Why can’t I stop overeating? This is a question I spent over 20 years wondering. Well, I guess I didn’t really wonder why, I thought I knew why – I thought it was because I was a pig with no willpower and just loved food too much to stop eating.
Turns out, that has nothing to do with why people overeat – so we can let that destructive myth die now, mkay?
For the purposes of this piece, I’m defining overeating as eating past comfortably full or eating when you’re not really hungry and you know eating more will make you uncomfortable – basically, anything that makes your body feel like… ugh, why’d I eat so much?
Two of the biggest causes of overeating certain foods or even just food in general:
1. Feelings of scarcity around food –
This can come from food insecurity as a child, from present food scarcity, or from trying to restrict things you think you shouldn’t be eating (in ways I’ve been discussing)
2. Self-punishment –
This comes from underlying feels of inadequacy, self-loathing, shame (related to food choices or any other kind, which also often comes from the “good food” versus “bad food” messaging we’re programmed with)
There’s a widely held belief that overeating, especially certain foods like sugar, happens because they’re hyper-palatable, we’re weak-willed or even addicted to it.
The mistaken belief behind it is that we have to detox and forever stop eating those things, especially sugar – but it’s that exact messaging that actually causes it, at least in part because it contributes to exacerbating BOTH of the biggest causes of overeating.
Our bodies want to feel good, they’re not driving us to eat things that make them feel like garbage and they simply don’t get addicted to sugar or food in the same way they do illegal drugs.
Studies that have shown addictive-like behaviours around sugar have been misinterpreted. It’s not sugar itself that causes addiction like feelings, it’s restricted access to sugar.
Have you ever noticed that even if you don’t normally think about a certain food very much, the SECOND you start to diet or “eat healthy” you cannot stop thinking about it. That’s why. That’s your brain, reacting in fear to the feelings of restriction and driving you to want the things it thinks you’re not allowed to have.
Tom Sanders, emeritus professor of nutrition and dietetics at King’s College London said that while it was true that cravings for sweet things can be habit-forming, it’s “absurd to suggest that sugar is addictive like hard drugs.” (For more on that, go here: https://www.ronidavis.com/post/i-was-a-sugar–food-addict )
And the thought that we could be physically addicted to food, in general, is silly – unless needing something in order to live is an addiction. In that case, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but you’re also addicted to air and water. 😉
But, as Sanders says, food (certain foods or in general) can get programmed into the habit centre of our brains which is what makes it feel like we’re addicted and can’t stop overeating.
The problem with, “your body is addicted to sugar” messages is that because it’s not actually your body that’s addicted to sugar, it’s the habit center of your brain that just makes it feel that way out of restricted access, the more we try to restrict based on those messages, the more we crave it and the more addicted we feel. Basically, it’s the very message that we shouldn’t ever eat it, that’s causing a lot of those addictive type habits to get programmed into our brains.
And the problem with all the tricks and strategies we’re often given that are supposed to help make us stop doing it is that none of them are addressing the actual cause. They’re all focused on trying to force us to focus on controlling the externals while ignoring the actual internal causes. But without changing the internals, the actual cause, nothing works for very long and we’re always left feeling like we’ve failed – which makes the whole pattern even worse.
The reality is, for people who struggle the hardest to eat well (like the women I work with and I used to be) knowing WHAT to eat is sooo not the problem which means that continuing to focus on the what is futile.