Why do we over-eat?
    Why do we over-eat?Why do we over-eat?

    To Eat or Not to Eat?

    Our sedentary, food-abundant circumstances may be a by-product of our ‘success’ as a society, and our nutrient, emotional and spiritual deficiencies a result of our hectic lifestyles – but they clearly create imbalances, gaps and voids in our lives, often leading to overeating and obesity.

    Over-eating differs according to the individual – what is too much for one may not be too much for another. Think of an athlete carbo-loading before an event, and then a couch-potato eating the same amount. Either or neither of them may gain weight! Ideally your food intake should correlate with your energy expenditure, but as we all intuitively know, and as researchers have shown, numerous other factors are involved – biological (e.g. gender and genetics), metabolic, biochemical, hormonal, psychological (e.g. emotions and stress levels), and even morphological. We are all endowed with the ability to adapt our metabolism and energy expenditure to both over- and undernutrition, but some of us do it better than others.1

    I find that most over-eating is due to a combination of conscious and subconscious factors, and there are sometimes physiological explanations as well. The combinations of reasons or causes vary widely among individuals, and can even wax and wane during a particular individual’s day, week or month. These are my thoughts on some of them …

    All decisions in life are based on choices. As we all know, some are difficult and some are easy to make. If you are an adult, the type, quality and quantity of the food you eat are all based on choices as well. As harsh as it may sound, many of us lack self-control in this department. Often taste takes priority and health takes a back seat.

    Admittedly the marketplace is partially to blame, with ever-increasing meal sizes (e.g. ‘supersize’,‘eat-as-much-as-you-like’,‘buy-one- get-one-free’) and ‘drive-thru’ convenience, which further encourage over-eating.

    There is also a misconception that healthy is more expensive, so some people choose the ‘cheaper’ unhealthy foods and then usually have to eat more to feel satisfied.

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    Many of us were brought up according to the ‘eat everything on your plate’ philosophy. Initially an anti-waste strategy, this could trigger over-eating tendencies!


    Many people eat too many carbohydrates, partly because the traditional food pyramid emphasises carbs as the base of all nutrition – plus, they are fairly cheap and filling. All carbs turn to blood glucose, but the glucose that isn’t burned for energy turns into fatty acids.

    The processed carbs (high GI or GL – glycaemic index or load) are usually the ones consumed in greatest quantity because they taste delicious to most people – but they are nutrient deficient and turn to glucose very quickly. This causes blood sugar imbalances, and the craving for more processed carbs or stimulants to create the same effect. Mixed meals with low-GI/GL carbs induce greater satiety.2 The GI and GL are helpful in choosing nourishing foods that will make one feel fuller for longer, and reduce the urge to over-eat.


    The attractiveness of food is not only related to its sensory properties, but also depends on how hungry you are, your previous experience of eating the food, and the social circumstances in which you’re eating it.

    However, the five senses are critical to one’s eating habits – taste, sight (food presentation, colours), smell (aroma), texture (mouth-feel) and sound (to a lesser extent), with taste being paramount. Taste alone often outweighs the health consequences that can follow!

    Tastebuds can be ‘trained’ to enjoy certain foods fairly quickly (usually the highly salted or sweetened), but many people don’t realise that they can just as quickly be ‘re-trained’.

    Why do we over-eat?


    Restrictive ‘diets’ always become unsatisfying, and you are likely to crave the ‘forbidden’ and, whether consciously or not, to eat more of it than ever before after ending the ‘diet’. A person on a fat-free ‘diet’ will crave fats and oils, for example, and a person on a high-protein ‘diet’ will crave carbs.


    Generally people tend to eat more in the colder months, and in winter our lives also tend to be more sedentary. Both lead to excess weight gain.


    Many of the people I consult are trying to fill a gap with food. Often when you feel ‘low’ or have an inner uneasiness you resort consciously or without even realising it to the temporary comfort of food – e.g. ‘I am unhappy, but if I have some chocolate I will feel better’.

    Some people who feel they have done, thought or said something ‘bad’ subconsciously punish themselves by over-eating or not eating. This sort of emotional over-eating can lead to disorders like bulimia, and one needs to see a professional if it is happening.

    Often emotional eating is linked to forgetting that we are sacred, that our lives are worth living and that we have a purpose here on earth. Remember, food cannot feed or grow your soul. Your physical hunger is fed, but your ‘real hunger’ is not.3


    A little is fine, but too much for too long is unhealthy. Stress has profound physical effects on the body. Often when you are very stressed you are unable to eat at all, yet mild prolonged stress can trigger eating binges.

    Rushing around and missing meals or snacks also sets you up to over-eat. Blood sugar levels drop, and by the time you do get a chance to eat you are famished and a second helping is mandatory!

    Why do we over-eat?


    Many people find themselves eating when they are bored. Again this is to fill a gap – food provides temporary comfort, but can have long-lasting health effects.


    Eating out of habit and not for nutritional gain or even enjoyment is very common. A good example is craving something sweet or salty while watching a movie.

    A friend of mine admitted that whenever she watched her son play rugby on a Saturday morning she just HAD to buy a fried bacon and egg roll – it was a habit she’d got into, so much so that she missed it during the summer months.


    Simply eating your favourite foods can have a positive effect on mood. Lack of neurochemicals such as serotonin may make you feel low or depressed, and is often accompanied by cravings for ‘comfort’ foods. Eating them can stimulate the release of mood-enhancing endorphins.

    The gastrointestinal tract and pancreas release hormones that regulate satiety and body weight. Appetite is stimulated by a hormone called ghrelin, and other hormones inhibit it. So if you are low on the appetite-inhibiting hormones or have a bit too much ghrelin (which is increased by fasting and certain ‘diets’), you may be over-eating because of a chemical imbalance!

    Thirst has a similar mechanism and can often be confused with hunger.


    Food addiction is most common in people with addictive personalities, but can also occur when one feels ’out of control’. Eating (or not) can give that sense of ‘control’.

    After quitting an addictive behaviour like drinking or smoking, many people resort to another hand-to-mouth habit – eating! The need to keep your hands and mouth busy is often a difficult habit to break, and you may end up dealing with a food addiction as well as the alcohol or nicotine withdrawal.


    To build muscle, your body requires protein – but training, not protein alone, builds muscle and endurance. Many people who want to bulk up or reduce body fat under-consume carbs and over-consume protein. This can cause urea and ammonia to build up and put strain on the kidneys as they try to flush them from the system. In so doing the body loses a significant amount of water. This may show up on the scale as weight loss, but along with losing water, you may lose muscle mass and bone calcium. You will strain not only your kidneys but also your heart,4 and may face problems with osteoporosis later in life.


    When you aren’t mindful or conscious of the present, you may be unaware that you are over-eating. Strategies like ‘mindful eating’5 and ‘intuitive eating’6 help you focus on the moment, overcome cravings, choose foods that satisfy and control your weight, and create a healthier, soul-satisfying relationship with food.

    Cooking and eating are ancient rituals, and when we put the ritual back in place in our daily lives it will take us back to the source – where we are able to appreciate and be grateful for what we have.7

    Now before you rush off and grab something to eat, ask yourself …

    Am I hungry, or am I thirsty or substituting? Am I making a healthy choice?

    Editor's note: Nutrient-dense foods give you the most nutrients for the fewest number of calories. Here is an article on this topic: A Balanced Diet


    1. Sims EA, Horton ES. Endocrine and metabolic adaption to obesity and starvation. Am J Clin Nutr 1968; 21(12): 1455-1470.
    2. Holt S, et al. Relationship of satiety to postprandial glycemic, insulin and cholecystokinin responses. Appetite 1992; 18: 129-141.
    3. Corbet-Owen C . Mind over Fatter. Oshun Books, 2007.
    4. Nelson M. Will eating more protein help your body gain muscle faster? http://www.medicinenet. com/script/main/art. asp?articlekey=50900
    5. Kesten D. Feeding the Body, Nourishing the Soul: Essentials of Eating for Physical, Emotional, and Spiritual Well-Being. Conari Press, 1997.
    6. Tribole E, Resch E. Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Programme that Works. New York: St Martin’s, 2003.
    7. Green L (author of Love Green Food and Imifuno for All – Mamelane Project). Editorial – Cooking and eating with consciousness.
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