Why Do We Overeat?
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Profile photo of Meryl Krochmal, RD, CSP, CDE, CNSC

In my years of experience as a dietitian and diabetes educator, I have had the opportunity to work with a number of people trying to lose weight. Overindulging is one of the more common issues reported. If someone is trying to lose weight, gives in to temptation, and overeats, that person may feel as though they have “fallen of the wagon” and become discouraged.

Why do we overeat?

Assistant Professor, Ashley Gearhardt, PhD, of clinical psychology at the University of Michigan, reports that high sugar snacks may be part of the overeating culprit. According to Gearhardt, “There is evidence that foods with a lot of sugar can trigger an addictive-like pattern of eating”. When blood sugar levels rise, in response to a high sugar food, “pleasure chemicals” increase in your brain. In between meals/snacks, as your blood sugar levels drop, “it makes your body crave those high-sugar sweets and the cycle begins again.”1

During the time of ancestors, who were hunter-gatherers, energy needs were high, given the large amount of work and effort required to feed oneself. Now, there is much less effort involved in getting food on our table and into our mouths. However, according to Gearhardt, “our brains are still hardwired to seek out high-calorie foods”, as though we are still in a time of famine.1

Hormones that play a role in hunger and overeating

Amylin

Is a hormone co-secreted with insulin by the beta cells in the pancreas to control blood sugar levels. After a meal/snack has been consumed, amylin tells the liver to stop releasing stored glucose and also slows the rate at which the stomach empties. An individual with type 2 diabetes may have insufficient amylin production, given that the beta cells may longer work as or have possibly been destroyed (in more advanced type 2 diabetes). As a result, the stomach empties faster after a meal which may lead to feeling satisfied for a shorter period of time.

Cortisol

Is often referred to as the “stress hormone.” If you are feeling anxious cortisol will be released in larger amounts. This increase in cortisol sends a signal to your brain to “prime the dopamine system to want high-calorie foods”.

Dopamine is a chemical produced by the brain and brings about pleasure in the brain. “It is released during pleasurable situations and stimulates one to seek out the pleasurable activity or occupation” (i.e. fulfill a food craving).2

Gut peptides

Are hormones in your digestive track. If a person has consumed insufficient calories, these hormones are released to “prime the dopamine system in our brain to be on the lookout for food”.1

Ghrelin

Is often referred to as the “hunger hormone”, produced mainly in the stomach. According to professor, Susan Robert, PhD, “the sight and smell of food increases the release of ghrelin”. The release of ghrelin, “increases addictive chemicals in the brain” thus making you feel as though you are ready to eat even if you really don’t need to eat.

There is also evidence that if you wait too long to eat and come to the table famished, it may take longer to suppress the ghrelin hormone. This intern could result in overeating.

Leptin

Is the hunger-suppressing hormone, produced in the fat cells. Leptin reduces dopamine release, “serving as the body’s stop (eating) signal.” A person with excess body fat may become leptin resistant. This may result in feeling a need to eat excess calories to feel satisfied.  

Tips for lessening the desire to overeat

  • Keep tempting foods out of the house. This includes large packages such as, crackers, chips and cookies.
  • Make sure healthy foods (and lower carb foods for those watching carb intake) are easily accessible. Keeping a bowl of fresh cut veggies on the counter will make impulse snacking a little safer.
  • Slow down when eating a meal. Take at least 20 minutes to finish a meal. This might mean that you have to put your fork down in between bites.
  • It’s not a competition! Don’t feel as though you need to keep pace with what everyone else is eating.
  • Limit distractions. Avoid eating in front of the TV or computer or while on the phone.
  • Avoid portion distortion. Serve meals on a smaller plate, such an 8-inch plate instead of a 10-inch plate.
  • Dim the lights and listen to relaxing music. Both tactics can help create a calming environment, allowing you to slow down when eating.
  • Start your meal with a large glass of water.
  • Periodically check in with yourself, “How do I feel right now?”

If you do overeat, forgive yourself, move on, and start fresh tomorrow (or even better at the next meal). Living in the past will only hold you back!

view references
  1. Tsai A. Mind over Meal. Diabetes Forecast. 2017: 51-55.
  2. Mandal A. Dopamine Functions. News-Medical.net. http://www.news-medical.net/health/Dopamine-Functions.aspx. Published October 27, 2015. Accessed April 15, 2017.
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