Whether it’s having a particularly big food fest on the weekend, or absentmindedly eating a bag of chips after work, most of us have the occasional bout of overeating. But is it possible to keep these episodes under control and avoid derailing our wellness goals? Dr Michelle Celander, WW Program & Science Director, shares her advice.
Q: Why do people overeat?
Some people eat due to emotions, which can range from wanting to celebrate a special occasion to reacting to stress. It could also be due to internal hunger or external hunger. Internal hunger is when your stomach’s empty. That’s your body saying, “I need fuel,” and you might then overeat because your sugar level has become really low. External hunger is when you have a tendency to eat in response to cues outside of yourself, such as the sight or smell of different foods. For example, you might walk past a bakery and see a cupcake, and all of a sudden all you can think about is having a cupcake. Other reasons include not eating mindfully, as well as certain ‘trigger foods’. The latter are often people’s favourite foods and can be linked to external hunger.
Q: What happens to the body after overeating?
It’s more of a mental side effect rather than a physical one. When you overeat you’re creating a habit loop, which is “cue, behaviour, reward”. For example, when people go to the movies they generally get popcorn. So the cue would be the movies, the behaviour is eating popcorn and the reward is that it’s a pleasurable experience. And what happens is we start to associate food with when we have certain feelings. If we’re stressed, or if we’re sad, we’re actually creating an association so that when something happens (an emotional cue), we feel the need to eat. This then becomes a habit—but the good news is we can work to undo it.
Q: What's the difference between binge eating, overeating and mindless eating?
Binge eating is a clinical condition. It’s a disorder that can manifest as a result of extreme body dissatisfaction and low self-esteem, often there is a lot of anxiety and guilt around food. Those who binge eat might be quite secretive around their eating and food behaviours and can also be a little erratic in their eating patterns. However, there’s a big difference between being clinically diagnosed with that condition and overeating here and there. Overeating is when we tend to consume more food than we actually need or want, and mindless eating is when you eat but are not present in the process.
Q: How can I get back on track after overeating?
Immediately afterwards it’s important to show yourself some self-compassion. Talk to yourself as you would a friend. You wouldn’t say to a friend, “What’s wrong with you? Why did you do that?” You would say, “Okay, you ate more than you planned. That’s okay. Next time, you can plan to do something different.” Then you can think about what you can do differently if you’re ever in that situation again. It’s about moving forward rather than looking backwards.
From a food perspective, if you want to get yourself back on track for the rest of the day you could choose to enjoy foods from the ZeroPoint™ foods list. Alternatively, you could factor in your SmartPoints® Budget and readjust what you eat for the rest of the week to get yourself back on track.
Q: How can I prevent overeating in the future?
You need to keep your ‘why’ top of mind. Ask yourself the reason why you are on your wellness journey. It could be something like having more energy to play with your kids or running a marathon. This is your motivation to stay on track. It’s important to remind yourself of this, even putting it in prominent spots such as your car or phone as a reminder whenever you may find yourself in challenging situations.
You can also start to identify why you overeat. Is it due to internal hunger or external hunger? Determining which one tends to encourage you to overeat can help you manage it better. If it’s due to internal hunger you can support yourself by having regular meal times. Also, learning the cues of when hunger kicks in for you can help you avoid waiting until it’s at an extreme point, which is more likely to cause you to eat more than you need to. Keeping low or ZeroPoint foods readily available in case you do find yourself in that situation is a handy thing to do. If it’s external hunger, it’s about learning to identify what foods act as a trigger and then setting up a plan of what you’re going to do to tackle it. It could be that you love chocolate, so your strategy could be to keep a chocolate protein bar or hot chocolate mixture on hand if a craving strikes. Or you could make a point of building your favourite chocolate into your SmartPoints Budget.
Q: What are some tips I can try now?
Make a point of portioning your food and eating mindfully. Really stop and take in the sensation of pleasure that can be had from eating foods you love. Also, after eating, pause and wait half an hour before having seconds. This is how long it will take for your brain to register what has gone into your body. You could also have some water or a cup of tea during this time to determine whether you’re actually still hungry or you’re simply dehydrated.