Three Ways Your Brain Drives You to Overeat
Updated: May 29, 2018
Binge eating and overeating are complicated and simple all at once.
The complexity comes from being the product of disordered eating and how that plays into the stories we tell ourselves about it and the emotions we have about it. The complexity is in the personal-ness of it.
The simplicity, however, is in the un-personal-ness of it. The simplicity is in the fact that our brains have jobs to do, and they're doing them. Your disordered eating and complex relationship with food is not about you; it's your brain doing what brains do, with the ultimate goal of ensuring your survival.
Here are 3 reasons your overeating has nothing to do with you.
1. You’re not eating enough and physiologically need more calories and/or nutrients. This is the most common reason people find themselves caught in a disordered eating cycle. You think you’re eating enough because you're factoring in your overeating, but by skipping meals and calling a yogurt breakfast you're actually telling your body that you’re in survival mode. Every time you limit and restrict your food intake to make up for a binge, or to try to lose weight, your brain is assuming there's a threat to your survival and is adjusting the hormone leptin, which encourages you to eat more, and limits your feelings of satiety. When your brain is in survival mode, you'll always be driven to eat more.
2. Your brain is highly susceptible to the stimulating effects of modern food. Our brains have adapted over millions of years to seek food that will help us survive, and those are the foods which are dense and rich in energy. When we find foods like that, they're imprinted in our brain so that we know where and how to find them again. It's no wonder your brain says yes yes yes whenever you see something you know you like. And the fact that those kinds of foods surround us each and every day creates a challenge that our brains are not designed to deal with. Your brain's instincts say yes, but these instincts can no longer be trusted. And as with susceptibility to any stimulant or pleasure-inducing experience, everyone falls somewhere different along the line. If you find yourself unable to stop eating modern processed foods, your brain could quite likely be high on the susceptibility scale which means that what started as a quest for survival is now actually working to your detriment.
3. Overeating has become your strongest habit, much like biting you nails, only this habit has a juicy reward for complying. If the foods you overeat come from the same location, the same way, and are part of a routine, there's a good chance your brain has delegated these actions to the lower part of the brain- the one that holds, maintains, and strengthens habits. Doing anything over and over again in the same way, or from the same cues (think grabbing a treat while you stop in at the cafe for a coffee), will eventually be pushed back into the part of your brain that functions mostly unconsciously. That's how we manage driving while deep in a conversation, or our morning routine while we're still half asleep, or the pesky habits like picking our fingernails while we watch TV. We do these without conscious thought, and if eating what and when you do has become a habit in your brain's attempt to conserve energy, then there's conscious work to be done to undo the habit.
The fact is, each of these reasons is rooted in what it means to be human. Our quest for survival demands we eat enough, especially when it senses lack. Our desire for rich foods as the highest priority is getting us into trouble as we navigate a modern food landscape. And the natural desire of our brain to conserve energy by pushing tasks back to a more unconscious part of the brain could be maintaining your habit of overeating.
Binge eating and overeating are not character flaws. Rather, they're a sign of a brain doing everything it's designed to do. And for that we can be compassionate and thankful. And from that we find a place to begin the work of overcoming overeating.