Are you one of those people who can’t resist the call of a family bag of crisps, a plate of cookies, or a big bowl of pasta, even when you’re not particularly hungry?
Well, you’re not alone. Our relationship with food is often a complex interplay of biology, emotions, and habit.
The science behind hunger
Before we get into the nitty-gritty of overeating, let’s take a moment to understand the basic physiological processes that govern hunger.
Hunger is a primal sensation. It’s our body’s way of signalling that it needs energy and nutrients. Researchers have identified a hormone called ghrelin, often referred to as the ‘hunger hormone,’ that plays a key role in regulating our appetite.
When our stomach is empty, it releases ghrelin, which sends signals to our brain, making us feel hungry. When we’ve had enough, the brain triggers the release of a hormone called leptin – the ‘fullness hormone’ – which signals that we can stop eating.
What about overeating?
But what if you struggle with eating past fullness? What about those times when you know you’ve had enough to keep you going, but just can’t resist that extra bite (or ten)?
Once the foundational biology has been addressed, we’re left with some complex psychological, hormonal, and physiological processes that combine and have us reaching for more food than our bodies strictly need.
The dopamine effect
Eating feels good, right? That’s because when high-reward foods are consumed – like those rich in fat, carbs, or sugar – it triggers a release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that makes you feel happy and satisfied.
The more we eat these types of food (and get the dopamine hit), the more we want them. Our brain commits the experience to memory and associates it with pleasure. This creates a reinforcing loop that makes reaching for high-reward foods a habit.
When we’re physically hungry, we might have a craving for a specific food; but our hunger can be quelled by any substantial, nourishing food. ‘Emotional hunger’, on the other hand, is often a specific craving for comfort foods high in sugar, fat, or both. And even if we eat a square meal, that craving can stick around until we get the food we’re hankering after.
‘Emotional eating’ is often rooted in our desire to avoid or numb difficult emotions. Think back to that dopamine hit, which can feel great if we’re struggling psychologically. We feel rubbish, so we eat a packet of biscuits, get a dopamine rush, and feel better (for a couple of minutes). The more we eat like this as a way of coping with difficult emotions, the more engrained the habit becomes.
We don’t want to go too far out of our lane here (that’s what your therapist is for) but unpicking this cycle starts with finding different ways of dealing with those difficult emotions. Often, that means ‘sitting with the emotion’ – essentially recognising that we feel rubbish, and letting ourselves feel that without trying to avoid or numb it.
A simple (but not easy) way to overcome the emotional habit loop is to pause before reaching for more food. We’re not denying ourselves the food – we’re just increasing the space between the stimulus (feeling rubbish) and the reaction (overeating). We need to build the muscle of pausing and reflecting through repetition. Even if we do end up overeating, we’ll strengthen our ability to control our response to difficult mental states, instead of being controlled by them.
We all know about the hormone cortisol – the ‘stress hormone’ – which is released when we’re under pressure. Numerous studies have linked the presence of cortisol to increased appetite and a preference for high-calorie comfort foods.
Cortisol is a double threat when it comes to overeating: stress influences the hormone insulin, which regulates blood sugar levels. When cortisol levels rise, they can contribute to insulin resistance, a condition where the body’s cells don’t respond effectively to insulin. As a result, we tend to feel hungrier and crave foods high in carbs and sugar.
Lastly, prolonged or chronic stress can lead to an increase in ghrelin levels and a decrease in leptin sensitivity. This means that we feel hungry more easily – and that it takes more food for us to feel full.
Predictably, the solution is to be as zen as possible (not always an easy task in today’s fast-paced world, we know). But exercise is a great way to reduce stress and helps burn calories too, so it’s a win win.
Many of us have fallen prey to yo-yo dieting: going through phases of eating very little, or eating a restricted amount or type of food, only to lapse and overeat. And then the cycle starts again.
Also known as ‘weight cycling’ or the ‘restrict-binge cycle’, this process can feel like a result of low willpower. But it’s actually caused by a complex cascade of biological and psychological triggers.
On a biological level, food restriction increases levels of ghrelin, triggering cravings and feelings of hunger. This hormonal response drives us to high-calorie, high-reward foods to satiate our hunger.
On a psychological level, severely restricting our food intake makes us feel deprived (like we’re not ‘allowed’ to eat, or that certain foods are ‘forbidden’). And the best way to get a human to fixate on something? Tell them they’re not allowed it.
So what happens? Studies show that we fixate on the foods we’ve told ourselves we can’t eat, getting more and more preoccupied with food. And that leads to – you guessed it – more overeating as a response.
This is why extreme dieting is usually unsustainable, leading us to overeat after a period of restriction, fuelling the restrict-binge cycle and constantly gaining and losing weight. Even someone with higher-than-average willpower can’t white-knuckle their way past biology. When the body needs to eat, it will do everything it can to motivate eating.
The Foundry approach to nutrition
This is why at Foundry, we recommend a sustainable approach to nutrition – less about ‘dieting’ and more about a balanced, varied approach to food. If you constantly feel starving, you’re not eating enough – or not enough of the right things.
Don’t deny yourself any particular food groups. Rather than taking ‘unhealthy’ things away, add something healthy in. Make every plate a rainbow. Reward yourself with time to shop, and to cook yourself something that’s really nourishing for your body. And if you’re super short on time, you can always enlist a food prep service like Foundry trusted partner The Good Prep to do the work for you (even better, all Foundry members get 10% off).
Building a healthy relationship with food won’t happen overnight – especially for those of us that have been on rocky terms with dieting in the past. But with consistency, reflection, and a focus on sustainability and longevity, it can be done.
At Foundry, we believe that the journey to health and wellness is easier to navigate with support from experts. You can learn more about our simple but powerful approach here.
Ready to make a change?
At Foundry, our Small Group Personal Training is designed specifically for busy people who want to prioritise their wellbeing.
Our fun, inclusive sessions are tailored to each participant, so they’re great for beginners. And they’re one piece of our simple but powerful approach to building wellbeing.
We know that joining a gym can feel like a big commitment, so we offer our 21-Day Challenge to let you come along and try us out for a few weeks, no strings attached.
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