Disordered Eating: 10 Behavioural Patterns of an Overeater
This blog post is one that’s very personal to me, and because of that I must begin by saying that everything you’re about to read is from my personal experience only and from hearing the stories of others. Not everything in this blog post may apply to you, but if you feel that it does, then it’s best to seek help from a doctor, counsellor, therapist or another professional.
When you think of an overeater, you might picture someone who's overweight. But overeaters come in all shapes and sizes. Some overeaters may look like they're a healthy weight, but struggle a lot with flicking between overeating and restricting their food intake. Some overeaters will restrict much more often than they overeat, and others vice versa. So before you continue reading this blog post, I'd like you to forget about the way you think an overeater looks physically. Recovering from overeating is as much of a mental and spiritual journey as it is physical. This blog post will also mainly be about overeating rather than restricting.
A lot of the advice I used to receive when it came to not overeating was advice that only a normal eater would truly be able to follow, and keep up.
“Just stop eating when you’re full”, and “just don’t eat if you aren’t hungry” were the main two.
But the truth is that if you are a compulsive overeater, you aren’t a normal eater. Whether you were born with a higher chance of having an eating disorder or if it developed when you were younger, most overeaters can’t simply stop being that way - not without putting in the work and taking advice from people who have been through the same thing as you.
To slowly recover from overeating and get to a place where you feel physically, emotionally and spiritually comfortable, you have to understand your own behaviours and how they impact your overeating. Chances are, if these behaviours are true for you, then you’ve never fully noticed or acknowledged a lot of the behaviours I’m going to talk about because you do them without thinking. This is what I call your ‘addict brain’ rather than your ‘recovery brain’. All you feel is the regret and unhappiness during or after overeating, and those emotions potentially set off a cycle of disordered eating, self-pressure and negative thoughts. In the beginning of recovery from overeating (or when you first try to stop overeating), you may notice that the thoughts from your ‘addict brain’ can be incredibly loud and overpowering. You may have also never listened to your 'recovery brain' before - and it can be difficult to do so until you begin to acknowledge your eating patterns, thoughts and behaviours. So that’s where to start, and I hope that this blog post will help you.
10 Behavioural Patterns of an Overeater
Flick through the bullet points below, and have a further read within each one if you think it might apply to you.
1. Eating despite not being hungry
There are endless reasons as to why a compulsive overeater will eat when they aren’t hungry, but it’s often to distract themselves from their emotions or simply because eating makes them feel good temporarily (similar to how a drug addict likes the feeling of being high). If you think you’re a compulsive overeater, can you remember the last time that you genuinely felt hungry? If you can, did you react to that hunger in a calm and patient way, or could you not stop thinking about food?
In order to improve, an overeater should try their best to listen to their body, both before and whilst they eat, and forgive themselves if they overeat accidentally in any part of their recovery. It’s also important to think about why you want to eat. Getting better at all of this takes time and practice, but over that time it gets easier and easier.
2. Feeling ashamed of eating
Overeaters often feel a lot of shame around the amount of food or types of foods that they eat, especially so if people have or still do make comments about it to them - even if they’re meant as a joke. This is why overeaters often snack when no one else is around, or grab something out of the cupboard or fridge just after someone has left the room. If they hear someone coming then they might stuff the food away as quickly as possible, and pretend that they’re doing something else.
Acknowledging this habit, if it’s something that the overeater does frequently, is a huge step for them because they might not only want to hide it from others, but may be afraid to admit it to themselves, too. If an overeater can be honest with themselves about a habit like this, then they can gradually lessen and eventually remove the habit and the shame around it. The more often an overeater notices when they’re eating in secret or hiding food away, the more they’ll become consciously aware that they’re overeating and can then try to walk away. Again, this should become easier to do over time.
3. The hungry-to-full timer
Many overeaters, whilst they’re eating, knows that at some point they’ll probably feel physically full, and then overly full. But when they feel the full feeling coming on, an overeater might stuff the rest of their meal into their mouth and eat it within the time that they think they have - usually round 5-10 minutes.
Again, noticing this behaviour is the first step towards changing it for the better. An overeater then has to make a conscious effort to stop eating just before they feel full or should walk away from the food and therefore take away the temptation. This can feel almost impossible, especially so in the beginning stages of breaking this habit, but despite possibly having a few slip ups along the way, this gets easier with time and practice.
4. Eating more ‘for your health’
Some overeaters may become obsessed with nutrition. This could for example mean that they’re determined to get at least 100% of every macro, vitamin and nutrient they need, no matter how much food is needed to reach that nutrition ‘goal’ and how much exercise they do. This can often be a small excuse to overeat - “I’ve eaten too many carbs but I’m way under on iron… I need to eat some [meal/snack/drink]”.
Recovering from this overeating behavioural pattern really ties in with the first point; eating despite not being hungry. It is of course important to get enough nutrients, but many overeaters who have this type of behaviour might mostly eat foods that are highly processed or high in sugar and so on, and try to reach nutrient goals by eating just those foods. For example, an overeater might see peanut butter as a source of protein and eat it out of the jar (this can also tie in with eating emotionally) using the excuse of “it’s high in protein” to convince themselves that it’s okay to eat half a jar of peanut butter as a snack. Another example could be eating lots of ginger biscuits, and using the excuse of “ginger is really good for cardiovascular health and for relieving cold and flu symptoms”. Yes, peanut butter does contain protein and ginger biscuits do contain ginger (most of the time), but overeating is overeating. In recovery, if an overeater isn’t hungry, then they should try their best to abstain from eating until they do feel hungry, and prioritise that abstinence over eating for a certain nutrient, macro or vitamin. Thinking of alternative foods can help in the beginning of recovery too, like having a protein shake instead of peanut butter as a snack, or having fresh ginger and lemon tea instead of ginger biscuits.
5. Eating a lot of food in small amounts
Linking back to the second point, feeling ashamed of eating, an overeater might eat foods in smaller amounts so that they feel like they’re eating less. Perhaps they won’t have set meal times but will continuously have snacks throughout the day. Or maybe they will eat chocolate spread by the spoonful, thinking that it isn’t that much because it’s just one spoonful… and then have another, and then another and another until they can’t stop themselves and escape from the addictive feeling they get from food. Or they might have a small plate at meal times, but go up for seconds, thirds, fourths and so on.
Changing this behaviour can massively help overeaters in recovery. It can help to set small rules, like they should only eat sitting down with a plate or bowl as opposed to standing by an open cupboard, or only eating spreads, nut butters and so on as part of a smoothie or sandwich. This will not put an overeater into a restrictive mindset, as it still allows them to eat their favourite foods but in moderation. It can also help to practice portion sizes - this can take some time as they’ve probably never known how much food they’re genuinely hungry for, but if an overeater has this type of behaviour then it could help to have meals on a plate big enough to fit just about the right amount of food on it that they genuinely need. Once they’ve finished the plate, it can help to wait for 5-10 minutes before then deciding whether or not they need more.
6. The mindset switch from overeating to restricting
Some overeaters are also restricters, or just have restrictive thought patterns. For example, when an overeater eats too much and is in physical pain or discomfort from doing so, they might tell themselves that they won’t eat for the rest of the day or until another point in the future, for example, “to make up for it”. Some overeaters will go through with this until something happens that triggers their overeating, and the overeat-restrict pattern continues. Other overeaters will tell themselves that they’ll restrict their food intake for a certain amount of time, but can’t cope with the eventual feeling of hunger and will give in - they will often then feel ashamed of themselves, and go into the overeat-restrict pattern again.
For recovering from this pattern, the focus mostly needs to be on what they do if they accidentally overeat. Self-forgiveness and self-love, calling friends, getting some fresh air, positive self-talk and doing or taking up a hobby are the key things to do here. The overeater should find what works best for them in breaking this cycle when it gets triggered.
7. Continuing to eat even when feeling physically full up
Where a normal eater might sometimes eat emotionally but stops when they feel full up, an overeater will continue to eat and struggle to stop themselves. This is usually because of two very closely linked things: 1) they like the taste, texture and so on of food and it makes them happy whilst they’re eating it, and 2) as they begin to feel uncomfortably full they distract themselves from this uncomfortable feeling by eating more, temporarily giving them a ‘hit’. Of course, when they eventually stop eating, that hit goes away and they’re left feeling full or even in pain, and often feel ashamed, hopeless or as mentioned before they may also switch to a restrictive mindset.
Changing this behaviour, which is a key one for an overeater, is really about learning to walk away when you feel full, with no excuses. Acknowledging the feelings that overeating leaves the person with can help too, and they’ll gradually learn “if I walk away now then I’ll feel okay in a short while, but if I carry on eating then I’ll be in pain and will feel awful”. This change is one of the hardest ones to make, because it takes a lot of willpower and a lot of practice. Self-congratulation and voicing feelings of pride also help to strengthen this part of recovery, at every little victory.
8. Neatening-up the edges of any sliced foods
This type of overeating could mean having one extra, thin slice of cake “to make the edge of the remaining cake a bit tidier”. Overeating like this might not always result in as much overeating as other behaviours, but it can still leave an overeater with the feelings of shame and discomfort. It could also include feeling like they need to get every last bit of jam out of the jar, or maybe eating one more brownie so that there is an even number of them left.
In recovering from this behaviour, it can be helpful for an overeater to first acknowledge that they do this, then to tell themselves that there is no genuine need to ‘neaten up’ the food, and finally to practice making themselves walk away when they feel the temptation to do so. As always, this takes practice and patience.
9. Being overly enthusiastic about food and eating when speaking to others
This is a behaviour that some overeaters will do to try and cover up the fact that in reality, they’re really struggling with food and feel a lot of shame either about their eating habits or about the way they look. This can be something to look out for if you think a friend is having a difficult day, or for an overeater it can be a good thing for them to notice when they’re doing this and remind themselves of the tools they’ve built up to help themselves when they're struggling.
An Overeater might find that reading affirmations helps, or talking to friends about how they're doing, going for a walk, journaling down how they honestly feel, playing a musical instrument, having a bath or doing a face mask - everyone is different, but letting out emotions in some way is key here rather than trying to hide them from themselves or others.
10. Taking more food before finishing what’s already on the plate
An overeater might add more food to their plate before they’ve finished what’s already on it. This is usually if the meal is a buffet-style meal where there is a limited amount of food between a group of people. If a certain food on the table is nearly all gone, an overeater might move the rest of it onto their plate so that it doesn’t get taken by anyone else.
For an overeater to change this behaviour, they should practice listening to their body and figuring out if they’re actually still hungry for more food before taking any extra. When it comes to buffet-style meals it can also help the overeater if they try and put a full plate of food together at the beginning of the meal, thinking about a mixture of what they like, what is healthy and how much food they feel genuinely hungry for. If there are leftovers, it can then help to walk away from the food or to move the most tempting foods out of arm’s reach.
If you identify with any of those behaviours, I’m sending you so much love. Any overeater, with the right support network and tools, can rewire their brain to change their behavioural patterns for the better - physically, mentally and spiritually. Identifying those behaviours, acknowledging them with honesty and thinking about the reasoning behind them is the first step for an overeater to begin improving their life and their wellbeing. It is also important in the beginning stages of recovery to realise and accept that when your ‘addict brain’ is so loud that you overeat without realising what you’re doing, you are powerless. It is not your fault. It’s as soon as you realise what you’re doing that you have a choice - overeat or don’t overeat - you just need to stick at it no matter how hard it can be.
To finish this blog post, I’d like to leave you with this quote about acceptance:
’When I stopped living in the problem, and began living in the answer, the problem went away. Acceptance is the answer to anything that I struggle with today. When I'm feeling off or low, it is because I find some person, place, thing or situation unacceptable to me and believe that it needs to be changed as quickly as possible. But I can find no serenity until I accept that person, place, thing or situation as being exactly the way it is supposed to be in this moment. Nothing happens in this universe by mistake. Until I accept what I am struggling with, I cannot heal or change. Until I accept life completely on life's terms, I sabotage my own happiness that is always there waiting to be found. I do not need to concentrate so much on what needs to be changed in the world, but rather what needs to be changed in me and my attitudes toward it.'
Sending love and light to you all,