What You Can Learn From Overeating

Apr 19, 2018

Earlier this week I bought, opened, and finished a full-size bag of Zapp’s Voodoo flavor potato chips all on the same day. While I didn’t eat the chips in one fell swoop (it was two fell swoops, actually), I would definitely classify that volume of chips in a regular day as overeating for me.

The chips were so delicious that before long I noticed I was getting pretty close to the bottom of the bag. I wasn’t particularly hungry anymore and I considered stopping, but I decided not to. Even though I finished the bag, I didn’t go into a shame spiral. That’s because I’ve spent a lot of time working on my relationship with food, and I know that there is a lot you can learn from overeating.

Shohreh is holding a bag of Zapp's voodoo flavor potato chips in front of her face, covering her from the nose down, while she contemplates what she can learn from overeating

How We React To Overeating Is More Important Than The Overeating Itself

When we overeat or binge on food it can feel all-consuming both during and after. We are centered on eating the food until the food is gone. Then, once it’s gone and we realize why it’s gone, we usually become centered on how awful we feel, both physically and mentally.

This can lead to:

  • Beating ourselves up with negative self-talk and allowing ourselves to drown in guilt or shame;
  • Calculating out the calories or macros of what we ate in despair;
  • Restricting our food intake the day after to “balance out” what we ate; or
  • Punishing ourselves with exercise to “burn off” the offending food.

There was once a time when I would have done all of the above at the first sign of overeating, but I’ve come a long way from the shaming and blaming food experiences of my past.

The truth is, our reaction to overeating matters more than the overeating itself. We all overeat sometimes! The key is to shift your thinking about overeating away from it being a shameful secret and toward it being an opportunity to learn more about your behaviors.

Every time we overeat we are giving ourselves the gift of data that we can get curious about and learn from in a nonjudgmental way.

Approach Your Overeating With Curiosity And Self-Compassion

Understandably, when you’re knee deep in cheese or cupcakes it can be difficult to imagine what lessons might be hidden in the aftermath and empty wrappers. However, if every time you ate too much you viewed the experience as a learning opportunity instead of a failure, over time you would overeat less often, and you also would also discover a lot about yourself and your relationship with food in the process.

Remember – your body is incredibly smart. You’re not overeating as a way or torturing yourself. You’re doing so because it’s serving you in some way, and doing some investigating can help you figure out how.

The next time you find yourself overeating, try some of these practices and see how it changes the experience for you*:

1. Slow down. The out-of-control nature of overeating comes from going on autopilot and eating the food as quickly as possible without really feeling or tasting any of it. Slowing down, even just a little bit at first, can make for a very different experience. Try to chew more slowly and put your utensils or the piece of food down in between bites. Focus on the sensation of the food on your tongue, trying to truly taste it and enjoy it.

2. Check in with yourself. Bring awareness to an overeating episode by continuing to check in with yourself while you’re eating. How do you physically feel? What is your mental state? Are you meeting a physical hunger or a different kind of hunger? Have your reached fullness? Does the food taste as good as you thought it would? Maybe even take notes or write about what you’re experiencing in a journal.

A woman staring out the window while journaling about what she had learned from overeating and holding a pencil

3. Be self-compassionate. After you have recognized that you’re experiencing an episode of overeating, be kind and gentle with yourself. Try to redirect negative self-talk to self-talk that is more neutral or positive.

If you find yourself thinking something like, “I am such an idiot. I can’t believe I ate that entire cake. I’m a failure,” you might redirect your thoughts to something like, “While I’m upset with myself for eating the cake, I know that eating the cake served a purpose for me, and what I eat does not determine my intelligence or self-worth.”

Further, don’t punish yourself after the fact by restricting food or forcing yourself to exercise as punishment. Responding to overeating with restriction and food rules will only lead to more overeating.

4. Be the scientist and gather data. The best time to gather information about what triggers overeating for you is while you’re overeating. Sounds crazy, right? Treat the behavior as an opportunity to think about how you were feeling before, during, and after you overate. Some things you might think about include:

  • What was going on around you?
  • Were you experiencing any heightened emotions?
  • Were you experiencing any particular physical sensations?
  • How much did you eat before the overeating incident?
  • Were you satisfied by the foods you ate before the overeating incident?
  • How much did you move that day?

Over time you will be able to spot patterns, which may help you think of changes you could make to lessen the impact of the next overeating episode.

*Please note that these steps are intended to help those whose overeating behavior does not amount to a psychological disorder such as binge eating disorder or bulimia, both of which are conditions that require treatment by medical and mental health professionals. If you think you might have an eating disorder, there is help available.

Your Mind And Body Can Be Great Teachers If You’re Willing To Listen

While overeating can easily make you feel powerless, utilizing the above strategies will help you reconnect with your body and feel more in your power. Our bodies are incredibly wise, and when we strengthen the connection between our mind and body we can learn a lot.

Don’t worry if you try some of these tactics and they don’t feel like a slam dunk at first. If you consistently use these tools to learn from your overeating, it will start to feel a lot less scary over time. And if you’re still feeling a disconnect, reach out! I coach women every day on how to intuitively tune back into their bodies in order to more fully discover their wants and needs around food, exercise, and more.

Woman with purple hair eating sour gummy candies from a bowl

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