The psychological reasons for overeating have nothing to do with food. It took me a long time to realize this, so I hope you can learn from my mistakes and enjoy a smoother process.
In case you’re new, this is Psycho-Spiritual Wellness: a path to feeling normal around food by focusing 100% on psychological and spiritual practices.
Today I’m dishing up my best advice to master the psychology behind overeating without focusing on food or exercise.
It might seem backwards, so before we get started, it’s important to open your mind to the idea that overeating is not about food.
Please note: At the end of this post, there’s a fun quiz to discover your eating psychology STRENGTH (yes, strength). Because even those of us that struggle with overeating have a strength around food — and I bet I can guess yours. If you want to take the quiz now, click here to jump straight to it.
The Psychology of Overeating, Explained
The psychological reasons for overeating have nothing to do with trivial things like the size of your plates or amount of willpower. In fact, I firmly believe that many compulsive eaters already have an enormous amount of willpower.
Sure, there are some people that can adjust their environmental factors (like using smaller plates to create the illusion of eating less) and suddenly stop overeating, but that’s rare.
Environmental design is not the reason why we get up in the middle of the night and eat in front of the fridge. Compulsive behavior goes much deeper.
To help us get to the root of the problem, let’s turn our attention to the psychology of overeating.
There is no diet or exercise advice here because this is Psycho-Spiritual Wellness, where I firmly believe that overeating was never a diet-problem or exercise-problem — and it definitely isn’t a willpower-problem.
Rather, overeating is about our feelings and the desperate desire to run from them. It’s also about the backlash of dieting, because for every restriction, there is an equal and opposite binge.
If you’re intrigued, then let’s dig in.
Top Psychological Reasons for Overeating
Here are the 9 biggest psychological causes of overeating:
1. You’re getting joy from food instead of life — it’s called “hedonic eating”
If you took food completely out of your life, how much joy would be left over? If the world would look a bit empty, you might be a hedonic eater.
Hedonic eating involves eating for pleasure; and this type of eating can become compulsive because humans need joy. We’re wired for it.
While hedonic eating is really common, the good news is that it’s the easiest place to start working. All you need to do is add more joy to your life outside of food.
Short story: If you’re a “foodie,” then this is the first place to start working.
2. Your busy lifestyle makes you eat too fast
It take the body at least 20 minutes to register that it’s full.
Eating slowly is a great way to stop overeating by feeling your fullness the moment it happens — not when it’s too late.
But if you’re a fast eater, it can be difficult to slow yourself down without slowing your life down.
If you want to eat slower, you might need to adopt other lifestyle habits like yoga and meditation.
Because the way we do one thing is the way we do everything.
Short story: If you struggle to slow down your eating, you might need to slow down your life.
3. You eat for the “hunger to come,” and although your intentions are pure, it backfires
Do you ever eat extra food now so that you won’t be hungry later? This “over-planning” can be a surprising psychological reason for overeating.
For example, back when I was in college, I would always find myself compulsively shoveling snacks into my face before I left the house.
I never did this when I was actually hungry, which was frustrating to say the least; and I didn’t understand why I couldn’t stop.
That’s when I realized that I was “eating for the hunger to come” — and my anxiety about hunger was actually the source of this particular overeating habit.
Short story: If you “strategically” overeat to prevent hunger, it also means you need to undereat at some point to achieve balance, which is usually impossible.
4. You’ve been trained to glorify disordered eating, and it’s not your fault
If you read fitness magazines or scroll through social media on a somewhat-regular basis, you’ve probably been exposed to the glorification of dieting.
These days, you’re not cool unless you’re doing an eating challenge or following the keto and juice cleanse trends.
Due to the glorification of skinny, there’s serious judgement if you’re caught with a donut in your mouth.
Shame messaging has destroyed our ability to listen to our body instead of our mind to inform what we eat.
But listening to your body is critical if you want to stop overeating.
Short story: Your body already has all the wisdom it needs to be its natural weight.
5. You’re accidentally playing reverse psychology on yourself, in the wrong way
To help you use “reverse psychology” to your advantage, I actually recommend giving up dieting altogether.
When you give yourself permission to eat exactly what your body wants, you stop binge eating those foods because the scarcity factor is gone.
Short story: Dietary restriction and deprivation are massive psychological reasons for overeating.
6. You’re afraid to stop dieting because you’re afraid of gaining weight
If you’re afraid to stop dieting because you don’t want to gain weight, you’re not alone. We all feel that way, myself included.
I know the fear of gaining weight is all too real, but when you eat when you’re hungry and stop when you’re full, your weight will regulate itself.
When I gave up dieting in 2016, I was terrified of “letting myself loose” around food. But I was also exhausted and fed up with dieting for years upon years all while gaining and losing the same 10 pounds.
And after I gave up dieting, to my sweet surprise, I didn’t really overeat. There were many hurdles that I did not expect, though.
And you can read my guide on how to stop dieting and eating normally for more advice.
Short story: If you’re afraid of gaining weight when you give up dieting, congratulations. You’re normal.
7. You’ve got the psychology of overeating backwards
We’re almost done with this list, and if you’re still here, I’m impressed.
Because the psychology of overeating isn’t glamorous or fun. I can’t promise you’ll lose 15 in 15 days. And this is one more way that modern media has screwed our psychology over.
The goal isn’t to prevent yourself from never feeling like crud ever again. Rather, the goal is to learn how to withstand the discomfort of not feeling good.
As you increase your tolerance for discomfort, you will be able to have a “bad day of eating” without throwing it all away and “starting over on Monday.”
Short story: The goal is not to feel better; it’s to learn how to feel bad without getting swept away by it and turning to food.
The slightly longer story: You can dig even deeper in to eating psychology in my free ebook, The Spiritual Seeker’s Guide to Stop Binge Eating. Grab your copy here without interrupting your reading »
8. Your beliefs are creating too much “cognitive dissonance” with your eating habits
Now we’re diving into some of the deep psychology behind overeating: cognitive dissonance.
Cognitive dissonance occurs when we carry conflicting beliefs and our brain pulls us in different directions. This can result in unwanted behavior like overeating.
Understanding your beliefs is critical for mastering the psychology of overeating. When you can identify the conflicting beliefs, you can let them go. And best of all, your behavior will change naturally. No forcing, fighting, or depriving required.
Unfortunately, most of us have no idea what beliefs we’re carrying around. I certainly didn’t! And this is where the real “inner work” happens.
Short story: Self-sabotage is inevitable until you identify the non-food-related problems at the root of unwanted eating habits.
9. You haven’t done the “inner work” yet, but don’t worry, there’s no time like the present
The best type of “inner work,” in my opinion, is therapy. Nothing compares to quality of therapy. But not everyone’s ready for such a big step.
For those who want to dip their toes in the water, instead of deep diving into therapy, I actually made a workbook that can help.
It’s called Why We Do the Things We Do, and it helps you identify the non-food-related beliefs that drive self-sabotage.
Short story: Self-inquiry is essential for mastering the psychology behind overeating.
Master the Psychology of Overeating
In order to stop overeating, you need to master your psychology. This takes time as you unravel your subconscious blocks.
Some of this requires looking at the uncomfortable parts of ourselves. Psycho-Spiritual Wellness doesn’t always feel good, but it works.
If you’re intrigued by this psychology-based path to stop overeating, you’re in luck! There’s much more to learn, because this is just one slice of the Psycho-Spiritual Wellness pie.
To learn more, check out the free ebook below, which includes a free 5-day course in Psycho-Spiritual Wellness to catch you up to speed.
Originally published November 7, 2017 // Last updated June 11, 2020