Before I got into personal training I worked as a retoucher/post artist .
I was working on campaigns for the big names in the industry and it’s still a common belief that many models have some kind of eating disorder or disturbed relationship with food.
I’m not disregarding the fact that there probably is a problem and many models suffer from the constant pressure of attention with their body image. However, I’ve actually met more people who are involved with fitness who are having some kind of eating disorder, than I’ve met models who were dealing with a screwed relationship with food.
I was curious to know why this might be the case…
Before I dive deeper into the topic, I just want to make one thing clear. By no means do I take this topic lightly, I know a lot of people who are dealing with severe binge/restrict cycles in which they’re fasting for days only to end up eating thousands of calories in one sitting to then feeling bad about it and go through the whole process again.
Why do people overeat?
This is the magic question, right?
There are actually many reasons for it and if someone had the One Magic Pill for people not to overeat, he’d probably make a lot of money. To be fair, there are some medications that do address this problem but most of them come with nasty side effects and shouldn’t even be considered by the vast majority of people…
…which is also one of the reasons why I’m not naming these. If you’re reading this article you most likely want to take care of overeating yourself, you have clients/friends you want to help out or you’re simply interested in the topic. Not only would it be irresponsible but additionally to that, I don’t think that it would be any help because it doesn’t address the underlying problem:
> The drive to overeat in the first place.
When I talk about overeating I’m not referring to people “bulking“, “gaining” or cultivating muscle mass.
I’m more so talking about an undesired and uncontrolled overconsumption of macros on a single day.
This can not only be extremely frustrating in terms of your progress, diet, training, etc. but can also cause some serious mental issues.
Basically, reasons for overeating are some of the following:
- Behavioural (Habits/Food reward, etc)
- Too much activity
Without further ado, let’s dive deeper into the reasons “why” and take a closer look at the single factors.
When I was fairly young, I used to only listen to HipHop whilst my best mate was into metal.
This also showed in the way we dressed, talked and in general what we’ve liked. Whenever we were hanging out together, he put on some music which was followed by me complaining about it. After months and months, I slowly discovered that I started to like the music and my overall behaviour and appearance changed with it.
Perhaps you remember a situation in which your environment caused for you to make a permanent change? It doesn’t necessarily have to be positive/negative. How, where, with whom we grow up plays as much of a role as your current interests and environment you’re in. This has mostly to do with the survivability response of the human body. Without you realising it, many decisions we make are rational decisions by your brain to seek an optimal adaptation in case to increase the chances of reproduction and survival.
Ie. when everyone around you is fat AF, listening to techno and are into monster truck shows, the likelihood of you getting laid when you’re a skinny hipster, playing in an emo band with the only interest in making the best latte art is next to zero.
What does this have to do with overeating?
Now we know that many of our decisions are dictated by our subconscious behaviour and drive to survive. When it comes to nutrition there are some common situations that increase the chance of you overeating. Especially social events in which food plays a major role, such as:
- Family dinner
- All-You-Can-Eat buffets
At such occasions, it’s widely accepted and nearly expected of you to overeat; say farewell to the goal of intuitive eating. Studies have shown that people don’t get fat over a couple of weeks but that this happens over years of overeating on particular events throughout the year. Most of the gen pop aren’t tracking macros and do actually intuitively eat. However, when those people eat additional thousands of calories over a couple of days throughout the year, this accumulates over time and leads to them gaining a couple of kg over the years.
When it comes to dealing with social events, planning ahead can be a game changer for you. When you know that you’re most likely going to consume more calories than you would like, planning ahead of time is what you’ll want to do. Saving up some macros throughout the week will give you a couple of hundreds of calories to play with.
The longer time you have, the better and less invasive you can be. Also, the likelihood of making poor choices is much reduced when you’ve laid out a plan that you fall back to, especially when you’ve already prepared some food in advance.
Studies have shown that people easily tend to consume up to 40% more calories at a social get together. Now, take a second and think about if that happened to you as well in the past…it sure happened to me. Sitting in an Italian restaurant and they’re serving that extremely delicious bread, well noted “only as a snack”, together with some olive oil…
…was I hungry?
…Did I eat more that I knew my macros allowed to?
…you bet I did!
When you know where you’re going to eat out at, there are a couple of things you can do.
If you’re interested in having a rock solid strategy at hand when it comes to estimating macros, go and read our “Definitive Guide to estimating macros”
As much as I like flexibility, in certain situations a more rigid and strict approach might be more appropriate.
Generally speaking, the easier accessible a food is, the more likely it is that we’re going to eat it. There are certain types of foods, which are so highly palatable for different individuals that the willpower to resist is not as great as the force to eat them.
Let’s say you love Ben & Jerries…
Every time you have Ben & Jerries in your Kitchen, you’re going to eat it, no matter if you’ve had dinner already or if it does/doesn’t fit into your macros for that day. You’re not hungry, but simply you knowing that there’s a pint sitting in your freezer is enough to make you want to eat it.
An interesting study in this regard was published in 1992 by Eric Robinson’s group. The goal of this study was to test a new food dispensing device that was designed to accurately measure food intake in humans and this was basically a giant vending machine full of a variety of different types of foods, many of which were calorie dense and highly palatable. Subjects were placed in a research setting where they had free access to these vending machines and to any of these foods for seven days. What the researchers noted is that these people immediately began eating a much larger number of calories, exceeding their normal calorie requirements by over 50% and over the course of seven days gained approximately five pounds of weight.
Now, I think that this study is a really good representation of why people tend to overeat when given the opportunity. So, if you simply can’t control yourself with certain foods, having them at home might not be the best idea. You can go down this approach and see what works for you and if you see, that none of these methods works for you in regards to overeating on one particular food, then avoiding it all along might be the best option.
Ie. for example put it in the back of the fridge, in the basement or somewhere where you’ll need to put in some work and effort to actually get it. You’ll be surprised by how much this can lessen your craving.
When you’d need to go to the next convenient store in the middle of the night to get a pint of ice cream instead of only a few steps to your freezer, the rational and unconscious decision of your brain will probably pick the less complicated and energy demanding choice.
So, don’t let your environment dictate your diet but be the one in control.
Plan ahead if you need to.
Habits & Behaviour
I’m a robot…
Steve’s a robot…
…and perhaps, you’re a robot too!
But are those robotic actions of yours beneficial in terms of your eating behaviour?
Subconscious decisions by your brain to store energy can play to our advantage but they can also play against our odds. It ‘decides’ to eat based on a variety of internal and external factors.
You probably know the type of person who goes to the cinema and buys a bag of popcorn. Probably, they aren’t buying this bag because they’re hungry but more likely because it’s ingrained in them. They are connecting one action with a certain behaviour. The same applies to people who smoke. Many of them smoke in certain type of situations, for example, whenever this person is stressed, quick break for a cigarette.
So, in regards to overeating, perhaps you’re overeating due to one particular trigger in that given situation or only under certain circumstances. An approach you can do to getting rid of this “ritual” is the following:
- Realise what might be the trigger (Environment, scenario, food, etc)
- Make a choice
- Exchange one habit with another
- Get used to it
- Slowly dissipate that new habit over time
It’s so much easier replacing one habit with another instead of trying to overcome the craving with pure willpower because there will come a time, in which there’s no willpower left. Replacing one habit with another will keep your mind occupied and thus take it away from the focus on food. For example, the next time you’re about to binge, go out for a 30 minute walk or brush your teeth or perhaps you can make really good use of it in terms of productivity and work.
“Every time I’m about to binge I’m going to read 10 pages in a book”
There’s no limit to your creativity.
Stop glorifying Refeeds!
The same applies to the so-called “Cheat meals/days”.
For many people, it becomes a ritual to massively overeat on the weekends without any kind of rational. It’s not always because they’ve restricted themselves much during the week but sometimes it simply becomes a habit of “It’s weekend, it’s cheating” without it being absolutely necessary for their diet fatigue or a social event.
You’re absolutely disciplined for 5-6 days…putting in so much time, work and effort into creating that sweet deficit and then, with no real need for it, you’re throwing in that irrational and uncontrolled day of cheating. You’re cheating yourself, all it really does is slow down your progress and prolongs the time in which you’re cutting.
I know a lot of people who are living for the next refeed/cheat day. All they can think of throughout the week is what to eat on that given day and how to set it up. It’s like the bodybuilding competitor who’s only thinking about the time post show and not actually about the contest prep itself.
So try not to glorify “Cheat Day”…I hate that term anyway. To me, that implies one day of uncontrollably stuffing your face with all the junk you possibly can find. This can not only eliminate your deficit but potentially lead to a serious eating disorder. When I prescribe higher caloric intakes, I prefer the term “refeed”, which is a controlled increase of calories to maintenance or slightly above.
The emphasis here is on “controlled”.
I’d recommend you to plan the refeeds around social events in which you’ll need a bit more flexibility or on/prior to your most intense training session.
Dieting wrecks your results
“For sustainable results you need a sustainable approach”
In times in which people are looking for short-term gratification, crash diets and rapid approaches became quite popular. Most of them do work, simply because of the law of thermodynamics but only for a temporary amount of time.
Usually, the faster you drive the higher the risk of you crashing or running out of gas. A “Protein-Modified Sparing Fast” works but is extremely hard to sustain and probably not the best when you’re overly obese. The body doesn’t know that you only want that six-pack for your next beach holiday, all it senses is a massive caloric deficit and it needs to press the “emergency button” immediately.
Most of the time this response of the body is simply to secure your survival during a time of extreme calorie deprivation. The longer you’re in that restricted state, the more extreme the symptoms become, such as hunger and food focus which most of the time ends up in a massive binge.
For this, there are some fundamental things you want to keep in mind:
- Set a goal and plan your caloric intake accordingly
- Avoid cheat days
- Make sure to keep fibre high
- Decrease highly palatable foods
- Don’t be too restrictive
- Experiment with different approaches
Basically, you want to lose as much weight as possible while keeping your performance at the gym and being able to stick to your diet. Listen to THIS Podcast with Martin MacDonald in which he talks about why and how!
Check the boxes
Many diets fail, not because of a lack of understanding but because a few simple rules are not taken into consideration and you’re not getting the satisfaction and satiation out of a meal as you possibly could. There are some simple and easy things you can implement to make sure that you’re actually feeling full for longer or not consuming too many calories in one sitting.
- Eat slowly
- Drink 1-2 glasses of water pre-meal (bubbly water has a greater effect on satiety)
- Chew for longer
- Have sufficient amount of proteins & fats in a meal
- Make sure to eat plenty of fibre (eat your damn veggies!)
- Either have not so tasty meals or make use of herbs/spices
- Make your meals voluminous rather than calorie dense
If you implement all of these, overeating in one sitting is most likely not going to happen. But, if it still is, let’s move on and see if the next points do help you instead.
Your approach isn’t sustainable
Fundamentally, how a diet will look like depends on a lot of different factors, such as personal preferences, environment, etc. But one thing that is mandatory is that it’s an approach that is sustainable. Not just in terms of your caloric deficit but I’m more so speaking of the whole setup like meal frequency, food choices and much more.
The most successful diet is the one you can stick to.
If you find yourself struggling with hunger, perhaps find ways to implement more fibrous and voluminous foods. Or if you find yourself not being hungry in the morning, however, you seem to be starving in the evening, play with your meal size and frequency. There’s no one size fits all and in the end, even though it might not look perfect on paper when a particular way of eating allows you to stick to the fundamental things of dieting, then perhaps, this might be the best approach for you.
So, generally speaking, the harder you go to an extremist approach, the higher the chance of you failing.
Restrict certain food groups > Ends up binging on them
Running an extreme deficit > Overeating due to hunger
Be severely flexible > Failing due to lack of needed discipline
You want to be treated like an adult?
Then eat like one!
Forget about cheat meals, fancy sounding diets and be mature when it comes to making dietary choices.
Mindful vs mindless eating!
Calm down…you’re moving too much
You’ve probably heard the phrase “Eat less, move more”…
…well, while it sounds fancy and so “wise” it’s not what I’d recommend for the majority of people.
Increasing your activity is fine when you’re quite sedentary to begin with. There’s nothing wrong with 1-2 cardio sessions a week and probably many people would do themselves a favour in moving a bit more. However, some people, as so often, take it a bit too far.
Let’s focus on cardio first.
I see so many people who’re doing lots and lots of cardio only to then be able to eat some more. The problem is, the calories burned from doing cardio are most of the time extremely overestimated. Only because your Fitbit or the stationary bike shows that you’ve burned 400kcal doesn’t mean that you’ve actually burned 400kcal.
First off, it’s only a calculator that spits out a number based on different formulas. Secondly, it gives you the gross value of calories burned which basically means that it shows you your total calories burned and not the net number. You’d be expending energy even though you wouldn’t do cardio in that given situation and still it is added on the expenditure of your device.
So when you finish a cardio session that said that you’ve burned 400kcal, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you can get away with eating 400kcal and be at balance. Also, it doesn’t take the adaptations into account. The more often you repeat the same exercise, the more efficient your body gets and the less total calories you end up burning. Do you remember the first time you’ve run a longer distance? You’ve probably felt exhausted afterwards, however, after just a couple of weeks of doing the same distance, it felt like nothing.
Say hello to the adaptive abilities of your body.
Besides cardio, I see some people who are simply beginning to be too active with all their activities because they’ve heard about the impact NEAT can have on your energy expenditure. They’re chasing to be extremely active on a daily basis or they automatically are anyway due to their occupations. Combine that with a severe deficit and the risk of your body screaming for nutrients is increasing exponentially.
Just go on a hiking trip and don’t tell me how ravenously hungry you’ll get the following days. Your energy output was probably so extremely high, that the deficit was unexpectedly high.
When dieting, you actually want your body to be as inefficient as possible to burn the most amount of calories with the least amount of work. Cardio and NEAT can be powerful tools in regards to your energy expenditure. But be cautious and only make use of them when necessary and only use them with for a particular purpose and not to justify you overeating.
The boogeyman of dieting: your mind
Your mentality and mindset are huge and the entire article could probably be filled up with only getting into the nitty-gritty things about their role. However, I’ll try to make it short.
Or perhaps, I shouldn’t?
Because, when you’re busy you’re taking your mind off of food or potentially eating in general.
We all know that situation. We aren’t really hungry but well, you know…
Stop right there! Before you go to the fridge and check what’s in store, take these steps first:
- Ask yourself “ am I hungry?”
- Keep yourself busy for 20-30 minutes
- If you’re then truly hungry, go ahead and eat something.
When you become bored you’re making rash and emotional decisions. Make use of that time and wrap your head around other things because otherwise, you’ll constantly think about that delicious Pizza.
Everything leads to the “Vicious Cycle”
You are your own worst enemy when it comes to dieting and especially overeating.
Nearly all the named points above can be a part of the most vicious cycle of overeating:
The “Fuck it” approach:
Unfortunately, you’ve overeaten by a couple of hundred calories but most of the time it doesn’t stop there, simply because you’re thinking that “okay, I’ve done some damage already…so fuck it, who cares if I’m going to eat additional calories”. In the end, though, you’ll be the one who cares, at least the next day.
You’re currently dieting and looking at yourself in the mirror. Either you think “wow, I’m looking lean” or “man…I’m tiny AF”. However, most of the time, both result in the same outcome of you justifying eating a big meal afterwards.
You love bread but thanks to G. Taubes you’ve heard that carbs are the devil so you actually throw them out of your vocabulary. One day passes…. the second day as well…third day; full on binge on bread. You swear, that from tomorrow on you’ll eventually get rid of bread all along.
I could probably come up with dozens of other scenarios but you’ll get the idea.
With you putting the “good/bad” stamp on certain foods, being judgemental about yourself, rationalising and justifying certain behaviours you’ll only put yourself in a vicious binge/repeat cycle which gets worse and worse over time with you eventually ending up with a severe eating disorder.
You fail > then feel bad and judge yourself > being more restrictive the next day > which then again leads to the whole process starting all over again with the only difference that you’re taking more extreme approaches every single time.
Take one step back and start reframing. How, why, when did this happen?
It’s absolutely okay to not being on track 100% of the time.
You’re NOT a bad person and you’re NOT a failure.
No one is perfect!
Accept the fact that you fell off the waggon and set three big XXX behind what happened. Look ahead and get back on track with a sustainable and realistic approach.
Putting it all together
I know, this was a lot to swallow (pun intended) but I think that you can get many helpful bits and pieces out of it that eventually help you or your client getting rid of overeating altogether.
Basically, it comes down to this:
- Don’t let your environment dictate your decisions
- Plan ahead and have a plan B at hand
- Choose and find a sustainable approach, even if that means dieting for longer
- Building good habits and rituals can be powerful tools for a successful diet
- Eat like an adult and keep in mind: Mindful over mindless eating
- Do not compensate overeating with cardio and avoid being too active
- When you fall off the waggon, be rational and don’t fall into the binge/restrict cycle
Overeating is more common than you might think.
You’re definitely not alone and if you need any help, there are many out there who were in the same situation as you or your client. I hope this article helps in overcoming some of the issues that go along with frequent overeating and feel free to get in touch with us if you need any kind of help or more information.
Join our free facebook group or add us on snapchat (revivestronger) and ask your question there, I will respond asap. Or if you’re after a fresh training programme we have a free 4 week plan using DUP that you can download for free here.
One more thing…
Do you have a friend who would love the above?
Share this article with them and let me know what they think.
For a really in-depth view on why people overeat, Stephan Guyenets book “The hungry brain” is a fantastic resource. But let me give you my point of view.
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