Update 04/24/2022

My friend Melissa recently called me in a panic, in the middle of the season finale of her favorite reality show.

“I ate the entire bag of chocolate-covered pretzels!” She exclaimed. She hadn’t even realized how much she was eating, because she was so absorbed in her show.

Now, Melissa is a busy woman with a career and a family, and I completely support her indulging in a sweet treat and reality TV here and there when she finally finds a moment for herself.

But the thing is, Melissa had stopped even enjoying her pretzels. She was, in her own words, just shoveling them into her mouth mindlessly while she watched TV. And, unsurprisingly, she didn’t feel very well afterwards.

Distraction is just one of the common reasons why women may overeat or binge eat.

If you are like many of the women I know, especially over the last couple of years during the pandemic, you may have fallen into a pattern of binge eating… and then limiting your food intake so severely that you end up binging again. It quickly becomes a vicious cycle.

You might be beating yourself up over this unhealthy pattern, lamenting your inability to exert any self control at all. But did you know that your tendency to overeat could very possibly go deeper than simply not having any “willpower”? There are so many reasons we fall into unhealthy eating patterns – and most have nothing to do with actual hunger or nutrient needs. Let’s take a closer look at a few of these reasons you can’t stop eating. Then, I’ll give you some tips on how to change them and stop overeating.

5 Reasons You Can’t Stop Eating

1. Emotional Eating

You’re probably familiar with the notion that women eat for comfort – pushing sadness away with ice cream, or battling loneliness with a bag of chips. And you probably also know how stress impacts your appetite.

But it isn’t just negative emotions that lead us to overeat. Joyful celebrations often include an abundance of food, and often these foods hold precious memories. It might be hard to resist a chocolate chip cookie that reminds you of how loved your grandmother made you feel. When food represents the feelings you crave, saying no is increasingly difficult.

2. Habit, External Cues, and the Power of Suggestion

Have you grown accustomed to grabbing a snack and settling in to watch some tv at night? Does book club always include a variety of snacks to go along with the discussion? How about at the movies – is it unheard of to enjoy the show without popcorn? Can a commercial send you straight to the kitchen in search of what you just saw? There are so many times when eating is simply a habit, or power of suggestion. You haven’t taken the time to really examine whether or not you are hungry. But if your body doesn’t need nutrients, there is really no need to eat – even if it’s what you’ve always done!

3. Portion Sizes Gone Wild

We’ve become so used to the outrageous portion sizes served in restaurants that we simply don’t know what a reasonable portion is any more. Many people are concerned with value, and have a “bigger is better” mentality when it comes to getting what we pay for. But while value is great when we’re buying paper towels in bulk, when it comes to food there can be serious consequences.

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4. Physiological Messages & Hormonal Imbalances

There are true biological reasons you may head for the refrigerator more often than you want. Hormonal balance – or imbalance – has a huge impact on the signals your brain sends out. Insulin is a primary hormone that regulates blood sugar, and an imbalance of insulin can be connected to a variety of other hormones as well. When blood sugar is low, ghrelin – a hormone that stimulates appetite – is produced. Leptin is a hormone that sends the message that you are full, so if you don’t have enough leptin, your body can send the wrong message – and send you to the cupboards.

5. What and When You Eat

Remember that binge and starve cycle I talked about earlier? It sends your body the message that it is starving, and your brain sounds an alarm in the form of hunger and cravings. While you might know that it’s not a matter of life and death, your brain doesn’t. And eating foods that are low in nutritional value doesn’t maintain the balance you need, so you’re likely to feel hungry more often. Then there’s the problem of unhealthy substitutions, especially artificial sweeteners. Research has shown that these can trick your body into thinking it needs more calories, making intake harder to regulate.

What You Can Do to Avoid Overeating

Knowing that your overindulging isn’t simply a lack of will can help stop the negative messages you send yourself. And when you aren’t bombarded with negative self-talk, it’s easier to recognize what you can do to change these tendencies. Often, awareness is the missing link in changing behavior. Here are five quick tips for avoiding the overeating trap.

1. Eat Nutritious Whole Foods

Foods that are actually nutritious will allow you to stay full for longer. Make sure to include plenty of healthy protein, omega-3 fatty acids, fruits and vegetables. Experiment with new recipes and find ways to substitute healthier options to your old favorites. Finally, consider supplementing with a high-quality multivitamin to be sure your body is getting all the nutrients it needs to keep you feeling satisfied.

2. Learn Your Story – and How You Can Change It

Emotional eating habits and psychological patterns around food are incredibly common, but they may be difficult to identify on your own. You may want to seek the help of a therapist, or body worker as you examine where your habits came from – and what old patterns may be playing out in your eating habits. Remember if you don’t deal with your story, your story will deal with you. As I said in one of my chapters in the Core Balance Diet, “Your issues are in your tissues”. Once understood the emotional eating patterns can be substituted with a more balanced approach to food, and nutrition.

3. Give Yourself the Attention You Deserve

Build time for fun into your daily routine. Find a stress release that works for you – walking, yoga, dance, or anything that makes you feel revitalized and calmer. This way, you’re less likely to find yourself turning to food as a stress reliever.

4. Eat Regularly – and Mindfully

Set some rules for yourself – like scheduling regular meal times as though they are meetings, or never eating in the car. In general, the fewer distractions you have while eating, the better. As much as possible, focus on just eating when you’re eating. Allow enough time to savor every bite, and you just might find you don’t need to take as many.

Here’s another tip: Practicing mindfulness in other areas of your life can actually help you to eat more mindfully, too. Try meditation, yoga, breathing exercises, or walks in nature to help train those mindfulness muscles.

5. Track What You Eat

Keeping a journal of everything you eat can make you more aware – and knowing it has to go on the list might make you more mindful of your choices in the moment as well. A log is a good way to keep an eye on portion sizes as well. But don’t fall into endless weighing or measuring of food. Instead, learn how to eyeball and appropriate portion size looks like. In the beginning, a reference chart like this one can be helpful.

You Can Reinvent Your Relationship With Food

I hope these tips can help you to both understand and heal your relationship to food. While overeating and binge eating can be problematic, it can be equally harmful to fear or avoid food (and, uncoincidentally, these two extremes tend to go hand in hand in a cycle).

By revisiting your habits and patterns, choosing more nutritious options, and learning to eat mindfully, you can reinvent your relationship with food, and even learn to love eating (a healthy amount!).

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