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The Real Reasons You're Overeating

We get it, sometimes it can just feel impossible to put down that extra slice of pizza or stop yourself from finishing your salad, even if you're already feeling full. It can feel frustrating and discouraging when this happens. But you have to remember that overeating has NOTHING to do with your willpower.


Overeating is actually caused by many complicated factors, many of which have nothing to do with your eating habits. In this blog, we’ll discuss the most likely reasons behind your overeating and how to combat it.

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Why you're overeating:


You’re being too restrictive with your diet:


If you’re starving yourself to a point where your diet is becoming restrictive, you’ve passed the line where your eating is healthy. A 1944 study called the Minnesota Starvation Experiment examined the health implications of restriction. The study found that considerable dietary restrictions can cause significant health effects and lead to weight cycling and yo-yo dieting. Following a restrictive diet for too long causes an unhealthy relationship with food, causing people to eat way more than normal and becoming obsessed with food. This is due to the psychological effects of food restriction.


When you restrict certain foods from your diet, you will develop an uncontrollable desire for these particular foods. This phenomenon is simply due to human biology. While you may drop the pounds quickly on a restrictive diet, it is not sustainable. A diet that is both viable and therapeutic that you can stick to in the long run will benefit you the most on your journey to optimal health.


To discern if you’re following a restrictive diet, ask yourself these questions:

  • Are you cutting out foods you love?

  • Are you following a strict calorie count?

  • Are you cutting out entire food groups? Like non-refined healthy carbs?

  • Do you often skip meals?

If you answered yes to any of the above questions, you’re probably following a restrictive diet. Dr. Johnson and our health coach, Kelsey, can help you break these patterns and create a dietary plan made just for you and your needs.


You’re not sleeping enough:


It only takes a single night of disrupted or inadequate sleep to affect your appetite for the following days. Inadequate sleep can lead to an increase in the hunger hormone, ghrelin, while also decreases the levels of the hormone that causes you to feel full, leptin. While ghrelin stimulates your appetite, leptin lets your brain know when to stop eating.


Ghrelin and leptin imbalances are best solved by sleep. Adequate sleep will help to balance leptin and ghrelin levels. This will help you to only feel hungry when your body actually needs sustenance and feel full when you’re body is satiated. The recommended 7 to 9 hours per night of quality sleep is an effective way to reduce your caloric intake and carb cravings.


The best way to ensure your getting a good night’s sleep is to have good sleep hygiene. Causes of poor sleep hygiene include:

  • Drinking caffeine or alcohol before bedtime

  • Using computer or cell-phone screens close to bedtime

  • Not getting enough natural light during the daytime

  • Smoking

  • Eating spicy or rich foods close to bedtime

  • Napping too late in the day

  • Not getting enough exercise

  • Eating too close to bedtime

You’re not eating enough after a workout:


Eating too little or the wrong thing after a workout can affect your hunger levels for the rest of the day. After exercising, your body needs to be refueled with carbohydrates and protein 30 to 60 minutes after your workout to ensure optimal recovery. Post-workout, our muscles have used up all of our body’s preferred sources of energy, glycogen (stored glucose).


Studies have found that exercise can reduce your blood sugar, which only furthers your post-workout hunger. After a workout, if you do not fill these depleted stores of glucose, it will affect your muscle’s abilities to repair themselves and will leave you starving for hours.


After a workout, the International Society of Sports Nutrition recommends eating a meal that has a combination of protein and carbohydrates within an hour after completing the exercise. Following this routine will help to promote muscle growth. Some examples of this combo include:

  • Eggs and nuts

  • Oatmeal and milk

  • Vegetables and avocado

  • Yogurt and fruit

  • Salmon and sweet potato

  • Chicken and rice

You suffer from chronic stress:


Suffering from chronic stress can affect your appetite in many ways. Chronic stress and chronically high levels of cortisol have been found to increase your motivation to consume foods that give you a dopamine high. This largely includes processed foods and foods high in sugar.


When higher amounts of cortisol are released, your cravings for sugar will be heightened, causing you to eat more sugar. Once this sugar is converted to energy and unused, it will again be stored in the abdomen where it will only increase cortisol levels in the future. In this way, cortisol and toxic fat work together in a deadly cycle that results in higher cortisol levels, more weight gain, and more sugar cravings.


Luckily, there are natural and relatively easy ways to decrease your cortisol levels. If you think you may be experiencing high cortisol levels, try the following de-stressing methods:

  • Eat a whole-food, plant-based diet (like the Mediterranean diet)- A diet high in added sugars or processed foods will not only increase your risk of high blood pressure and diabetes, but will also raise your cortisol level. A diet high in fiber, which supports gut health, is also key in regulating hormone levels throughout the body.

  • Research has demonstrated several foods that can benefit cortisol levels: dark chocolate, many fruits, black and green tea, probiotics and prebiotics, and water.

  • Get enough sleep- Without proper sleep, your cortisol levels will remain high throughout the day in an effort to stimulate alertness. Turning off bright lights and screens before bedtime will also lower cortisol levels and ensure better sleep.

  • Practice deep breathing- Taking the time to do breathing exercises for at least 5 minutes 3-5 times a day has been linked to lowered cortisol levels. Research demonstrated that breathing exercises will also help ease anxiety and depression and improve memory. An app like Calm or Timer is a great entry to breathing practices.

  • Limit caffeine consumption- Reducing your caffeine intake can also help lower your stress levels, especially if you’re a slow metabolizer of caffeine. High caffeine intake can lead to heightened levels of cortisol and feelings of anxiety.

  • Exercise- Be wary that some exercise can actually raise your cortisol levels. For the average person, mild or moderate exercise at 40-60% effort will not raise levels of cortisol during the day and will actually lower cortisol levels at night. Intense exercise or overtraining can raise cortisol levels for unfit individuals.

  • Take a walk- Spending time outside, especially while doing physical activity, will do wonders for lowering your stress levels! Removing your shoes and socks while outside and practicing grounding techniques, has been linked to decreased stress, better sleep quality, and decreased anxiety and depression.

You’re ignoring your hunger cues:


For many people, it can be hard to discern whether you’re actually hungry, or just thirsty, stressed, tired, or bored. To really know if you’re hungry or not, you must pay attention to your body’s internal cues. A great way to know when your body is actually hungry is to follow a practice of intuitive eating.


Intuitive eating is a self-care framework that is rooted in respect for all bodies. The practice will teach you to become in tune with your body’s internal cues that help you to decipher when to eat, what to eat, and how much to eat. This is also known as interoceptive awareness. Intuitive eating is a great way to allow you get in touch with your body’s hunger and satiety cues while also helping you to make peace with your food.


Intuitive eating has over 150 evidence-based scientific studies validating its beneficial effects. To learn more about intuitive eating, click here.


Other ways to solve your overeating habits:


Beyond the aforementioned tips to help stop your overeating habits, some other helpful suggestions include:


Limiting distractions:


Think about what you do as your eating. Are you on your phone? Watching TV? Reading a book? Or maybe working? Not paying attention to the food your eating can actually cause you to eat more.


A 2013 review of 24 studies found that eating while distracted can cause a moderate increase in immediate food intake and cause a more significant increase in food intake throughout the day. Allowing your body to focus on the task at hand (eating), will help you to only eat until you’re full.


Eating slowly:


Researchers aren’t totally sure why, but those who eat their meals slowly are more likely to have a lower body mass (BMI) and eat smaller meals. This could be because when you eat solely, your brain will have more time to realize the stomach is full and communicate to stop eating. Slow eating may also promote a greater sense of fullness and cause people to feel more full.


A 2015 study found that those who slowly ate a 400-milliliter bowl of tomato soup reported feeling more full after the meal than those who quickly ate the meal. During the 3-hour post-interview, those who ate slowly also remembered the portion as being larger than those who ate quickly.


To practice eating slow, try drinking water or putting down your utensils between bites. You can also try taking a few deep breaths before your next bite.


Eating the right portion size:


According to the CDC, the larger your portions, the more likely you are to unintentionally eat more calories than you need. To cut down on overeating, make sure you aren’t accidentally overserving yourself.


Some ways to practice good portion control include:

  • Avoiding eating straight out the packet.

  • Putting snacks into a bowl or other container, especially when snacking while doing other activities.

  • Use smaller plates, bowls, and containers.

  • Storing bulk food packages in hard-to-reach places.

  • Asking for a to-go box when eating out and immediately boxing up half the meal.

  • Splitting an entree with someone else when dining out.

  • Placing food on individual plates instead of leaving the serving dish out.

Eating foods high in fiber:


Easting both soluble and insoluble fiber can help people feel fuller for longer, according to the Food and Drug Administration. A 2015 study found that people who ate oatmeal (a food high in fiber) for breakfast felt fuller for longer and ate less at lunch than those who ate a breakfast low in fiber.


Foods high in fiber include:

  • Beans, peas, and lentils

  • Whole grains

  • Leafy greens and sweet potatoes

  • Nuts and seeds

  • Oats

  • Berries and fruits with peels

Drinking enough water:


Water is a great tool to help combat overeating. A 2016 study found that being dehydrated is strongly correlated with having an elevated BMI or obesity. Researchers aren’t totally sure of the link behind this relationship. But many hypothesize that it has to do with people misinterpreting thirst for hunger.


In general, to ensure you’re getting enough water in a day, you should drink between half an ounce and an ounce of water for each pound you weigh. For example, if you weigh 170 pounds, you should be drinking between 85 to 170 ounces per day.



Dr. Johnson's favorite way to ensure she's not overeating is by following the Japanese practice of Hara Hachi Bu. It translates to "eat until you're 80% full." Hara Hachi Bu is a great way to stay mindful while eating, while also listening to your body's natural cues.


To learn more about how to stop overeating and develop a dietary plan catered directly for you and your needs, click here to contact us or call 276-235-3205 to schedule your complimentary discovery call.

The Johnson Center for Health services patients in-person in our Blacksburg and Virginia Beach / Norfolk locations. We also offer telemedicine for residents of Virginia and North Carolina!


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