Let’s be honest—we can all say that we’ve all ended up overeating. And all that really means is that we’ve consumed more calories than in a single meal, or a single day, than we physically need to sustain our health and energy levels. We might notice that our stomach feels really full, distended or even stretched from the volume of food we consumed—and, for most people, this feeling is quite uncomfortable!
“The stomach has a finite volume, so putting too much in can lead to not only feelings of discomfort, but may also lead to delays in gastric emptying, as now extra stomach acids and gastric juices must be produced to handle the increased food volume,” says Roger E. Adams, Ph.D., doctor of nutrition and owner of eatrightfitness. “Food won’t leave the stomach and go into the small intestine until it is well-churned and chemically and physically converted into a paste called chyme, so the more we put in, the longer it will take to have the stomach do its work.” This, he warns, may lead to some seriously unpleasant side effects including heartburn, sour stomach and acid reflux.
While overeating now and then is typically harmless and does not involve symptoms that last longer than an hour or so, overeating consistently, say several times a day or several times a week, can have longer-term effects. “Your body uses some of the excess calories you consume for energy and moving through your day, but what it doesn’t use it stores as fat,” says functional nutritional therapy practitioner Tansy Rodgers, F.N.T.P. “The bigger long-term health effect here is that the foods that most people overeat on—pizza, cheeseburgers, french fries, donuts, cookies, etc.—causes inflammation in the body, therefore increasing an individual’s risk for cancer and other chronic health problems.”
Don’t beat yourself up with guilt about overeating
If you’re trying to stay on track with your health goals, overeating, whether it’s once or often, can make you feel as though you’re falling off track, but Dr. Adams warns against letting guilt beat you up. “It’s only one meal out of 20 or more that you’ll consume in a given week, which means it’s not going to set your health goals back,” he says. “Instead of lamenting your overindulgence, move on and plan to focus on more of an intuitive approach to your meals, which means focusing on your food and how it really makes you feel rather than simply finishing whatever’s in front of you.”
Grab your journal
Often when someone overeats, there are emotions that pop up. For this reason, Rodgers suggests taking a few moments to journal how you are feeling during the overeating event. “This can help you see the big picture and explore deeper why it happened, as well as remind you of how awful you may have felt after overeating, which can hopefully make you less likely to do it next time,” she says. “This is also a great time to explore why you might overeat, what kind of wounds or traumas are being unresolved and what you can do differently to help you heal (and decrease your overeating experiences).”
It might not feel like something you want to do after overindulging, but doing something physically active is actually one of the best things you can do after eating a meal of any size—especially a rather large one. “Not only does moving help to move the food and speed up the digestive process, but being upright and utilizing gravity helps as well,” says Rodgers. “Going for a walk after a big meal can also help to speed up the metabolism, helping the body to burn off some of those extra calories, as well as help stabilize your blood sugar (and even lower it).”
Stick to hydrating foods the next day
Whenever you have a day of overindulging on food, Christen Cupples Cooper, Ed.D., R.D.N., assistant professor and founding director of the Nutrition and Dietetics Program at the College of Health Professions at Pace University, suggests sticking to hydrating, lower-calorie foods the next day, such as lean proteins and plenty of fruits and vegetables. “Much of the food we tend to overeat (especially at restaurants) is very salty, so drinking plenty of water can help rehydrate us.”
Whatever you do, she recommends cutting yourself off from foods the next day in an attempt to make up for overdoing it. “Your body still needs energy, so stick to nutrient-rich, lower-calorie foods like oatmeal, yogurt, fruit, salads, veggies and lean proteins.”
Reassess your daily intake
Whenever you find yourself overeating on a consistent basis, it’s a good idea to be retrospective. Ask yourself: Was it due to physical hunger or was there an emotional void you were trying to fill? “Often, intentional deprivation, like a diet, or unintentional deprivation, like eating too late when you get stuck in a work meeting, can lead to overeating,” she says. “In this case, it’s normal for the body and mind to overcompensate in instances where there has been restriction.”
If the overeating wasn’t due to physical hunger, she suggests checking on how you’re thinking about foods. “Often, overeating can arise from black-and-white thinking about food—for example, if you decide that you’ve broken your healthy eating plan by eating some dessert, it can be tempting to decide to ‘reset’ tomorrow and go all in tonight,” she says. “Instead, remind yourself that there is room for all foods in a healthy and sustainable approach to eating.”
Lastly, she notes the importance of considering the role emotions may play in your overeating episodes.
“If you were eating to avoid a feeling, like sadness, loneliness or boredom, think of a more productive way to manage those feelings, like reaching out to a friend, engaging in a distracting activity, or doing some self-care,” she says. “Food can be a wonderful, joyous part of life, but it doesn’t work well as a solution to emotional challenges.”