Why Do We Overeat?

Over-eating has become the cultural norm in the United States.  Many have explored this trend to determine how our eating has evolved to the point 40% of adults and 19% of kids are obese as reported by the CDC.  This alarming trend does not show signs of slowing down.

Cultural Shifts in Eating Patterns

In a 2018 article by Eliza Barclay, Julia Belluz, and Javier Zarracina, examine the history American eating trends from the 1950s – 2018.  They compare serving sizes over the last 60 years and find that on average, how much we eat in a given setting has quadrupled, especially in restaurants.   Other trends include:  eating out much more than cooking at home, drinking colas and other sugary beverages, ingesting processed foods with ingredients we cannot pronounce, the significant expense of healthy foods (not to mention those who live in food desserts who have limited access to fresh fruits and vegetables), and the large amounts of salt and sugar being added to processed foods and meals we consume in restaurants.

All of this has contributed to American weight gain, health issues such as heart disease, stroke, certain types of cancer, and diabetes to name a few.  Increased weight gain impacts one’s mental health as well.  People report having higher rates of body image issues, shame, and internalized negative messages about weight struggles.

It is Not Your Fault

Self-blame is often self-destructive and can contribute to feelings of depression and hopelessness about losing weight.  Scott Kahan, the Director of the National Center for Weight and Wellness suggests that our food environment is a strong predictor of how we eat.  Anyone who has ever attempted to lose weight before knows that having junk food around makes it that much more difficult to walk away from it.  Not only are we all subjected to creative ad campaigns that center junk food in the media we consume, but we often have little control in what manufacturers put in the foods we eat.

Emotional Eating

There are many reasons we eat that do not actually include being hungry.  We eat to be social with friends and family, we sometimes reward ourselves with food, we eat when we are bored, sad, angry, and distressed, and we also eat to cope with life’s challenges.  It is not uncommon for people to stress-eat.  Eating becomes an effective coping mechanism to deal with negative feelings and stressful circumstances and it can be difficult to break these patterns.  Additionally, our family and peers influence our eating habits, so if you are hanging out with peers who do not eat healthy, you may be easily influenced to eat unhealthily as well.

Eating with Awareness and Intention

One way to combat emotional eating is to be mindful about what you are eating, why you are eating, and when you are eating.  Examine your eating habits and see if you find unhealthy patterns.  If you find particular patterns, begin to eat more mindfully.  Listen to when your body is hungry instead of eating without awareness.  Meal planning can also be helpful in resisting grabbing food to go.  Changing eating habits takes time and patience but most people find that when they are able to eat better, they begin to feel better physically and emotionally.

Food Injustice

Finally, access to food, and healthy food in particular should be a right for all, but sadly eating healthy is often tied to one’s ability to afford healthy foods, living in neighborhoods where healthy foods are available, and knowing what healthy foods are.  Many people also struggle with food insecurity which means that they are not confident in knowing where their next meal is coming from.  The COVID-19 pandemic has increased food insecurity significantly.  Food pantries around the country continue to struggle to meet the demand to provide food for those who need it.

About Dr. Katherine Helm

Katherine is a Chicagoland native, professor, and psychologist who enthusiastically wants to help people have strong mental health and healthy, fulfilling relationships. Katherine is a licensed psychologist with over 24 years of experience working with adolescents, adults, couples and groups in multiple clinical settings including college counseling, psychiatric hospitals, community mental health, and private practice. She has authored multiple books on working with couples, sex education for high school and college students, and mental health issues in the African American community. Currently, she is the Director of a Clinical Mental Health Graduate Programs for Lewis University. You can learn more about her areas of expertise at: drkhelmconsulting.com

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