As the last signs of summer fade away, we’ve entered a season filled with crisp evenings, cool mornings, and a tendency to seek out warm, comforting foods. It’s also the beginning of a seemingly endless holiday season, crammed with opportunities to overindulge. Often, that means overeating – and usually you’re not eating an abundance of carrots and hummus, but instead consuming a steady diet of sweets and simple carbohydrates.

If you are like many of the women I know, you may have fallen into a pattern of binge eating, then limiting your food intake so severely that you end up binging again…it quickly becomes a vicious cycle. Some woman can usually avoid this kind of pattern, but struggle this time of year, what with Halloween candy appearing on the shelves in September, and a steady stream of celebrations – often including tables laden with food – until New Year’s Day. But other women find the cycle repeating all year long.

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 and External Cues

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 you 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 are serious consequences.

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4. Physiological Messages

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 sweetenersResearch 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

Include plenty of protein, Omega-3 fatty acids, fruits and vegetables. Experiment with new recipes and find ways to substitute healthier options to your old favorites. Supplement 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

You may need the help of a therapist as you examine where your habits came from – and what old patterns may be playing out in your eating habits.

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.

4. Eat Regularly – and Mindfully

Set some rules for yourself – like scheduling regular meal times like they are meetings, or never eating in the car. Allow enough time to savor every bite, and you just might find you don’t need to take as many.

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.

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