6 overeating triggers and solutions
1. Comfort eating
One of the trickiest to deal with, given it’s something 90 per cent of women and 86 per cent of men engage in. While some comfort eating is normal, it becomes problematic when food becomes your constant go-to method of dealing with problems.
Dr Ali Dale, a GP at Perth’s Dale Health, which specialises in weight-loss issues, says we often feel the triggers for emotional eating in our throat rather than our stomach. “We tend to get the image of a particular food we want or a sense of being lost and wanting to fill that void.”
Dr Dale adds that comfort eating is often signalled by a craving for carbohydrate-based food, “because our bodies convert carbohydrates to glucose very quickly, which interacts with our stress hormones and physically make us feel better”.
If you’re eating due to negative emotions, Dr Dale recommends firstly doing something non-food based to make you feel better, such as meditating or trying ‘square breathing’. “Square breathing is a very simple breathing technique: breathe in for five, hold for five, out for five, hold for five, for three cycles. It significantly reduces stress,” she says.
Dr Dale also recommends developing plans for alternatives to eating, during times of the day when you often experience stress or boredom. “It could be reading a book, watching Netflix, catching up with a friend, surfing online – something to fill the time and allow you to create a new habit to replace eating,” she explains.
“Other proven methods to break the habit include spending time outdoors daily and exercising regularly. It doesn’t need to be a big, intense, long exercise session. Even five to six minutes of exercise that gets your heart rate up will be enough to release some stress energy, make you feel better, and help reduce the cravings that drive people to eat."
2. Workplace morning teas
Celebratory cakes, morning meetings filled with muffins and baked goods… sometimes our workplaces seem geared towards thwarting our healthy eating goals.
Health expert and nutrition scientist Dr Joanna McMillan says it’s important to come to work well fed with a healthy breakfast, “so you’re not ravenously hungry come morning tea, when it’s hard to resist temptations that cross in your path”.
McMillan also suggests being proactive in changing the culture of food within your office. “The bottom line is most of us want to eat healthier or prevent weight gain if we’re not actively trying to lose weight, so be a leader in your office and be proactive in saying, ‘Let’s change this culture’,” she says.
Instead of a morning tea spread of muffins and cakes, change it to a fresh fruit platter and nuts. Bring healthy snacks from home so you don’t feel deprived and have more control over what you consume.
3. Afternoon slump
Ever wondered why you make such healthy, virtuous choices in the morning, then seem to ‘give up’ around 3pm? It’s not surprising, really, when research shows we make more than 220 food-related decisions every day and face constant exposure to food wherever we turn.
“What we know is by about 3pm we get something called decision fatigue, where our willpower starts to run out,” explains Dr Dale, who says the best thing you can do is try to reduce your exposure risk at this time of day.
“Pack foods away, avoid going shopping or pulling into a petrol station at 3pm,” she suggests. “It’s about making it as easy as possible to make the healthiest decisions you can.”
4. Portion problems
Even someone making the healthiest choices, and with all the best intentions, is likely to eat too much if there is too much food placed in front of them.
Dr Lenny Vartanian, an associate professor at the University of NSW who specialises in the psychology of eating and weight, explains that if our portion size is doubled, we’re likely to eat 35 per cent more food.
In a 2013 study, he discovered this ‘portion size effect’ occurred even when people had been taught about its impact and educated on being more attuned to their hunger signals. “The magnitude of difference between small and large portions didn’t change, even when we introduced this mindfulness education,” he says.
The solution to this problem is pretty self-evident – serve smaller portions! – but that’s not always as easy as it sounds. Some tricks to keep in mind include using specific cups and measurements to serve appropriate sizes, serving your own food wherever possible, eating off small plates, packing up and freezing leftovers immediately, asking for entrée sizes when eating out and sharing or splitting a dish with someone else.
5. TV temptations
Ah, cosy nights in front of the TV, just you, the couch… and a family sized packet of chips that’s suddenly empty. Sound familiar?
As McMillan explains, eating in front of the telly is a double-edged sword. “Firstly, if it’s commercial TV there are often food adverts and that then makes you think about food you might not have considered otherwise. Secondly, it’s mindless eating, rather than mindful eating. You’re not savouring the food, you’re not thinking, ‘Am I still enjoying this? Have I had enough?’ You just keep eating.”
McMillan says TV munching has become a habit for many – and one that’s difficult to break. “You just have to say to yourself, ‘After dinner, the kitchen is closed’. You can make a cup of herbal tea to drink, but nothing that’s got kilojoules; just make it a hard rule. You’re not going to starve overnight. We’re built to store energy, carbohydrates and plenty of fat, and it’s good for our bodies to have a 12-hour fast rather than, say, a seven-hour one.”
6. Social slip-ups
Another sneaky overeating trigger is what Dr Vartanian calls the ‘social facilitation effect’, which means the more people you eat with, the greater the increase in food intake.
While Dr Vartanian says it’s unclear whether this is because we’re distracted and sit around picking for longer or simply that there’s extra food available to be consumed, he says the solution comes back to restructuring your environment.
“Remove the excess food or remove yourself from the table and take the conversation to another room,” he says. “Remove the cues rather than trying to fight them, because that’s often a losing battle.”