Delving into the psychological reasons for overeating can provide us with profound insights – far more insightful than focusing on food or exercise. While eating well and moving our bodies are undoubtedly helpful steps for overall wellness, it does not address the psychology behind overeating tendencies.
Someone can have all the knowledge they need to make healthy, informed dietary and exercise choices, and yet compulsively do the opposite of what they intend. To me, this describes the ‘compulsion’ behind compulsive eating. To gain traction on the path to overcoming compulsive eating patterns, it is far more insightful to turn to the psychology of overeating instead of dieting.
By shedding light on the underlying factors that drive overeating, we can embark on a transformative journey towards long-term behavior change. After all, clinical studies have shown that diets don’t work long-term. It is time we turned our attention to the elements that motivate our actions: our thoughts, feelings, and beliefs — aka, our psychology.
The Psychology of Overeating Explained
Before we dive into the list of psychological reasons for overeating, I’d like to hone in one of the most prevalent topics: emotional eating. While there are many types of emotional eating such as boredom eating or guilty eating, a defining characteristic of emotional eating is using food to cope with difficult emotions rather than addressing them directly.
For example, compulsive snacking is a common problem, especially in the workplace where there are a bounty of stressors such as deadlines or micromanaging. Individuals in high-stress workplaces often cannot take a break (though they should) which means that these difficult emotions have no time nor space to be expressed.
Instead of constructively and productively coping with these emotions, it is common to feel pushed towards food – either consciously or subconsciously – to avoid or “numb” negative emotions. When the drive towards food in order to avoid emotion happens subconsciously, individuals may berate themselves as having low willpower or “weakness” around food.
Many of us have been told to use diets to control our eating behavior, but diets don’t work and only fuel the belief that we are “weak-willed.” It is far more effective to address the psychology behind overeating instead.
While there are also biological drivers that cause us to consume large amounts of food sometimes, the psychology of overeating closely revolves around the nuances of emotional eating. In fact, all of the psychological reasons for overeating listed below can be boiled down to some sort of strategy to avoid negative emotion.
Fortunately, the good news is that developing tolerance for negative emotion is a skill that can be learned. There are also many other productive strategies that you can employ to cope with your emotions without food and improve your ability to listen to your body’s true hunger and fullness cues.
Psychological Reasons for Overeating: Mastering Your Mindset
Exploring the various psychological reasons for overeating can provide you with a deeper understanding of your own behaviors and motivations around food. By gaining insights into the underlying factors that contribute to overeating habits, you can pave the way for effective interventions and long-term behavior change.
Here are some of the most common psychological reasons for overeating:
1. Self-Sabotage Around Food Often Has an Emotional Root
Let’s dive straight into the the biggest psychological reason for overeating, which that we are somehow getting a greater positive benefit from struggling with food than from being without the problem. Often subconsciously, food is providing protection or some other benefit — and we usually aren’t aware of it.
But when overeating causes emotional and even physical distress, it can seem unimaginable that there would be any kind of positive benefit. That’s why I recently refilmed my YouTube video on this topic, because it’s really important (and quite mind-bending).
Personally, when I was struggling with overeating and binge eating, I might have thought someone was truly misinformed if they suggested that overeating was serving me in a positive way. It felt like the bane of my existence, and I would not have been open to the idea that it was somehow serving me in some backwards way.
However, through my work with eating psychology, I’ve found this to be true. “People pleasing” is the perfect example. If someone identifies as a people-pleaser and cringes at the idea of someone being upset with them, that might be the positive benefit of struggling with food.
Many of us don’t realize that “skinny shaming” is a real phenomenon. That said, does the so-called ‘positive benefit’ of avoiding skinny-shaming outweigh the positive benefit of overcoming fat-shaming? While the answer may seem obvious on the surface, the truth is that there’s much more to it.
In this specific example, the avoidance of skinny-shaming is just one layer of the psychological reasons for overeating. Beneath that motivation is another: the desire to feel a sense of belonging, which is one of the most basic human needs.
Not everyone will relate to this example. There are many people that are willing to let go of some friendships, especially if those friends can be happy for you and your successes, in order to let go of the struggle with overeating. But when we get truly honest with ourselves, we may find that we are in the camp of craving a sense of belonging and camaraderie with others over the craving for a “thin body.”
This is where workbooks like Why We Do the Things We Do can help. We need to fully understand the beliefs that we hold about thinness, belonging, and body image in order to also fully understand our so-called ‘positive benefits’ of self-sabotage around food.
2. Emotional Hunger Can Be Confused with Physical Hunger
Confusion between physical hunger and emotional hunger can be a significant psychological reason for overeating. This problem is commonly seen in individuals with long histories of dieting, where habitual patterns of listening to external rules “overrides” a person’s innate ability to know what true hunger feels like.
Physical hunger is the body’s biological signal for energy replenishment. It typically develops gradually and can manifest as physical sensations such as an empty feeling or growling in the stomach, light-headedness, or difficulty concentrating.
Emotional hunger, in contrast, is driven by emotions rather than the body’s need for sustenance. It can emerge suddenly and intensely in response to strong emotions, whether negative or positive.
Physical hunger can be accompanied by a craving for a specific food, but it can be quelled by any type of substantial, nourishing food. Emotional hunger, however, is often associated with specific cravings for comfort foods high in sugar, fat, or both – and sometimes it can persist if the specific craved food is not eaten.
3. Stress Triggers Hormones That Make You Want to Eat
Stress is a significant psychological factor that can contribute to overeating. When individuals experience stress, their bodies release hormones such as cortisol that can influence eating behaviors. Cortisol, often referred to as the “stress hormone,” is known to stimulate appetite and increase cravings for high-calorie, comfort foods.
One way stress hormones affect hunger and eating behaviors is through the impact on insulin, a hormone involved in blood sugar regulation. When stress triggers the release of cortisol, it can lead to insulin resistance, where cells become less responsive to insulin’s effects.
This is a great example of how something that starts as a psychological cause of overeating (stress) can have a biological impact on the body.
Additionally, chronic stress can disrupt the balance between other hormones involved in appetite regulation, such as ghrelin and leptin. Ghrelin is a hormone that stimulates hunger, while leptin is a hormone that signals satiety and fullness.
Prolonged or chronic stress can lead to an increase in ghrelin levels and a decrease in leptin sensitivity. This hormonal imbalance can result in heightened feelings of hunger and reduced feelings of fullness, making individuals more prone to overeating.
As you can see, the psychological impact of stress on overeating is twofold. Firstly, stress can lead to emotional eating, as individuals may turn to food as a means of comfort or stress relief. Secondly, the hormonal changes caused by stress can disrupt the body’s natural hunger and satiety cues, making it more challenging to regulate food intake effectively.
4. The Restrict-Binge Cycle & The Psychology of Overeating
Many individuals who struggle with dieting and overeating have experienced the restrict-binge cycle. This pattern involves periods of strict dieting or food restriction followed by episodes of uncontrollable overeating or binge eating. While it may seem like a result of low willpower, the restrict-binge cycle is actually caused by a complex cascade of biological and psychological triggers.
When we chronically diet or restrict our food intake, our bodies undergo physiological changes that contribute to the restrict-binge cycle. Ghrelin, often referred to as the “hunger hormone,” plays a key role in this process.
Ghrelin levels increase during periods of food restriction, triggering intense cravings and making us feel even hungrier. This hormonal response is a survival mechanism, driving us to seek out high-calorie, high-reward foods to ensure our energy needs are met.
Behind the scenes, however, there’s psychology at play too. One of the psychological reasons for overeating when restriction is involved is deprivation. When we restrict ourselves from certain foods or entire food groups such as carbs or sweets, it creates a heightened desire for those foods and even leads to a preoccupation with them.
Although many of us, myself included, reason that if we just had more willpower to lose weight, we would be able to resist the pizza. After all, many of us have also had too much pizza during times where pizza was allowed whenever we wanted.
The key here is that the psychology of overeating requires a comprehensive approach. We can’t just focus on Permission to Eat and forget about other factors like emotional eating. Addressing the psychological reasons for overeating must be a holistic, comprehensive approach.
5. Seeking Foods High in Fat, Sugar, or Carbs Could Be “Hedonic Eating”
Hedonic eating, also known as eating for pleasure or sensual self-indulgence, is deeply intertwined with the psychology of the reward process in our brains. When we consume high-reward foods, such as those rich in fat, carbs, or sugar, it triggers a release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and reward.
The reward process in the brain plays a significant role in hedonic eating. When we engage in this type of eating, the brain associates the consumption of high-reward foods with a pleasurable experience, creating a strong desire to repeat the behavior.
The reward process also contributes to the formation of habits in relation to hedonic eating. Each time we indulge in these foods, our brain commits the experience to memory and associates it with pleasure. This creates a reinforcing loop that can lead to a habit of reaching for high-reward foods in response to certain cues or emotions.
Fortunately, there are plenty of steps you can take to address the psychological reasons for overeating, including hedonic eating. For example, you can take steps to decrease any chronic stress in your life and also increase your participation in pleasurable hobbies. Though it may take time to implement these steps, it can decrease the psychological drive to reach for high-reward foods, whether or not your brain has developed a habit of it.
6. The Fear Wasting Food Is One of the Biggest Psychological Reasons for Overeating
Many of us overeat not because of dieting or restriction, but because we feel a deep-rooted sense of guilt if we don’t eat every last bit of food on our plate. The fear of wasting food can be significant; and with most restaurants serving portions that are larger than necessary, this can lead to frequent overeating due to psychological resistance to food waste.
Hedonic eating, driven by the pursuit of pleasure and sensory experiences, also contributes to the fear of wasting food. Individuals may resist wasting food to preserve the flavor and enjoyable experience associated with indulging in certain foods (i.e. fear that foods won’t taste as good if saved for later).
More often than not, however, the fear of wasting food is driven by early childhood experiences to finish your entire plate before you’re excused from the table. Family dynamics can heavily reinforce the fear of wasting food and even cause us to push guilt upon others for wasting food into our adult years, perpetuating one of the biggest psychological reasons for overeating.
7. Sugar Addiction May or May Not Have a Place in Eating Psychology
Sugar addiction is a controversial topic when it comes to overeating. While some studies argue that sugar possesses addictive qualities stronger than drug addiction, other studies question the validity of food addiction as a reason for overeating. Let’s explore both sides of the argument.
Proponents of the idea of sugar addiction argue that consuming sugar can trigger a release of dopamine in the brain similar to addictive substances like drugs. This reinforces the desire to seek out more sugar. Over time, individuals may develop a tolerance to sugar, requiring larger amounts to experience the same level of satisfaction.
On the other side of the argument, a study published in the European Journal of Nutrition reviewed the evidence surrounding sugar addiction and found “little evidence” for its existence in humans. After all, most studies conducted on sugar addiction were conducted in rats.
Because the science is split, I am an advocate for shifting the focus away from whether or not sugar is addicting. Instead, we can use the desire to overeat sugar as an indicator to look more closely at the emotions that drive emotional eating. I talk more about this in my workbook, Stopping Sugar Addiction the Psycho-Spiritual Way, which dives deep into the psychology of sugar cravings.
8. Eating Too Fast Can Make You Eat Past Fullness Without Realizing It
Eating too fast is a common habit that can contribute to overeating without us even realizing it. When we eat quickly, we don’t give our body enough time to register feelings of fullness, leading us to consume more food than necessary. This can be especially problematic for individuals trying to manage their weight or practice portion control.
Mindful eating is often recommended as a solution to combat the habit of eating too quickly. By paying attention to our food and being fully present during meals, we can enhance our awareness of satiety cues and better regulate our food intake. However, emotional eating can make practicing mindful eating challenging and I find it ineffective for addressing compulsive eating.
Emotional eating involves turning to food for comfort, stress relief, or distraction from unpleasant emotions. When we’re in an emotional state, our attention becomes focused on the emotions themselves rather than the act of eating.
In such instances, mindful eating may feel inaccessible because our emotions take precedence over our ability to be present and attentive while eating. Emotional eating can disrupt the connection between our mind and body, making it difficult to slow down and engage in mindful eating practices.
This means that slowing down other aspects of our lives can have a trickle-over effect and positively influence our eating habits as well. To me, this is the epitome of addressing the psychological reasons for overeating without resorting to ineffective dieting.
9. Satisfaction Is a Critical Element in Stopping Overeating
Satisfaction plays a critical role in our eating experience. It goes beyond mere physical fullness and encompasses mealtime enjoyment, pleasure, and contentment. When we feel satisfied at the end of a meal, both physically and emotionally, we’re more likely to stop eating and move onto the next activity.
However, when dieters continuously deprive themselves of the foods they find satisfying, they create a state of dissatisfaction. Even if they are physically full, the lack of satisfaction after eating can leave them unfulfilled and craving the very foods they have been denying. This psychological response can trigger episodes of overeating as they seek to satisfy their cravings and find the pleasure and contentment they have been missing.
This is something that I personally experienced time and time again while I struggled with compulsive eating. For example, burritos used to be one of my forbidden foods, because I knew that I could not stop halfway – I would always eat the entire thing regardless of hunger and fullness.
When faced with a craving for a burrito, I’d have something else for dinner like a calorie-controlled Lean Cuisine, which is highly unsatisfying to me. After finishing a meal feeling unsatisfied, I’d set out to find healthy and well-meaning snacks – like pita chips with hummus or rice cakes – to take the edge off my emotional hunger.
If you relate to this story but fail to see how allowing yourself to eat the foods you want won’t end in overeating – because you’re like me and struggle to stop eating when you’re full – rest assured that all the other tips in this article will help. Addressing the psychological reasons why we reach for food when we aren’t hungry is how I finally stopped overeating. It is a process I call Psycho-Spiritual Wellness.
10. Beliefs: The Hidden Psychological Reasons for Overeating
For the longest time, I believed that my struggle with overeating was simply a result of low willpower. I thought that if I could just resist certain foods, I would finally achieve my weight loss goals.
The truth, though, is that diets don’t work, and dietary restriction triggers both biological and psychological reasons for overeating. Beyond the layer of restriction, however, is something equally important: our beliefs.
For example, I once had a coaching client that used to be much thinner when she was younger, but she was also the target of jealousy back then for having a slender body. The previous experience of both being thin and stirring up jealousy in others can actually lead to limiting beliefs like: “being thin means getting bullied.”
This is an example of how our beliefs can, consciously or subconsciously, drive our behavior around food. Uncovering our hidden beliefs around food and body image is crucial in understanding the psychological reasons for overeating.
Furthermore, from my experience as an eating psychology coach, I’ve found that the deeper – even spiritual – root of weight gain is actually a need for protection. In the previous example, no longer being thin served as protection from being the target of unwanted jealousy from others.
Even though my client already knew what good food and exercise involves, she struggled with eating past fullness anyways in order to avoid the unwanted scrutiny that she previously experienced. This wasn’t her only trigger for eating past fullness, but it was a significant one.
The Psychology of Overeating Is Best Explained by Someone Who’s Been There
Now that you understand some of the biggest psychological reasons for overeating, we can discuss the steps you can take to overcome unwanted eating patterns. While I have plenty of tips to help, I first need to set the record straight about some unfortunate advice on this particular topic from Psychology Today.
In their article the author states, “From speaking to adults and children, I came up with 40 rationalizations for why individuals justify their overeating. They include ‘watching what I eat is too hard,’ ‘it’s low-fat/fat-free,’ ‘I will make up for it later,’ ‘I’ll burn it off later,’ ‘I don’t usually eat this,’ ‘it’s free,’ ‘everyone else is eating it,’… ‘healthy food doesn’t taste as good’…” The list goes on (last accessed June 26, 2023).
I was shocked when I read this article, which was written by a psychologist. That quote is unrelatable at best and offensive at worst. The author accuses overeaters of using rationalizations to “justify” overeating behavior — as if overeating is something that we want to be doing.
While many psychologists are compassionate, that article was not written from a point of compassion. It was written from a place of disconnection and a lack of empathy. In all my years as an eating psychology coach, no one has ever shared rationalizations like that with me.
In fact, the problem I see most frequently is that people are trying too hard to “eat perfectly” and they are restricting their diets too much. Then, the restriction causes unintended biological backlash in the form of compulsive eating.
From what I have seen in my line of work, we almost know too much about what good food and exercise entails, and it motivates us to push measures too far, push our bodies too far, and focus all our energy on diets that don’t work instead of the psychology behind overeating.
Perhaps the psychologist who wrote those disconnected words only came to that conclusion because many compulsive eaters struggle with shame. When talking about something as personal and vulnerable as overeating, we might “armor up” to protect ourselves from judgment by sharing “rationalizations” to deflect ownership of our problems.
In short, I vehemently disagree that most overeaters “rationalize” their eating habits. Most overeaters berate themselves and are their own worst critic when it comes to eating past fullness.
Steps to Address the Psychological Reasons for Overeating
The best path forward to overcome the psychological reasons for overeating is to be met with compassion from both ourselves and others. When we feel true empathy – which can come from someone that has been there, or from someone willing to put themselves in your shoes – we can open ourselves up to true change.
A compassionate approach to stopping overeating is essential for addressing any underlying emotions or struggles that contribute to the pattern. As mentioned before, it’s essential to address the psychology of overeating in a holistic and comprehensive manner.
Here are some steps you can take to address the psychological reasons for overeating and develop a healthier and more balanced relationship with food:
Cultivate Emotional Tolerance
Emotional eating often arises from a desire to avoid or numb difficult emotions. To address this, it is crucial to cultivate emotional tolerance and develop healthier coping mechanisms. Instead of turning to food as a way to suppress emotions, practice holding space for difficult emotions.
Emotional tolerance does not mean ‘wallowing’ in our negative emotions. Rather, it means allowing life to have a natural ebb and flow. What we resist, persists. Many people will find that when they resist negative emotion, it makes the emotion stronger and the desire to overeat also grows stronger.
By developing tolerance for negative emotions, we allow ourselves to develop resilience, which in turn reduces the desire to numb negative emotions with food. Up next, I will share my best tool for developing emotional tolerance.
Utilize the Stop, Drop, & Feel Technique
The Stop, Drop, & Feel technique is a powerful tool to interrupt the automatic response of turning to food during emotional distress. The premise behind this tool is that whenever there is a desire to eat when you aren’t hungry, there is an emotion that you are resisting. By training in feeling that feeling, you can develop emotional tolerance.
Here are the steps you can take to practice the Stop, Drop, & Feel:
When you feel the urge to eat without hunger, do the Stop, Drop, & Feel by following these steps:
- Stop: Pause for a moment and bring awareness to your current state. Promise yourself that you can still eat exactly what appeals to you once the SDF is over. This element of permission is key to making the tool work, otherwise it just becomes another form of restriction.
- Drop: Release any judgment or resistance to your emotions and surrender to how you’re currently feeling. Get curious and practice compassion with what comes up.
- Feel: Allow yourself to fully experience and explore your emotions. Don’t analyze why you’re feeling that way you’re feeling. Just let yourself feel what you’re feeling without judgment or resistance.
The Stop, Drop, & Feel is the bread and butter of my approach to stopping compulsive eating called Psycho-Spiritual Wellness. It directly addresses the emotions behind emotional eating and provides you with an excellent tool for coping without turning to food.
Stop Dieting and Eat What Satisfies You
Emotional tolerance can also help us develop the courage to stop dieting. As previously discussed, dieting itself is a significant contributor to the psychological reasons for overeating. However, many people are afraid that giving up dieting will lead to weight gain.
Along similar lines, some people are afraid to give up dieting because it feels like giving up control. Fortunately, when we develop emotional tolerance, we will be able to hold space for the groundlessness that naturally occurs when we take the leap and give up dieting for the sake of better mental and physical health.
If you need more guidance on the process of giving up dieting, I have plenty of resources that can help:
- How to stop dieting and eat ‘normally’
- What happens when you stop dieting: the 5 stages
- The Psycho-Spiritual Wellness eating guidelines
Challenge Restrictive Beliefs
To truly master the psychology of overeating, you need to address your emotions (which the Stop, Drop, & Feel will help with), the element of permission (which giving up dieting will help with), and your beliefs.
Many of us are holding subconscious beliefs that trigger self-sabotage around food. Because they are subconscious, we cannot discover them by thinking things through in our heads. We need to either speak it out loud or write it down.
This is where self-inquiry tools can help, like my bestselling workbook, Why We Do the Things We Do. Through provocative prompts, the workbook asks you to explore what you believe about a variety of topics such as thinness and worthiness, and how social dynamics affect our relationship with food.
Awareness is the first step towards change. Once you can identify any limiting beliefs that you’re holding, you can work on healing and releasing them.
When I completed the workbook (like any good chef that tastes their own cooking) I still had some epiphanies because that is the power of separating your thoughts onto paper. You can discover thoughts that you didn’t even know you had!
Seek Support and Professional Guidance
Reaching out for support can greatly aid your journey to address the psychological reasons for overeating. Connect with trusted friends, eating psychology coaches like me, or support groups who can provide encouragement and understanding.
If you struggle with an eating disorder or suspect that you might, seek professional guidance from a healthcare professional that specializes in eating disorder treatment. They can provide the right kind of support and personalized strategies to help you navigate your relationship with food.
Engage in Self-Care and Stress Management
Finally, taking care of your overall well-being is essential in addressing the psychological reasons for overeating. Engage in activities that bring you joy to prevent hedonic eating. Practice meditation or relaxation techniques if your job is contributing to excessive stress. Do whatever necessary to feel calm and grounded. It will help you find the mental space to practice these other tips.
Addressing the Psychology of Overeating
Addressing the psychological reasons for overeating is a journey that requires a comprehensive approach. Make sure that you’re addressing the root cause of overeating by practicing the Stop, Drop, & Feel. Give yourself permission to eat what appeals to you and give up dieting to prevent the restrict-binge cycle.
Finally, use tools like my workbook, Why We Do the Things We Do, to discover what you truly believe about food, body image, and social dynamics around eating. By implementing these steps and adopting a holistic approach, you can create positive changes in your eating patterns and slowly overcome the tendency to eat past fullness.