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Why Do You Overeat?

There are certainly lots and lots of reasons we overeat. Having some insight into what underlies our behavior is helpful in order to problem-solve how to do better.

Researchers recently did a meta-analysis of 23 studies that looked at the effect of THREE common overeating triggers: alcohol, lack of sleep, and TV.[i]

They found alcohol to have the strongest effect on food consumption, followed by sleep deprivation, and then television-watching. The effect of alcohol was double that of sleep deprivation, which was double the effect of watching TV.

When we drink alcohol, our intentions to "eat well" often go out the window. When we haven’t had enough sleep (whether getting up without a good nights sleep, or staying up past when our body needs rest) we often feel hungry (or mistake being tired for hunger). Watching TV means seeing lots of food ads—while sitting with our hands free—which can lead to evenings of mindless munching.

A complicated mix of hormones and brain chemestry...

It turns out that all three behaviors (although through different pathways) lead to an increase in circulating ghrelin (a hormone that stimulates appetite).  So, there is a biological underpinning behind our diminished resolve when these lifestyle factors are in play. The scenario could be characterized as: biologically unnecessary appetite stimulation paired with a heightened response to environmental food cues, which results in overeating.

The authors of the review study conclude that, "sleep deprivation, alcohol consumption, and television watching promote increases in acute caloric consumption.” The authors further postulate that these lifestyle patterns are not merely correlated with obesity, “but likely contribute to it by encouraging excessive eating."

Obviously not everyone eats in front of the TV, and many people indulge in alcohol only occasionally. Those folks don’t have a problem-to-solve. It’s when these types of habits become a lifestyle that they become important factors in adding and maintaining extra pounds.

Actionable Advice:  If you think you have either of these lifestyle habits going on, then 1) limiting TV time and 2) limiting the number of episodes per week you indulge alcohol, should be obvious goals. Avoiding being sleep-deprived is more complicated, but trying to arrange your schedule to get a full 7- to 8 hours of sleep per night, is a good place to start (or adding a regular nap to make up some of the difference).

Additionally, a not so obvious action to take is to utilize stimulus control. Stimulus control means managing your environment so that you don’t have to rely solely on willpower to eat in a way that supports your healthy weight goals. We know stimulus control works and this new information actually helps explain why. (For more information on stimulus control see the links below.)

All the Best,

Related topics:
Stop Fighting Losing Battles with Food!
What Happens to Your "Good Intentions?"
White Knuckles & Willpower

[i] Am J Clin Nutr doi: 10.3945/ajcn.112.039750

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