You start the week off with great intentions - you’ve done your meal-prep and have mentally prepared to stick to a healthy eating routine. Then lunchtime hits, you’re ravenous, and the salad you packed sits wilting in the fridge while you order takeout in a blind, hungry rage! After inhaling your lunch, the guilt kicks in and you feel you’ve let yourself down.
We’ve all been there. It’s easy to beat yourself up when you don’t stick to your healthy eating plan. But slipping out of your routine doesn’t mean you have to give up on healthy eating altogether, and it doesn’t mean you need to develop Herculean willpower. It might just mean you need to look at what else is happening in your body and your environment. Because believe it or not, overeating isn’t always a battle of wills.
From lifestyle factors, hormonal shifts, and emotions to even the smallest of things, like sleep quality, there are a lot of surprising reasons you might be overeating. Rather than feeling guilt every time you eat past a point of comfort, let’s take a look at these reasons and find some ways to work through them together.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that stress is first on our list. Stress, as well as anxiety and depression, has a profound effect on eating behaviors. Eating foods that we enjoy is a common coping mechanism when we are experiencing stress or emotional challenges, but doing so doesn’t fix the root causes of our emotional turmoil.
From a physiological standpoint, studies show that chronically high levels of stress raise our cortisol levels, leading to increased food cravings. Often, chronic stress causes us to crave more sweet and ultra-processed foods in order to feed the mesolimbic dopamine pathway (essentially our reward pathway in the brain).
Reaching out for help from a friend or therapist, practicing mindfulness, spending time in nature, and seeking ways to manage environmental stress (and our body’s response to that stress) can all help curb emotional eating while also addressing the root issue. Cognitive behavioral therapy in particular can be quite helpful in managing emotional eating, but even simple methods like deep breathing, listening to your favorite music, or doing a guided body scan meditation can help.
You read that right. Not eating enough (of the right foods) can contribute to a habit of overeating. Basic science tells us that when calories in = calories out, our body will remain where it is in terms of weight. But if we dig deeper, we quickly realize how important the content of the food we eat is to our overall health.
If you find yourself starving shortly after a meal, bingeing on late night snacks, or unable to quell your hunger after physical activity, there’s a good chance you aren’t fueling your body properly. Let’s use working out as a prime example:
If you don’t eat the right foods (or at all) after a workout, within 30-60 minutes ideally, your body will spend the rest of the day trying to make up for that deficit. Both protein and carbohydrates are important for muscle recovery and stabilizing blood sugar after exercise. Eating a balanced meal or snack after a workout will keep your blood sugar from dropping to the point of causing excessive hunger, and will ensure you’re getting the most from your workouts.
Similarly, if you aren’t fueling your body with the nutrients you need during the day, you’ll find yourself starving by 8PM and ready to eat everything in sight. Rather than restricting your diet, focus on including a healthy balance of protein, healthy fats and complex carbohydrates at every meal, and make sure that any snacks throughout the day contain protein, too. Proteins and fats both help to slow digestion, which encourages optimal nutrient uptake and keeps you feeling satisfied longer.
Lack of Sleep
Not getting enough sleep at night can make for a rough day, especially when that afternoon slump hits. But it also sets you up for failure when it comes to adhering to healthy eating. Just one night of poor sleep can cause an increase in production of ghrelin, the hunger hormone, and a suppression of leptin, the hormone that signals to your body that you’re full. So if you’re not getting around 8 hours of quality sleep each night, there’s a good chance it’s having a significant negative effect on your hormone balance.
If sleep is a problem for you, consider ways to support healthy sleep hygiene at home: limit use of screens/blue-light at least 30-60 minutes before bed. Instead, spend that time doing something relaxing, like reading a book, taking a bath, or doing some gentle stretching or meditation. Find something you enjoy doing, something that relaxes you, and build it into the beginning of your bedtime routine. Finding a sleep routine that works for you can help your body’s hormones level out and lead to less overeating in no time.
Ignoring Hunger Cues
In a perfect world, we would eat when we’re hungry, stop when we’re full, and all would be well. Unfortunately, eating is rarely that simple. On one hand, you may have a schedule that prohibits you from following your hunger cues (would it be rude to pause this executive team meeting to run next door for a bagel and lox?). On the other hand, our body often confuses hunger cues with being thirsty, tired, stressed, or any number of other, non food-related things. So how do we meet in the middle?
The first thing to do is to really listen to what your body is telling you. Before eating something, consider your motive for eating. Are you stressed? Upset? Tired? Sad? Thirsty? Genuinely hungry? Seek the true answer before grabbing a snack. On the flip side, find ways to prioritize meals during your day. Taking 20-30 minutes to eat a lunch slowly and mindfully isn’t indulgent - it’s a cornerstone of a healthy relationship with food, and doing so can prevent indigestion, overeating, and further digestive issues.
This method of eating with mindfulness is called Intuitive Eating. With over 150 evidence-based studies to support its efficacy, intuitive eating is a great method for learning to listen to your body and developing a healthier relationship with food.
If overeating is a struggle for you, consider working with a functional medicine practitioner, like our providers at Vitality. We can work with you to identify the root cause of your eating struggles and help you to develop a healthy relationship with food while helping you feel better from the inside out!
Interested in an expert approach to wellness? Schedule a discovery call with one of our Patient Care Coordinators today!
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