7 Reasons Why We Overeat and & Solutions

We all overeat.

(CLICK HERE to see the YouTube video of 7 Reasons Why We Overeat)

Every once in a while, I dig deep and attack food like it’s an athletic event. Not often, but it happens.

Especially on weekends and holidays.

I shovel and shovel and shovel the food in until I practically injure myself. It’s not pretty.

Why is it that we, given the opportunity, eat ourselves into a strained rib muscle?

Is it because the food is just SO good?

Because we’re ravenously hungry and our bodies NEED the fuel?

Or is it something else, something we’re compelled to do on a deeper level?

Well, it’s all of that, and more. Here are 7 explanations for why we binge and 7 ways to curb it.

(Note: I’m not referring to eating disorders here, that’s an entirely different issue)

7 Reasons Why We Overeat

PORTION SIZES

They’ve grown as much as 138% since the 1970’s. We’re just putting TOO MUCH food on our plates, and research shows that we are inclined to keep eating and eating until the food is gone.


DINING WITH OTHERS AND DISTRACTED EATING

We have a tendency to consume more food and drink when we dine with other people. We use other people’s eating behaviors as cues for how we should be eating. So, if everyone is eating-eating-eating around the restaurant table and we’re using everyone else’s behavior as a guide for our own, we’re going to keep eating. And so are they.

We’re all bouncing our behavior off of each other.

When’s the last time you went out with a bunch of friends and didn’t stagger home, filled to the point of bursting?

And when we’re distracted by conversation, laughter, good times, we’re not even aware that we’re shoveling food into our mouths.

I’m a huge distracted eater. Always have been. When I sit down to read a book, which is pretty much every day since I was 8, I usually have a bag of sunflower seeds, pistachios or peanuts with me. It’s not uncommon for me to finish the bag.

ALCOHOL

Um, so booze pretty much makes us do everything stupidly, from driving to arguing about politics to saying that thing to your boss that you shouldn’t have said to overeating. It suppresses our inhibitory systems which can lead to overeating and all kinds of regrettable behavior.


When’s the last time alcohol was listed as a “performance enhancing drug?” Yeah, never.

Which is why I don’t drink anymore. But that’s another story.

LIMITED WILLPOWER

When we’re faced with something that we WANT to do but know we SHOULDN’T, or something we DON’T WANT to do but know we SHOULD, we draw upon our willpower reserves. If you draw on it too much, it won’t be there when you need it.

Willpower is finite. If you’re using it as your first line of resistance when it comes to overeating, you’re screwed. 

Think of willpower like a smartphone. It’s all charged up at the beginning of the day, but as you use it, the charge drops.

Willpower should be your LAST line of resistance, used only when everything else has failed. 

Designing your environment is key to this. You need to intentionally engineer an environment that promotes health, not temptation (more on this at another time).

HORMONES

When your cortisol-leptin-ghrelin hormones, which loom large in managing your appetite and satiety, get thrown off, you’re going to struggle.

This is a very involved subject and I’m not an expert. I’ll just say this; sleep deprivation will upset this balance hugely. It makes you HUNGRY and hungry for energy-dense, sugary foods. 

So will stress and dieting.

Other factors are involved, too; how much body fat you have, how quickly you lose weight, what kinds of food you eat, and more.

ENGINEERED FOODS

Here’s a dirty little secret; processed food manufacturers, like General Mills, etc., hire food scientists to engineer foods that will trigger your “bliss point.”

The Bliss Point is the point at which they have optimized the balance of fat, sugar and salt in an industrialized food so that it delivers the maximum amount of enjoyment.

In short, the Bliss Point is the point at which the food activates the pleasure centers of your brain and stimulates the release of neurochemicals that produce feelings of reward or the anticipation of reward.

Let me restate this. Food companies are intentionally manipulating the formulation of foods to trigger neurobiological responses in your brain that make you desire and crave it.

Just like Big Tobacco did.

You are a profit center for them. They want you to BUY more of their foods, so they are constructing it to appeal to you in ways you’re not even aware of. 

EVOLUTIONARY BIOLOGY

I often return to this. Evolutionary science explains why we do what we do because of how we adapted and evolved as a species for millions of years.

For millions of years we evolved in an environment where calories were scarce. We developed many mechanisms for coping with this environment.

One of those mechanisms is overeating in the presence of abundant food.

When you live in scarcity, it makes sense to grab all you can when it presents itself. If you lived at the poverty level and money starting raining down from the heavens it would be perfectly sensible to scoop up as much of that money as you can.

After all, survival is at stake. And it’s not likely, considering your environment of poverty, that abundant, free money is going to fall from the skies anytime soon, so grab it while you can.

The same thing applies to calories, which our body interprets as “survival.” Since our bodies biologically believe that we still live 50,000 years ago in conditions of scarcity, we are compelled to store excess calories when they present themselves. 

That served us well in the paleolithic. The problem is that our environment has evolved into one of abundance while our behavior has yet to adapt appropriately.

A few years back I asked the smartest guy I know (my brother, Kurt Aluzas, who is a wildlife biologist) about obesity in animals and humans. Among many other amazing things, he shared this:

“The change in food availability and other associated survival benefits, post-industrial revolution, has occurred over the course of a hundred plus years or so – a blink of an eye on the evolutionary scale – whereas these genetically programmed behaviors have taken tens of thousands of years or more.  We are changing the rules faster than nature can keep up with and hold us accountable. Now, it will eventually catch up, but until the impacts start hitting humans before they have a chance to reproduce and pass on genes, it will be left to us to make conscious choices societally and individually to avoid the situation.”


In other words, our industrialized environment is having a HUGE impact on our behavior because, as a species, we did not evolve and adapt for the conditions that are currently present. This will change, over a LONG span of time, but in the meantime it’s up to us to manage our behavior.

With that in mind, here are some recommendations for counteracting the impulses to overeat.

7 Action Steps for Avoiding Overeating

PORTIONS

When at home, serve small portions of food on small plates. After plating your meal, immediately store the leftovers in containers and put them in the fridge to avoid the temptation of seconds.

WHEN DINING OUT WITH OTHERS

Do these two things in advance; EAT and review the menu to plan what you’re going to order ahead of time.

If you eat something before you go out you’ll be less hungry and less likely to order poorly.

If you decide what you’re going to order BEFORE you arrive at the restaurant you won’t make an unhealthy, impulse decision. We are influenced by other’s behaviors. This includes food ordering. 
If you order 5th, you will be influenced by the previous 4 orders. This has been shown to be true in behavioral studies.

Worst case scenario, if you don’t have time to review the menu in advance, ORDER FIRST. You’ll avoid being influenced by their orders. 

STOP DRINKING BOOZE

I’m just throwing this out there. I don’t expect anyone to actually do this. There’s just not much you can do to resist the bad decisions it prompts when your self control regulation is removed.

Also, if you want to be lean and fit, to have that “toned” body everyone talks about, you’re not going to get there if you drink a lot. Argue with me if you want, but it’s true.

Here’s a link to a 30 Day No Alcohol Challenge. I don’t personally know anything about it, but I have a friend who did it, lost about 50 pounds and changed his life!

DESIGN YOUR ENVIRONMENT

Remove unhealthy food from the house.

Stop eating out with people who show no restraint.

Limit time with people who don’t support your goals for eating healthy.

Find a way to design an ecosystem for yourself that promotes health, not illness.

GET PLENTY OF SLEEP AND DON’T DIET

Getting 7-8 hours of sleep (this is a whole conversation I’ll address soon) will help with hormone and appetite management.

If you try to lose too much weight too fast, your body will fight back. Follow a proven, research-based exercise and nutrition program that promotes healthy rates of fat loss.

AVOID OR SERIOUSLY LIMIT INDUSTRIALIZED FOODS

We are not biologically adapted to cope with high doses of simple carbohydrate and refined sugar. It causes an insulin response that results in fat storage and increased hunger.

The food manufacturers know this and are making fools out of us. Don’t let them. 

You don’t have to be their science experiment. Stop buying industrialized food.

GET HELP FROM A MEDICAL PROFESSIONAL OR COACH

We can’t do this alone. We need help.

If you’re “winging it,” you’re going to lose. Go into the world armed with a plan and support. That’s your only defense against very, very strong forces that oppose you.

Our desire to live healthy, maintain our weight and exercise consistently is opposed by economic, social, media-related and evolutionary forces.

If you know, in advance, HOW you’re going to eat, WHAT you’re going to eat, HOW MUCH you’re going to eat and WHEN you’re going to eat, you’re in a solid position.

When you went to college, you followed a curriculum. You met with your advisor and mapped out what classes you were going to take and in what order so that you could reach your goal of graduating with a particular degree.

Doesn’t mean you didn’t stumble along the way, get a C, drop a class, or take philosophy just for the heck of it.

But your plan rolled out a long carpet to success. As long as you followed the carpet, you’d get there. Even if you strayed into the weeds, as long as you found your way back to the carpet you were golden.

This is what a nutrition and exercise plan provides; that long carpet to success. Just make sure that the person who helps you roll it out knows what he/she’s doing.
In the end, it’s important to understand the REAL reasons why we do things. That’s the only way we can truly game plan for solutions.

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Jonathan Aluzas is co-owner of Arena Fitness, a fitness center that offers group training in Encino as well as personal training in Northridge.