Overeating is Human—Here’s How to Reframe the Experience

Photo: Stocksy/Juan Moyano
Picture this: You’re out at a meal where the food is delicious and you can’t help yourself from all but licking the plate clean. Or, you’re feeling low and turn to cookies as a short-term salve. Or, you simply feel like you’ve overeaten, your belly and brain bloated with regrets about finishing your partner’s fries. We’ve all been there. Overeating is human.

And while eating past the point of comfortable fullness leaves nobody feeling like their best self, it’s also not a serious offense. (Not to mention if you have access to enough food to overeat, you should probably count yourself lucky.)

Experts In This Article

However, how you talk to yourself after overeating may be even more important for your health than the food you just consumed. This is the reframe I encourage as a registered dietitian.

First things first, know what’s what

Since there’s no definition of "overeating," it can be challenging to identify if you’ve truly eaten more than your body needed to feel satisfied.

One person’s idea of overeating may be three slices of pizza. Another's may be three full pizzas. It’s all relative.

We’ll consider it a case of overeating if you’ve finished a meal in physical discomfort from too much food. You may feel pressure building in your belly or a need to unbutton your pants for a breather. Or perhaps you still feel full many hours after eating. In more severe cases, overeating may cause abdominal pain or even nausea.

(Of course, there are other reasons why you may feel physical discomfort after a meal, such as eating foods that cause severe bloating, like certain FODMAPs for those with irritable bowel syndrome or IBS.

Here's the 411 on FODMAPs if you're unfamiliar:

True binge eating, which is in part characterized by eating very large quantities of food, very rapidly, and often when alone, is also different from the type of overeating I’m referring to here.

Also, there’s a difference between feeling like you overate—say, because you ate something that usually feels "off-limits" to you—and genuinely overeating to the point of physical discomfort.

Let’s chat more about the latter.

Overeating is human—here's what to do after

So you overate (for real) and you’re feeling the physical consequences of it. Now what?

Try working through the prompts below before diving headfirst into a shame spiral.

Get curious about the cause

Sometimes there’s a clear impetus for a food fest.

Did you skip breakfast or skimp on lunch ahead of dinner out? Were you already two martinis deep when your entreé arrived? Did you receive amazing news and turn to food as a way to celebrate? Did you receive terrible news and turn to food as a way to numb the pain? Was the food next-level delicious and you couldn’t help but house it all? Were you taken with the incredible company, so you ate more than you needed just to prolong the get-together? Were you on vacation and experiencing a new culture through fun food?

Overeating can happen for countless reasons, some of which are purely positive.

Of course, if you find yourself chronically finishing meals uncomfortably stuffed, it’s worth doing the work to identify the root cause. Perhaps you’re unknowingly restricting yourself at other meals or leaning on food as a coping mechanism for tough emotions. Not all emotional eating is bad, but it's important to understand the why behind your behavior to determine for yourself.

Practice reframing negative thoughts

If you occasionally overeat and don’t think twice about it, power to you! However, often people I work with beat themselves up about eating more food than they intended.

Classic refrains include: I have no willpower; I ate so much more food than everyone else; I always overeat when I’m out, and so on.

If you find yourself drowning in negative self-talk after polishing off a meal, practice reframing your unhelpful thoughts by writing out realistic alternatives:

  • I have no willpower → I barely ate lunch and showed up to this dinner starving, so I ate quickly and more than normal. I can’t expect to eat mindfully if I haven’t adequately nourished myself earlier. 
  • I ate so much more food than everyone else at the table → I have no idea what other peoples’ meals looked like today, nor does that change what my body needs to feel satisfied. Next time I’ll put more energy into noticing when I feel comfortably satiated instead of how much food is on other peoples’ plates.
  • I always overeat when I’m out → There have been many times when I’ve finished a meal out feeling comfortable and not overly stuffed. I know I am capable of listening to my fullness cues.

Remember this: Feelings are fleeting and so is your fullness

Emotions are fleeting—and so is your physical fullness. Nobody feels uncomfortably stuffed forever, so this too shall pass.

In the meantime, respect your body and avoid behaviors that can heighten physical or emotional discomfort when you’ve overeat, like stepping on a scale, checking your body in the mirror, or wearing tight-fitting clothing.

Also, consider working with a therapist if feeling physically full brings up challenging emotions for you.

Try zooming out

Our brains are primed to focus on the negative, so we need to actively practice zooming out sometimes.

Think about it this way: If you eat three meals and one to two snacks daily, you have about 35 chances to eat weekly. Do you finish most of your meals and snacks uncomfortably full? Or are you hyper-fixating on the one or two meals where you ate more than you needed?

The bottom line

Movements like intuitive eating emphasize honoring your hunger and fullness cues, but the expectation is not that you will get this "right" every single time. I surely don’t and I’m a registered dietitian.

You’re not a robot. While finishing every meal comfortably satisfied would be nice, it’s not reality.

Overeating is human. Don’t let this beautiful life pass you by while you’re worrying about those 10 extra fries.

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