Are you overeating? Here’s how to tell – and break the habit

There are many reasons why people overeat and they are often to do with stress and how we manage our emotions
Overeating is often related to our emotions - Getty

A second slice of cake on your birthday, an extra burger at a BBQ and a few too many chocolates at Christmas – we all occasionally overindulge. But it can be damaging for our health if it becomes a common occurrence.

An overeater may regularly find themselves eating five or six biscuits, instead of one or two. It’s not as severe as binge eating (which could involve eating one or two packets of biscuits in one sitting, followed by crisps and ice cream) but it is still problematic for our physical health and a signal of unhealthy thought patterns.

Overeating is a problem that can be prompted by poor mental health, or it can simply be a habit or a result of easy access to food. An increasing proportion of my patients require psychological support for it and while women are more likely to seek out help, men are thought to be equally as affected.

Dr Aneesa Shariff
Dr Aneesa Shariff is a psychologist with expertise in the area of problem eating - Steph White Photography

Why do we overeat?

Emotional eating is the most common reason for overeating, often because of stress, sadness or low energy. It can also be a symptom of depression.

In these cases, food is used as a coping mechanism to deal with problems or difficult emotions. It becomes a survival strategy and people may think to themselves: “I can deal with my anxiety if I eat this snack.” Our bodies unwittingly encourage it because sweet options in particular, like chocolate, trigger the release of happy hormones in the brain and provide a sugar rush, which can temporarily dampen negative emotions.

But eating more than we need can also be a habit learned in early childhood. Parents may have said “you can have a sweet treat” as a reward, or they may have denied dessert as punishment. That pattern of thought can continue into adulthood and create an unhealthy relationship with food.

For example, you may think to yourself: “I’ve got a really stressful day at work, so as a reward I’m going to eat a tub of Ben & Jerry’s or order a takeaway.”

Additionally, society has become busier and we’re constantly connected to different devices while we eat, which can act as a distraction and encourage overeating. The same goes for eating at our desks, on the go or in front of the TV. We don’t realise how much we’re eating and we’re not properly attuned to the experience of savouring our food. I see this increasingly among young patients who have grown up in a very busy and distracted culture.

The accessibility of food can also fuel overeating. Our brains are now constantly exposed to reminders of food, whether its vending machines at work, prepackaged snacks in shops or even just being in close proximity to our kitchens while at home. It creates a temptation and it’s so easy to act on that urge and eat something when we don’t need to.

When to seek help

Whether you need help for your eating habits depends on how you feel. If you regularly feel uncomfortably full, bloated, nauseous or sick after eating, or are engaging in purging behaviours, such as intentionally vomiting, consuming laxatives or over-exercising, that’s a big red flag.

These are compensatory strategies in response to guilt about how overeating might be impacting your weight or your health.

Another sign that you may benefit from help is if you feel guilty, self-critical or shameful after overeating. It’s also worrying if you are hiding how much you’re eating by eating in private or hoarding and hiding food because you don’t want negative judgment from others.

How to stop overeating

Consider why you’re eating. Assess what your intentions are before you act on the urge to eat something by considering why you want to eat. Is it because you’re hungry and genuinely want food to savour and enjoy? Or do you want to eat to cope with a difficult emotion or because you’re bored?

If your intention is that you really want to eat the chocolate bar, go for it. There’s nothing wrong with intentionally enjoying food. But if it is the latter, try to first deal with the emotion that’s fuelling the desire for food. It could be eased by any activity that gives you an emotional outlet, whether that’s going for a walk, having a bath or meeting a friend.

Eat mindfully

Eat food away from any distractions (like your phone, work desk, laptop or TV) and use your five senses to focus on it.

This will immerse you in your meal and slow down the eating process. It makes it easier to recognise when you’re full, so you can stop eating at that point. Over time, this will help you to develop a healthier relationship with food and reduce the potential for chronic overeating.

Always eat from a plate

Eating from a plate helps with portion control. If you’re eating from a big bag of crisps, it’s difficult to know how much you’ve eaten.

Putting them into a bowl first gives you time to assess whether it’s a reasonable portion and limits you to just that amount. It’s a visual assessment before you start eating.

Seek professional help

These self-help strategies can work for some people, but if you can’t identify what is causing you to overeat, are engaging in red flag behaviours or feel out of control when it comes to food, then turn to your GP.

Access to psychologists varies widely between NHS trusts but your doctor will know what is available in your area and will consider any other medical issues that could be at play. If you’re struggling to access a psychologist on the NHS, you may want to go private.

Most people with mild to moderate overeating problems require six to 12 sessions, which are typically once a week. If it is more severe, it can take longer.

Psychologists can explore individual issues and come up with a personalised plan to shift away from unhealthy and unhelpful patterns of eating. It can be really overwhelming for someone to try to deal with it themselves.

As told to Emily Craig

Dr Aneesa Shariff (@aneesashariffphd) is a member of the Association of Clinical Psychologists UK (ACP-UK) and a psychologist in private practice specialising in anxiety, trauma and culturally inclusive therapy.