Nutrition-wise blog

Overeating — What causes it?

By Jennifer K. Nelson, R.D., L.D. and Katherine Zeratsky, R.D., L.D. May 30, 2009

It may seem obvious, but it's worth saying that we eat for many reasons — hunger and appetite, of course — but also to celebrate, to be social, to soothe and to relieve boredom. To prevent overeating and weight gain, we first have to understand what drives us to eat.

Hunger: The physical sensation that you need to eat
Think about the rumbling in your stomach. That's a physical sensation. Numerous studies have looked at how hormones initiate and end eating — playing a major role in determining body weight. These include ghrelin, which seems to trigger hunger, and leptin, which reduces it. The physical sensation of hunger — or its absence — is tied to these hormones. The time of day, timing of meals, emotions such as stress or contentment, and even the types of foods you eat all affect these hormones.

Appetite: The desire to eat
"Oh that looks good enough to eat!" You get the picture. Problems with appetite regulation can be mild and contribute to gradual changes in weight — or they can be severe such as anorexia and bulimia. Appetite problems may be caused by disease, medications or even psychological issues.

Satiety: The condition of physically feeling full
Say it with me now, "I couldn't eat another bite." Research has shown that feeling full turns off hunger and appetite. You can feel fuller longer by eating solids over liquids, not skipping meals, choosing high-volume and low-calorie foods (vegetables and fruit), and substituting whole grains for refined grain products. The answer is still out, however, on whether individual diets — for instance high versus low carb or protein or fat — offer an advantage when it comes to satiety.

"Mindless" eating: Eating in response to factors other than those above
This is a term coined for all of the other reasons that we eat. Do you fall prey to mindless eating? Have you noticed that when you order a super-size meal you typically eat all of it? Do certain situations, such as watching TV or talking on the phone, trigger overeating?

Yes, the reasons we eat are complex. Given the epidemic of obesity in this country, it's obvious that overeating is a significant problem. It's critical to find ways to turn down hunger, normalize our desire for food, feel full and satisfied, and deal with the situations that trigger us to mindlessly eat.

What are your thoughts about this? What triggers overeating for you? Better yet, share what works for you when it comes to controlling what you eat.


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May 30, 2009