More than one-third of Americans are obese, and the average American is about 10 pounds overweight. Why, and what causes it?
It’s mostly a matter of overeating, rather than under-exercising. According to Isabelle Crouch, a Los Angeles-based registered dietician, everyone needs something different in order to properly nourish themselves without overeating. That’s partly because there are at least five distinct causes of overeating.
5 Ways That People Overeat (and How to Combat Them)
#1: Physically Impaired Appetite Regulation
People who overeat often assume that there’s something either wrong with their metabolism, or there’s a physical impairment to their ability to regulate their own appetite. In fact, there are a few cases of neurological damage preventing the brain from properly recognizing satiety, mainly in dementia patients. There are also obesogenic viruses which cause a modest but significant increase in appetite.
However, Crouch considers appetite regulation disorders to be a minor factor. “In my experience, they are not particularly common,” she says. “I have really only encountered Prader-Willi Syndrome.”
Instead, she emphasizes the role of learned overeating. “You can train your body to do anything, including overeating,” she explains. “Over time, if you ‘practice’ eating past comfortable fullness, you will gradually become more tolerant to that sensation, and over time it can actually lead to you not feeling satisfied with a previously ‘normal’ amount of food. But this can work in reverse, as well.”
Training yourself to eat less is often as simple as eating more slowly and mindfully. “Try to eat slower,” Crouch advises. “Your brain is on a bit of a delay when relaying hunger/fullness messages from your stomach. Stop when you feel about three-quarters full and take a 5-15 minute breather away from the food. Often times, you will find that you are in fact full. The message just hadn’t reached your brain yet … Try eating without distractions and really taste and experience your food. So much of the eating experience is done with our eyes and nose. Your brain needs to feel like it has eaten too!
“The same meal can be more or less satisfying depending on HOW we eat.”
#2: Chronic Underestimating
This is the most common cause of overeating: Simply not being aware of how much you truly eat. In fact, most people who have one of the other four problems have this one, too.
Almost everyone underestimates how much they eat, and yet overweight individuals who “can’t lose weight” underestimate caloric intake by an average of 47 percent, while overestimating caloric expenditure by an average of 51 percent. Furthermore, most people with a history of failing to gain weight wrongly believe that their obesity has some sort of genetic cause. The good news is that overweight individuals usually aren’t inherently worse at estimating the caloric content of meals. Rather, they eat larger meals, and larger portions are inherently harder to estimate. If you eat smaller meals, you’ll also get better at measuring how many calories you eat.
“To track accurately,” Crouch says, “I would track in real time. We are bad at remembering and self-monitoring, so going back at the end of the day leads to a lot of forgotten things. If you are just starting, I would actually measure things. Over time you might be able to estimate fairly accurately, but that’s a good way to double-check. Don’t forget to include beverages, condiments, toppings, dressings, cooking fats, and other add-ons. The hardest part of tracking is being honest with ourselves. Try to track without a lot of judgement or shame, so you are more likely to be accurate.
“Use this information like a scientist or an observer. Try not to put too much emotional or moral pressure on it.”
#3: Under-eating in the Morning and Overeating at Night
This pattern of overeating is common in people who don’t sleep on a regular schedule, people who are in too much of a hurry to eat breakfast in the morning, and people who have tried intermittent fasting but haven’t made enough of an effort to eat well for their first meal of the day (whenever that is).
“Under-eating in the morning can lead to overeating later in the day,” Crouch explains. “Many people try to ‘save’ their calories for later, but it often just has a rebound effect.” This pattern also tends to be exacerbated by the enforced discipline of being at work during the day, and the relative freedom of being at home in the evening.
Unlike later in the day, portion control at breakfast can actually backfire. You should eat until you’re completely full, even if you go a bit over your calorie target. If you find yourself going way over your target calories for breakfast, add more vegetables. “It can be hard to get veggies in at breakfast,” Crouch admits. “Consider adding vegetables to some scrambled eggs, blending them in a protein smoothie, or putting them in oatmeal.”
A good breakfast should contain at least .4 grams of protein per kg of bodyweight. It should also contain some fat, and unless you’re on a ketogenic diet, some carbohydrates — ideally from fruit or other high-fiber sources. “Breakfast doesn’t have to be breakfast food!” Crouch adds. “Eat leftovers or treat it like any other meal.”
#4: Good Dieting During the Week, But NO Dieting on Weekends
When I ask people about their diets, their answers, commonly, reference only weekdays. “I eat breakfast, go to work, and have a sandwich at my desk,” I often hear. But when I ask about weekends, the response is often a quick laugh, followed by “Don’t ask.”
Simply put, a healthy diet has to be seven days a week, not five or four and a half. The key difference between weekdays and weekends is that going to work forces you into some sort of routine. Therefore, what you need to do on weekends is build in a routine.
“Think of the weekend as just another day!” Crouch says. “There isn’t really anything special about it. Try to treat it like a weekday.” The most important thing to do here is consistently eat the same 1-3 healthy breakfasts every day, both on weekends and weekdays. Starting your day like this makes it easier to slip into the “routine mindset” and continue following your diet for the rest of the day.
#5: Emotional Eating
Emotional eating is common in people who are severely overweight, socially isolated, or have a history of depression. “The first step to dealing with emotional eating,” Crouch says, “is recognize that you are eating in the absence of hunger. That awareness has to come first. Otherwise, it will be difficult to intervene … Once you realize you are eating when not hungry, take a moment and ask, ‘What do I need right now?’ You are hungry for something — entertainment, comfort, company, relaxation, etc. — but not hungry for food. Find the unmet need.
“Is there something in your life that is missing that you are trying to use food for? If you are eating to regulate strong emotions — anger, stress, anxiety, loneliness, depression, etc. — it is really important to find other tools that can help with those. Stress management can be an important part of this. Learning to sit with the discomfort of strong emotions is essential. Working with a mental health professional to develop these skills can be incredibly beneficial.”