Over the last few years, while working with clients who are keen on improving their eating patterns and overall lifestyle, I see that overeating is not just about lack of willpower. There is something much deeper going on that makes people eat too much or eat too often. So, rather than pushing clients to eat less I ask them why they struggle with overeating.
I think its wrong to assume that overeaters lack willpower. In fact, I would go so far as to say that faulting oneself for lack of willpower is a fallacy. Studies show that we have limited amounts of willpower to draw on and that it is not an efficient tool for something that we do multiple times a day—like eating. Research suggests willpower—the capacity to delay immediate gratification for long-term reward—is not endless. It seems that "willpower is like a muscle that fatigues with continued exertion" (Baumeister 2012).
Willpower may be especially ineffective at resisting the temptation to eat. Like a muscle, willpower needs glucose for fuel (Gailliot et al. 2007). Thus, using willpower to limit caloric consumption is a Catch-22. Abstaining from eating taxes willpower, thereby reducing glucose supplies and causing subsequent willpower depletion. I have noticed that my clients find it very frustrating and unrewarding to try to control their appetite with willpower, and through no fault of theirs, they fail. We can starve ourselves with short-term voluntary control, but then our bodies compensate by slowing our metabolism and dramatically increasing appetite.
This then begs the question, if a “weak will” isn’t to blame for overeating, what is? Research points to biological and psychological explanations.
THE BIOLOGY OF OVEREATING
There is an argument that our bodies overreact if they don’t get enough food or nutrients. In fact, one can argue, and some research does back this, that overeating goes hand in hand with undereating, This undereating/overeating cycle can last a day (by skipping a meal and binge eating later), a week (dieting through the week and overindulging on the weekends) or months (restricting for periods of time and binging once you allow yourself permission to eat).
Stress and sleep deprivation can also stimulate over-eating, initiating hormonal changes that increase appetite (Yau & Potenza 2013; Spiegel et al. 2004).
Finally, obesity can alter our biology to encourage overeating. Some research has shown that it’s difficult for obese individuals to lose weight because the adipose cells generated to store fat want to stay alive. They act like endocrine organs, altering the secretion of hormones that control hunger and appetite. Leptin, the hormone responsible for satiety, becomes suppressed, which leads to a lack of fullness signals to the brain. This helps explain why people who are obese can have a tough time managing food intake. Of course, this does not explain why they become obese in the first place but does explain why obese people find it so much harder to lose weight that moderately overweight people.
APPETITE AND OVEREATING
In combating overeating, the first step is to address the biological causes of excessive appetite. I have clients track food cravings and their actions and thoughts just prior to the food craving - this helps them recognize the craving triggers and try and address them in ways other than through food (for example, if their triggers are loneliness or boredom, I suggest calling a friend, going for a walk, doing a puzzle game, doing some spring/winter cleaning, or some easy home exercises one can download from the internet).
Research shows that breakfast is crucial to fighting over-eating. Studies repeatedly show that eating a healthy breakfast helps people maintain weight loss. In addition, eating every 3–4 hours might help to manage blood-sugar levels and eliminating added sugar and artificial sweeteners reduces cravings. In addition, prioritizing 7–8 hours of sleep each night can also help - fatigue and lack of sleep are common triggers for unleashing food cravings.
I also find it useful to explain to clients the difference between hunger and appetite. Hunger is the physiological need for food, as dictated by the stomach growling or contracting. This can also manifest in an inability to think clearly or focus. Appetite, on the other hand, reflects our psychological desire to eat. By helping clients understand true hunger, you can make them more aware of other needs manifesting as the desire to eat and help them find healthier coping strategies.
Emotions have a huge influence on how and when we eat. When it comes to how we feel, we may choose to express virtually any emotion by eating, and I see this time and again with clients where they often have an emotional reason for eating, whether it’s to comfort ourselves when we’re sad, celebrate when we’re happy, procrastinate when we’re stressed or entertain ourselves when we’re bored.
However, eating to manage emotions can quickly become problematic. With overeating, there’s usually another root issue that isn’t being addressed. Overeating is often the symptom of deeper issues; a way to create a secondary problem when the root problem is too overwhelming to process. Whatever the root cause may be, the guilt and shame associated with overeating create feelings of unworthiness. People then overeat for comfort from that feeling, and the vicious cycle continues.
Once clients recognize this emotion–overeating relationship, they can shift their efforts from caloric restriction to managing emotions that disrupt eating patterns.
MANAGING EMOTIONAL EATING
When I think a a client is struggling with emotional overeating, I often try and steer conversations away from food. When clients say they find themselves reaching for junk food, I ask then to ask themselves two questions. One, what am I feeling? Two, what do I need? Am I sad and needing to talk to a friend? Do I feel tired and need to sleep? Encourage clients to discover and address unmet needs that trigger overeating.
As a health and fitness professional, when working with clients, I try to be supportive and non-judgmental, helping them to explore why they overeat and allowing them to become the drivers of their own behavior change. Its important to meet clients where they’re at, not where they ‘should be'.
Most importantly, as mentioned above, moving the focus away from willpower can help expand the conversation around overeating. I find it more constructive to talk about healthy eating and managing cravings as a choice that a client makes that leads to an action that feels empowering and powerful. This shift can reduce guilt- or shame-related eating and allow people to explore the personal factors promoting overeating.
As a side bar, sometimes, low levels of certain nutrients play a role in overeating. When vitamin D levels are low, the hormone that helps turn off your appetite doesn’t work, and people feel hungry all the time, no matter how much they eat. In addition, low levels of omega-3 fatty acids can alter insulin control, increasing hunger. In these cases, some supplementation with Vitamin D3 (especially in winter with less exposure to sunlight) and omega 3's might help.
CREATING AN ENVIRONMENT FOR HEALTHIER EATING
When it comes to overeating, ones surroundings matter. Research has shown that the layout of a kitchen or office space, the proximity of food on the dinner table and even the size of your dining companions can influence your intake. What I have noticed with clients is that even small changes to ones immediate environment can make a big difference.
Home is the best place to start. One of the easiest ways to eat less is simply putting out a fruit bowl. Every time you walk by, it’s a visual reminder to eat healthier, in the same way that a cookie jar on your counter reminds you of something very different. In addition, making your kitchen less “loungeable.” might help. The more we hang out there, the more we start looking for things to do—and the main thing to do in one's kitchen is eat. I recommend to clients to move iPads, TVs and comfy chairs out of the kitchen and into areas with fewer temptations.
Finally, I am all in favor of an attitude of gratitude. Simply stating (aloud or in your mind) one thing you’re grateful for before you eat can improve your eating choices. A quick word of thanks can make a big difference.
On that note, a BIG thank you and much gratitude to all of you for making the time to read and respond to my newsletters. Make 2018 a year to remember! All the best!!
1. APA (American Psychological Association). 2012. Stress in America: Our Health at Risk. Accessed Dec. 14, 2016:www.apa.org/news/press/releases/stress/2011/final-2011.pdf.
2. Baumeister, R.F. 2012. Where has your willpower gone? New Scientist, 213 (2849), 30–31.
3. Baumeister, R.F., et al. 1998. Ego depletion: Is the active self a limited resource? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74 (5), 1252–65.
4. Gailliot, M.T., et al. 2007. Self-control relies on glucose as a limited energy source: Willpower is more than a metaphor. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92 (2), 325–36.
5. Spiegel, K., et al. 2004. Sleep curtailment in healthy young men is associated with decreased leptin levels, elevated ghrelin levels, and increased hunger and appetite. Annals of Internal Medicine, 141 (11), 846–50.
6. Yau, Y.H., & Potenza, M.N. 2013. Stress and eating behaviors. Minerva Endocrinologica, 38 (3), 255–67.