It happens to most of us now and then, or at least once a year on Thanksgiving. We eat way too much in one sitting and wind up feeling overly stuffed, bloated, lethargic, and sleepy. If overeating is a once-in-a-blue-moon experience for you, then you have no reason for concern. But if you regularly feel these uncomfortable symptoms after an average meal, you may be a chronic overeater. This unhealthy habit of consuming more than your body needs on a repetitive basis can lead to weight gain, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and a slew of diseases including heart disease and diabetes. Here are some important cues to be on the lookout for if you think you overeat on the reg.
You often eat with distractions.
TV dinners may be nostalgic things of the past, but they shouldn’t be part of your regular routine. The same goes for dining while browsing your social media feeds. Experts warn that this “mindless eating” leads people to disconnect from their hunger and fullness cues and oftentimes ends in overeating. “When we eat with distractions, we are no longer paying attention to how much fuel we’re putting in our body and how much it actually needs,” says Gisela Bouvier, R.D.N., L.D.N., founder of B Nutrition and Wellness.
She recommends eating at a dining table while disconnected from all technology. Additionally, taking the time to eat slowly and savor every bite can help. “Enjoying your meal allows you to experience satiety and eat enough for your body based on your hunger and fullness,” she says.
You restrict certain foods from your diet.
Despite what most people may think, nutrition experts are not in favor of restricting certain foods or entire food groups from your diet. Though these diet plans may help people shed pounds, oftentimes the weight loss is unmanageable over time. This may cause the weight to creep back on—sometimes twofold. “A vicious cycle occurs when you restrict your diet and deplete your body of the nutrients and foods it’s asking you for,” Bouvier explains. “When the restriction becomes too stressful, heavy grazing or bingeing may occur, which both correlate to overeating.”
Her advice is to go back to being mindful and intuitive. “Allow yourself to eat the foods you love and your body is asking you for,” she says. “When you do not restrict yourself from the foods you want, you find satisfaction, and overeating is much less likely to occur.”
You rely on food to cope with emotions.
Some people turn away food during a time of great stress or sadness, others turn toward food as a source of comfort. “Food can be an emotional journey, bringing back memories of our childhood, a first date, travels, or anything in between,” Bouvier says. “Food can also be a way to cope when we deal with emotion, particularly hardships, sadness, or anger.”
Bouvier points out that eating emotionally isn’t necessarily always a bad thing because it can help put the focus on the food instead of on your feelings. But be careful. Overeating may occur when food becomes the constant emotional clutch and support. “When overeating due to emotions occurs, then guilt and stress may follow,” Bouvier says. For this reason, she recommends trying to face issues and emotions head-on. Resolve problems as they arise to help avoid overeating as a result of your inner emotional turbulence.
You eat out of boredom.
“When we are home alone without much to do and become bored, we may tend to graze, snack, and simply eat because there is nothing more exciting, or perhaps available, for us to do,” Bouvier says. This, she explains, is another example of mindless eating. “It is important to truly stop and think, ‘Am I really hungry? Is my body truly asking me for nourishment right now?’ If the answer is no, then we are eating due to boredom, which means we are eating when our bodies do not need it,” she says.
She recommends assessing your actual hunger level and find ways to put your mind on other things until you can accurately decide if and when your body needs nourishment.
You go out to eat more often than eating at home.
Who doesn’t love dining out? Not us! But, Bouvier warns that when we dine out, we tend to eat more because we want to try a little bit of everything, portions are larger, the bread basket is tempting, and we may want dessert at the end of the meal. Dining out is a culprit that quickly leads to overeating. One study published by Public Health Nutrition found that folks who eat at restaurants tend to consume 200 more calories than they would with a home-cooked meal. “I never give clients a limit as to how many times they should go out to eat,” Bouvier says. “I do, however, recommend that they prepare meals at home as often as they can.” Eating at home also places portion control in your hands, which can be helpful when trying not to overdo it.
You eat faster than everyone else around you.
Whether it’s because you’re starving or rushing to finish your lunch before an afternoon business meeting, eating quickly can increase the amount of food and calories you consume relatively quickly. “It takes about 20 minutes for your brain to catch up with your stomach, so if you’re a quick eater, you may consume more calories,” explains Cara Schrager, M.P.H, R.D., C.D.E. at Joslin Diabetes Center in Boston.
She recommends practicing placing your fork down after every one or two bites and taking a sip of water to slow down your pace. “This can help fill up your stomach a bit and reduce the amount of food eaten afterward.”
You have trouble breathing post-meal due to fullness.
If you’re stuffed after a meal, it’s a telltale sign that you have overeaten. “There is a difference between feeling stuffed and feeling satisfied,” Schrager explains. “Sometimes we don’t know when we feel satisfied, and this leads us to feel stuffed if we keep eating past satisfaction.” Instead of going back for seconds, she recommends waiting for another five to seven minutes. You’ll likely start to feel more satisfied and won’t need to go back for more.
You avoid social situations that involve food.
If you frequently experience guilt or shame overeating around others, even a close friend or significant other, you may fall into the habit of overeating in private. “Social isolation is very real for many who avoid social eating,” explains Grace Wong, R.D. in Calgary, Canada. “You may be afraid that you would ‘lose control’ of your eating and therefore avoid any social eating situations. You may also be worried that others would judge you for what or how much you eat.”
Whether you’re someone who tends to eat very little before social events or way more than you should, this restriction may further perpetuate the deprivation-overeating cycle, Wong says. Her best advice is to eat regularly before the event. “If you are anxious about being around people and food, plan ahead to hang out with a support person,” she adds.
You often feel out of control when food is involved.
If the idea of eating a meal, with or without people, has you panicky or raises your anxiety level slightly, you may fall into the trap of overeating. “You may have a bite of a forbidden food and lose control,” Wong says. “Many people blame the lack of willpower for overeating pleasurable foods, but the main issue is the restraint we impose on ourselves.” She explains that when we limit certain foods and then provide ourselves with this “forbidden fruit,” an intense drive to eat begins.
“In order to stop this cycle of deprivation and overeating, your body needs consistent nourishment,” she says. “Start with allowing yourself to eat every few hours, and pay attention to what your body cues are communicating to you.”