• mindy@flex

Reasons why we overeat (and what you can do about it)

Updated: Dec 16, 2021

Ever polished off a bag of chippies while watching your favourite TV show, without even realising? Maybe you’ve eaten twice the amount you’d intended at a restaurant and wonder how it happened.

Here’s the lowdown on some of the reasons we may overeat, plus ten strategies you can use to stop overeating.

What can lead people to overeat?

There are many reasons we might eat more than we really need. Eating for emotional reasons, eating while distracted or eating too fast are just some of the things that can lead people to eat more food than their body needs.

1. External food cues

There are many ‘cues’ (think of these as prompts or triggers) in our external environment that can lead us to eat for reasons other than hunger, or to keep eating past the point when we’ve had enough.

How many of these external cues do you find affect when and how you eat?

  • Time of day e.g. eating because it’s 12pm

  • Break times at work

  • Seeing or smelling food

  • Someone else eating

  • Attractive food packaging

  • Food packaging size

  • Food advertising

  • Watching cooking programmes

  • Distractions e.g. watching TV or using your phone

  • Buffet meals and ‘all you can eat’ offers

  • The size of your plate or bowl

  • Super tasty, highly processed, high calorie foods

  • Cultural traditions around giving, receiving and sharing food

  • The expectations of others for you to finish your plate

So many external factors encouraging us to eat! This can be a problem when they override our internal signals that are designed to let us know when it’s time to eat… and when it’s time to stop.

2. Eating too quickly

Eating our food slowly and chewing it thoroughly can give us greater feelings of fullness and help to reduce our food intake.

Our bodies have a few mechanisms that are designed to tell us to stop eating when we've had enough. For example, stretch receptors in our stomach recognise when it is being filled with food, and sends feedback to the brain to stop eating.

Once the food reaches the intestine, satiety hormones are sent to the brain to tell it to "chill" on the eating front. These hormones usually take about 15 minutes to be released after eating.

So, if we wolf our meals down in five minutes and then go for seconds, we may be eating a lot of food before our brain has had the chance to receive the signal that we’ve actually had enough.

3. Over-restrictive dieting

Following a restrictive diet for a prolonged period of time can also lead to hormonal changes that increase our drive to eat.

When this is combined with feelings of psychological and physical deprivation and increased cravings for tasty foods that are usually being avoided, this can lead someone to ‘break’ their diet and overeat or binge.

4. Eating lots of hyperpalatable foods

Eating too many hyperpalatable (this means extra tasty) foods can lead people to overeat. These are typically highly processed products that have lots of added sugars, fats, salt and other additives that enhance the flavour of food to make it extra delicious.

Diets that are higher in these foods are also less satiating, meaning they don’t keep us feeling as full.

In one research study, people who were offered a diet of mostly ultra-processed foods ate around 500 calories a day more than those offered a diet with no ultra-processed foods.

5. Sugary drinks

Liquid foods tend to keep us less satisfied than solid foods. Sugary drinks like fizzy drinks and energy drinks can lead us to eat more calories overall because they are also high in sugars but low in nutrients, so they provide additional empty calories that don’t satisfy our hunger.

6. Not getting enough sleep

Getting plenty of shut-eye helps us regulate our appetite and people who are deprived of sleep can feel hungrier than people who have had a good sleep. This is partly due to higher levels of the hormone ghrelin (which stimulates our appetite) and lower levels of the hormone leptin (which suppresses our appetite).

7. Eating with family and friends

Studies have shown that people tend to eat more when they’re with a group of family or friends, compared to eating alone.

Interestingly though, this doesn’t seem to be the case when eating in a group of less familiar acquaintances like work colleagues. It may be that when we’re in the company of people we’re not quite as comfortable with, we feel a need to practice a bit more restraint!

An indulgent meal with friends

Mindfulness and mindful eating – a key to tapping into your internal signals

Practicing mindfulness and mindful eating can help you hone your internal cues to override what’s going on around you that may be causing you to overeat.

Mindfulness refers generally to being in the present and thinking about what you’re experiencing in that moment, rather than feeling regretful about the past or worrying about what might happen in the future.

Mindfulness can be a useful tool to help manage emotional overeating. By being fully aware of how we are feeling, we are better able to manage our emotions and reduce any feelings to eat impulsively.

Mindful eating is more specific to the experience of eating – paying attention to how hungry or satisfied you are, as well as noticing the sensations of the food you are eating - the appearance, taste, smell and texture of the food.

Being mindful and paying attention to your food while you’re eating it, then stopping when you are feeling full, helps to regulate your eating patterns and improve unhealthy eating behaviours.

Ten practical ways to avoid overeating

1. Become more aware of what triggers you to overeat

Take a food diary for a week or two, noting down what you eat, when you eat and what you’re experiencing and feeling immediately before eating.

Then, have a look over your diary to see what patterns you can see, and consider strategies that you might use to manage them. A Registered Nutritionist or Registered Dietitian may be able to help guide you through this process.

2. Practice eating more mindfully.

  • Check in with yourself before you eat to consider if you really are hungry (check out my blog on mindless eating for tips on how to do this)

  • Make more conscious food choices – think about what type of foods and portions are in line with your health goals

  • Eat slowly, chew well and really savour your food

  • Stop eating when you are satisfied. A good idea is to make sure at least 20 minutes has passed before considering eating more, to give your body time to register those satiety signals.

3. Learn about mindfulness or meditation

These can help you better manage emotions that may be driving you to eat. You can learn more about how to practice mindfulness here.

Mindful eating

4. Be aware that enjoying a meal with your friends and family can lead you to eat more than you might on your own.

Once you’re aware that this presents a potential challenge, you can prepare yourself by planning what you will eat beforehand, or try pacing yourself with the slowest eater in the room.

If you are eating out, check the menu before you go so you’re aware of the healthier (and less healthy) options. Once you’re at the café or restaurant, why not order first so you’re not tempted to order the mega-indulgent meal that you’ve seen someone else order.

5. Take control of your portion sizes

Take only what you need from the package and putting it into a bowl or on a plate. Using a smaller size bowl or plate is a smart way to avoid serving up supersized portions.

6. Avoid eating in front of the TV or other screens

For example, your computer or your phone. Not only can this stop you from overeating but you get to really enjoy your food too.

7. Choose nutritious, ‘whole’ foods most of the time

These will contain lots of nutrients including protein and fibre that help you feel full. Check out some ideas for healthy, filling foods here.

Having lots of veggies is a great way to get tons of nutrition and fibre but with relatively few calories – fill half your plate with brightly coloured vegetables to get more nutrition ‘bang’ for your calorie ‘buck’.

8. Eat fewer empty foods that are highly processed, low in nutrients and super tasty.

Especially those in liquid form as these tend to be less satisfying. Fizzy drinks, I’m looking at you!

9. Get plenty of sleep

Around 7-9 hours a night is a good target for most adults.

10. Avoid going on any crazy crash diets.

They can perpetuate the yo-yo diet cycle, make you more prone to over-indulging and they don’t help you improve your health for the long term.

This blog is intended for information purposes only. Speak to a Registered Nutritionist or Registered Dietitian for nutrition advice tailored for your specific needs.


De Bruin WE, Ward AL, Taylor RW, Jospe MR (2019) Am I really hungry? A qualitative exploration of patients’ experience, adherence and behaviour change during hunger training: a pilot study. British Medical Journal 9:e032248. doi:10.1136/bmjopen-2019-032248

Gerritsen S, Wall C (2017). How we eat: reviews of the evidence on food and eating behaviours related to diet and body size. Wellington: Ministry of Health.

Hall KD, Ayuketah A, Brychta R et al. (2019) Ultra-processed diets cause excess calorie intake and weight gain: An inpatient randomized controlled trial of ad libitum food intake. Cellular Metabolism 30(1):67-77. doi:10.1016/j.cmet.2019.05.008

Hetherington MM, Anderson AS, Norton GNM, Newson L (2006) Situational effects on meal intake: A comparison of eating alone and eating with others. Physiology and Behaviour 88(4-5):498-505. doi: 10.1016/j.physbeh.2006.04.025

Hollands GJ, Shemilt I, Marteau TM et al. (2015) Portion, package or tableware size for changing selection and consumption of food, alcohol and tobacco. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, Issue 9. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD011045.pub2.

Hollis J (2018) The effect of mastication on food intake, satiety and body weight. Physiological Behaviour 193 (Pt B):242-245. doi: 10.1016/j.physbeh.2018.04.027.

Krop EM, Hetherington MM, Nekitsing C et al. (2018). Influence of oral processing on appetite and food intake – a systematic review and meta-analysis. Appetite 125:253-269. doi 10.1016/j.appet.2018.01.018

Malik VS, Pan A, Willett WC, Hu FB (2013) Sugar-sweetened beverages and weight gain in children and adults: a systematic review and meta-analysis. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 98:1084–102.doi: 10.3945/ajcn.113.058362.

Ruddock HK, Brunstrom JM, Vartanian LR, Higgs S (2019) A systematic review and meta-analysis of the social facilitation of eating. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 110(4):842-861. doi: 10.1093/ajcn/nqz155.

Warren JM, Smith N, Ashwell M (2017) A structured literature review on the role of mindfulness, mindful eating and intuitive eating in changing eating behaviours: effectiveness and associated potential mechanisms. Nutrition Research Reviews; 30, 272-283. doi:10.1017/S0954422417000154

41 views0 comments