Why Do We Overeat?

26 April 2016 | Written by Xenia Ayiotis

I spent this weekend away in one of the most beautiful parts of the Little Karoo, a charming town called Montagu (famous for its nuts, fruit and wine). The highlight of the trip was a unique bicycle ride called L’Eroica. On the flight home I was reflecting on the fair amount of mindless eating I did and how easy it is to go unconscious around food, even when you work with mindful eating every day! I am a bit of an anxious flyer, so I decided to spend the time in the air writing on what triggers us to overeat or eat when we are not hungry.

It’s time

“Breakfast is the most important meal of the day. You must eat to speed up your metabolism”. It’s lunch time! It’s supper time! Or for many, late nights are a trigger, working late alone or bored and everyone’s asleep!


It has been a long hard stressful week…. the weekend has arrived, it’s Friday, it’s Sunday lunch! Or it’s the holidays… Easter, Christmas, Eid, Hannuka! Birthdays, weddings, funerals, anniversaries, days off… How do you cope with this? Find out here.

Our senses

The food looks good, the recipe or dish sounds delicious, it smells so good!! You can read more about how your hunger is affected by your senses in The 8 Types of Hunger.

Entertainment and distraction

We use food as entertainment or to add to entertainment. Eating whilst reading, watching a movie, watching TV, whilst driving to relieve the boredom, to pass the time, while doing boring admin or whilst studying… Eating distracts us from unpleasant tasks or adds to the entertainment of other activities. Eating then becomes a reward for doing an unpleasant task.


Everyone else is eating – so if we don’t eat, we feel as if we are missing out. Or we decide we are not eating and we get pressure from everyone else at the table… “How can you not eat? Just have something small! You must have something!”

You may have a “junk food friend” always up for French fries or a “sweet friend” you always have cake with or a “gourmet food connoisseur” friend that you experiment with at new trendy restaurants.

The Weather

Cold rainy weather means hot chocolate and pancakes. Warm balmy weather means picnics or drinks and snacks.

Fear of Missing Out

Everyone else is eating so why shouldn’t we eat? It’s unfair! FOMO around food is such a biggie for so many of us. Let’s think about it for a moment… When you eat when you aren’t hungry or when you eat to the point of pain – what exactly are you missing out on? Yes the pizza or the sushi or whatever, but what we are really missing out on is the pain, the discomfort, the guilt and the regret that so often accompanies overeating.

Fear of the “hunger to come”

You aren’t hungry but you have a lot of running around to do or you have to go into a meeting that may drag on and you are scared you will get hungry later…so you grab a banana or eat a sandwich “just in case” you are hungry later… That is the equivalent of filling your car up with fuel at every station on your route in case you need fuel later! For many of us with a history of restriction, diets and deprivation, the possibility of hunger can be very scary. Seriously though, think about it…how far are we from the nearest snack or opportunity to eat?

Physical sensations

We are tired, recovering from flu, feel headachy, feel tension or pain in our bodies – often our immediate response is to turn to food to temporarily soothe the pain away.

Cruella, that critical inner voice

That nasty voice is saying “you shouldn’t, you mustn’t eat…” for every time you say shouldn’t, that inner rebel in you will do just the opposite. If you are beating yourself up for what you didn’t do and what you “shoulda, coulda, woulda” done, chances are you will end up comfort eating… The main principle of Intuitive Eating is “Give yourself unconditional permission to eat what you want”, so the minute you restrict yourself (whether it’s emotional, physical or mental), chances are high you will end up overeating behind your own back – you know like when you don’t sit down to eat the cake – you eat small little pieces standing up because that doesn’t count!

You can read more about taming those critical inner voices, here.

Dieting, Detoxes, Elimination and Restriction

More on why they don’t work, here.

As Geneen Roth says, “for every diet there is it’s equal and opposite binge.” If you have been banting, chances are high that somewhere down the line you will eat an entire baguette in one sitting! Enough said on this topic. You can learn about getting off of the diet roller coaster, here.

Our thoughts

If the thoughts we are thinking make us feel awful, well, the easiest escape from those nasty pesky thoughts is food! Especially if the thoughts are around weight or body size. “Compare and despair” thoughts are the biggest culprit when it comes to non-hunger eating – pay attention to your thoughts and don’t believe them all. If you want to learn more about this, read The 7 Most Common Thoughts That Lead to Overeating.

Money and waste

So often we overeat because we are paying for the food, so we need to get our “money’s worth” or someone else is paying for it, or because the food is free… Think of the money you have spent over the years on dieting, gym memberships and diet programmes – was that not money wasted? We eat to the point of discomfort because we don’t want to waste the food because of the starving children in the world. How exactly are we helping the starving children by overeating? When you eat to beyond a certain point, the food is still wasted. The difference is it’s wasted on your body and not in the bin – why do we treat our bodies like rubbish bins?

“If it’s on your waist or in the waste, it’s still waste.”


The good, the bad and the ugly! We eat for all emotions: boredom, frustration, irritation, loneliness, sadness, vulnerability, uncertainty, depression, anger and stress, to name a few. There are many articles out there on “how to overcome emotional eating” or to end emotional eating. I am not sure it’s possible for everyone. If eating is your thing, it will always be your thing! I like the idea of “legitimising” emotional eating – accepting that it’s a way to cope with difficulty in the same way we take a pill for  headaches – however emotional eating does not need to mean emotional overeating. The ideal approach is to feel the emotion and the difficulty and be with it, but sometimes it is just too damn hard. How do you eat emotionally without overeating? Find out here.

It’s impossible to be a perfect eater. There will be times when we overeat and eat mindlessly. If we are aware of our triggers, it can help prevent some overeating but sometimes it may take you by surprise, like it did with me this weekend!

Whatever you do, the most important thing is to be kind and patient with yourself. Practice fierce compassion! You are not weak because you overeat, just learn from the experience and let go…

Are you tired of overeating and feeling out of control around food? Ready to end the war with your body?

I can help you find peace and freedom around food, eating and your body:


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