diet culture, and it’s even worse if you are prone to black/white thinking. When we feel like we’re not 100% perfect, it’s easy to feel like a total and utter failure.
Our body and nervous system don’t understand what’s happening because they’re not black/white. They simply want homeostasis or balance over a day, a week, or a month. They don’t care about that pastry this morning or what diet rules are floating around in your head.
Buying into the “bad” day mentality gives us a “f-it” button, leading to eating whatever, whenever, for the rest of the day. You may not even want that other food, but black/white thinking says, “I better eat it all today because tomorrow I’m getting back ‘on track’ again.” This leads to a cycle of hypervigilance and fierce control of food (or undereating), which often leads to a breaking point and launches you into overeating. Most people think of the loss of control as the moment things go wrong, but in reality, this cycle is setting you up for failure. You’re going against your neurobiology by trying to manipulate and control hunger rather than listening to your body. It all goes back to control again.
Our bodies were never meant to be controlled. I’ll say that again for those in the back: our bodies were never ours to control. They are ours to care for.
Here’s an analogy for diet culture’s attitude about bodies vs. body kindness. Let’s imagine you are in my office. You and I are sitting across from each other, exploring this idea of a relationship between you and your body. Now, I put another chair next to you, and we visualize a session where you and your body sit next to each other and converse. It’s a couple’s session now! Remember, this is a relationship. We want to understand better what your relationship with your body is like.
Here are two examples of how that conversation might go between you and your body:
- The first is a power struggle where you and your body are constantly at odds. It’s based on body hate and diet culture’s message that you must control your body.
You say to your body: “Here’s what I need from you. I must get skinny and stay thin, so you need to be “good.” Follow the rules. When I say be quiet, be quiet. Don’t take up too much space. Your job is just to do what I say. Then I’ll take care of you.”
What does this sound like? How would you describe this relationship dynamic? Is it kind, supportive, nurturing? Or harsh, controlling, degrading? What might your body say in response?
- The second example is much different.
You say to your body: “Hey, let’s talk. I know you have needs, and it’s my job to take care of you. Sometimes, I’ll decide what’s best for you, but we’re in this together. I want you to feel cared for, accepted, and nourished. I trust you.”
What is it like to consider such a different narrative? How would you describe this relationship dynamic? What might your body say in response?
Being kind to your body isn’t easy or familiar. We don’t have role models that show us how to offer care that way. Be patient with yourself if this feels lofty or even impossible. Just like building new dynamics in a relationship with old patterns is hard, this process takes a lot of time to shift.
When we don’t get enough sleep, our hunger hormone ghrelin has a hay day. Sleep is when we rest and restore, which includes resetting our hormones to their homeostatic point where they want to be. Getting good sleep is like hitting “refresh” on your brain and body browser. Inadequate and poor sleep makes it difficult for hunger and fullness hormones, ghrelin and leptin, to reset and regulate.
Studies show that getting behind on sleep increases your appetite simply because your ghrelin hormone is increased. But could there be other reasons, too? When tired and depleted, we’re more likely to want easy foods, comfort foods, and snack out of boredom or just to stay awake. We might be mistaking the body cue, saying, “I am tired, I need sleep,” for “I am tired, I need energy, let’s eat.” Another reason we might eat more when tired is that we’re less resilient to stress. It’s hard to bounce back from a stressful conversation when you’re exhausted! You’re more likely to be cranky, and we all know stress is a powerful trigger for undereating and overeating. You might even find yourself in a cycle of compulsive eating behavior.
Prioritize rest, downtime, and sleep as an essential part of your nutrition goals! It helps strengthen your mind-body connection, improves resilience to stress, and makes it easier to trust your body’s hunger and fullness. It might even help to think of sleep as part of your meal plan.
#5 Overwhelmed With Life or “O.W.L.” Syndrome
Overwhelmed With Life? Whoooo isn’t? Food is often a coping tool that helps us take a break.
- Feeling anxious? Have some jellybeans.
- Exhausted after a long week? Grab a pizza to celebrate making it to the weekend.
- Noticing loneliness? How about some ice cream?
- Panicking because finances are tight? Maybe I’ll skip lunch.
- Frustrated with a friend? How about some chips?
- The kids driving you up the wall? Take a minute for some cookies.
These are all real examples from real clients. Using overeating or undereating to cope in the short term isn’t inherently wrong; it’s a coping tool. But if it’s your only coping tool and it’s chronic, it starts to backfire, adding stress instead of helping you have the life you want. The hope is that you’ll have many coping mechanisms you can choose from. Maybe sometimes food helps you cope. Cool. And sometimes, you choose other coping tools. Cool. But knowing you’re in the driver’s seat, you can select which coping device is essential.
Build up your self-care toolbox a little at a time so you have many ways of caring for yourself. Stay tuned for Natalie’s coming blog, which will share ideas for more self-care strategies. In the meantime, you might try out the HALT tool for mindfulness and awareness.