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Why Do We Overeat?

By Megrette Fletcher, M.Ed., R.D., C.D.E
By Megrette Fletcher, MEd, RD, CDE, Co-author of Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat with Diabetes

Why Do We Overeat?Food in Mind

Why do people eat past comfortable fullness, eat when they are not hungry, or eat in a mindless way? Eating provides pleasure or a temporary distraction. For example, if you are feeling bored, eating distracts you and gives you something to do for a little while. If you see a big tray of brownies, eating one or two might be pleasurable for a few moments. The pleasure or distraction is initially satisfying, so you eat more than you need, which drives what Michelle May, M.D. , describes as an overeating cycle. Regardless if it is caused by a feeling that gives you pleasure, an experience you would rather avoid or something unpleasant, we will call the desire to eat a trigger.

When are you triggered?

There are conscious or unconscious physical, environmental and emotional triggers. Let’s take a close look at physical cues to eat. Some examples are hunger, changing blood sugar, thirst, fatigue and pain.

In this post, we are going to focus on hunger.

Hunger is a natural and normal feeling that signals the need for fuel. Many people don’t realize that hunger isn’t a static feeling. Unawareness of hunger can cause you to suddenly experience a unpleasant level hunger, which can tempt you to overeat. If this is the case, mindful eating can be very helpful. Checking in with your physical hunger more often is a great way to evaluate how hungry you are. Pause and determine if you are physically hungry. You can do this by asking yourself, “Am I hungry?® ” If you are not sure, you might try to touch your hunger. If you find yourself pointing to a part of the body below the neck, it is likely you are physically hungry. Now ask, “How hungry am I?” You can use the hunger/fullness rating scale to give this feeling a number. If you rate your hunger as a 2, starving, it is likely you will need to eat more food to fill this hunger than if your hunger rates a 4, pangs.

How to solve the feeling of hunger without overeating

diabetes plateTake a moment to look at the Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat with Diabetes Plate. You will see that the foods in the upper right-hand corner contain carbohydrates. These foods will have the greatest impact on your blood sugar. If your hunger is a 2, starving, eating a variety of foods including those which are lower in carbohydrates will help fill your hunger. In the plate diagram, you will see that low-carbohydrate vegetables and protein-containing foods like lean deli meat, low-fat cheese, tuna fish and cottage cheese offer volume and calories without driving up blood sugars. There is also a wonderful list with more ideas on page 214 in Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat with Diabetes. Checking in and asking yourself, “Am I hungry?” is an excellent initial step to identify if the reason why you are eating is hunger. Hunger is a dynamic feeling that is changing all the time so it is a great idea to ask this question before meals and snacks. Use the Mindful Eating Cycle to learn more about your triggers and the Hunger/Fullness rating scale to guide you in this evaluation. Listen to the answer and set the intention to fill this hunger where it is – starving, pangs or even having a taste. When you come to the point of deciding What to eat? Choose a variety of foods, including some of the many foods that are lower in carbohydrates to help you reach a comfortable level of fullness while keeping blood sugar levels in target.

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About the author

Megrette Fletcher is a registered dietitian, certified diabetes educator, author, and co-founder of The Center for Mindful Eating. Megrette is the 2013-2014 president of The Center for Mindful Eating, a non-profit, organization to assist health professionals to explore the concepts of mindful eating. She has written articles for and has been quoted about mindful eating in Diabetes Self Management, Today’s Dietitian, Today’s Social Worker, Bariatric Times, Glamour, Family Circle, The Wall Street Journal, US News and World Report, Women’s Day, and Oxygen Magazine. Megrette currently works as a diabetes educator in Dover, New Hampshire.

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