What happens to your body when you overeat, and what does a healthy portion size look like? Read our top tips to stop cravings and beat binge-eating.
Occasional binge-eating (as discussed in this article) is not the same as a clinical eating disorder, such as anorexia, Binge Eating Disorder (BED) or bulimia. For more information on eating disorders, please see the NHS website.
It can take a long time to understand why there are times when you might eat to excess, and it requires motivation and resolve to do something about it. If you've been struggling for a long time, it's advisable to speak to your GP, who can advise you of appropriate therapeutic services and support.
The overwhelming desire to eat can happen at any time of day for any type of food. Some people are more prone to eating too much in the evening or may like to eat high-sugar foods in front of the TV or in bed. Others give themselves the green light to eat as much as they like on the weekend. Some may find that they just can’t stop at a buffet or when with friends, or they may make poor choices in the supermarket. The common link is that they eat more than is needed or comfortable, which can sometimes lead to complex and negative emotions, including guilt or shame.
Why do we sometimes overeat?
Our urge to eat is triggered by the environment around us. Sights, smells and advertising can all lead us to eat, as well as internal triggers such as hunger, thirst, feelings, cravings and emotions. It's important to try and identify the trigger in order to address it. If you're seeking pleasure or comfort, it can be helpful to plan activities that are pleasurable to you other than eating. Try to stop and think before reaching for food – and ask yourself if you are really hungry, or if your appetite is caused by something else that could be resolved without food. A more mindful approach to eating has shown to be a useful intervention.
Hunger vs craving
A typical craving lasts around 20 minutes. The first 5 minutes will be the hardest, so try alternative distractions or find other things to do instead and see if the craving passes. Try making a drink, getting yourself a glass of water, going for a walk around the block, phoning a friend or looking up something online. If you're still hungry after 20 minutes or so, prepare something to eat that will be nourishing and satisfying.
Portion sizes have increased dramatically over the last 25 years, which is likely to be affecting our weight. Plate size has increased by over an inch (in some cases up to five inches), which has led to bigger servings at home. Foods that we pick up in the supermarket often come in ‘50% extra free’ bags and items such as sliced bread and bagels are now bigger than they used to be.
It's also important to take care when eating out. Fast food shops and takeaways normally offer different sizes, yet depending on your body size and calorie requirements, even the small or medium meal can be too large. Huge drinks (or free refills) may be providing more energy, sugar and fat than the meal itself due to the sheer size that's becoming the norm.
What happens to your body when you eat too much?
The stomach is the size of a fist, but can stretch to accommodate four times that amount. Certain foods may induce different feelings if eaten in excess. The most commonly known is the ‘sugar rush’ – a period of energy often followed by a crash as sugar is rapidly taken out of the bloodstream. Large meals cause lethargy as the body focuses on digestion. Excessive overeating can disrupt hunger and satiety hormones (ghrelin and leptin). Over time, some people become resistant to leptin, which means the body doesn't recognise fullness – leading to further overeating and weight gain.
It's much harder to overeat raw vegetables (e.g. carrot sticks) or fruit, as the high fibre content leads to feeling full more quickly. Including sources of protein and fat, such as yogurt, is also a good choice as they slow the release of sugar into the bloodstream and help with feelings of fullness.
What does a healthy portion size look like?
These are some rough guidelines for the amount of food that's recommended to be eaten in one sitting – although your specific needs will vary depending on your height, weight and energy needs.
|Starchy carbohydrates||Size of your fist|
|Protein (meat/fish)||Size of the palm of your hand|
|Cheese||Size of two of your fingers|
|Nuts and seeds||Size of your cupped hand|
|Fats e.g. butter||Size of the tip of your thumb|
Fruit and vegetables should be eaten alongside the above, with a minimum of five portions eaten daily. For further information, read about how to eat a balanced diet and discover what counts as one of your 5-a-day.
In addition, the NHS recommends that those aged 11 and over don't eat more than 30g sugar (around 7 teaspoons) per day.
Top tips for eating in moderation
- Using a smaller plate can help you monitor the amount you're eating, and feel more satisfied with a smaller portion. As a guide, the plate should be the span of your hand. Serve your food on the plate and don't go back for seconds – get into the habit of saving leftovers for another meal.
- Eat a healthy breakfast, even if it's something small. This will help balance blood sugars and keep energy steady until lunchtime.
- Eat regular meals and snacks to keep blood sugar levels balanced. This will help prevent cravings and prevent you overeating later on in the day.
- Wait 10-15 minutes from the first ‘craving’ – try to distract yourself with an activity and drink a glass of water to ensure you're not confusing hunger with thirst.
- Anxiety and stress can cause cravings and overeating. Try to find an alternative method of coping with these emotions that doesn't involve food, such as socialising with friends, an exercise that you enjoy or treating yourself to something relaxing like a hot bubble bath or massage.
- Instead of eating all that remains in the pan or finishing off everything on your plate, put some aside for another meal or lunch the next day. If you're at a restaurant, ask if you can take a 'doggie bag' of leftovers home.
- Keep a food diary to highlight times when you're likely to overeat. It'll help you become more aware of your triggers and help you interrupt negative habits.
- Make the foods that you tend to binge on more difficult to get hold of by keeping them out of your home or office. This will prevent 'mindless' overeating just because a palatable food is in front of you.
Satisfying snacks to try
Cinnamon cashew spread with apple slices
A small handful of nuts
Lemon & coriander hummus with vegetable sticks
Pepper & walnut hummus with veggie dippers
A small bowl of healthy soup
A pot of low-sugar yogurt
A few squares of dark chocolate
More healthy eating inspiration...
This article is not intended for those suffering from anorexia, binge eating disorder (BED) or bulimia, but for those who have a disordered pattern of eating, including blowouts at the weekends, eating too much in one sitting, overeating at unusual times of day or using food as an emotional or physical reward.
This article was last reviewed by Kerry Torrens on 6 November 2018.
Kerry Torrens is a qualified nutritionist (MBANT) with a post-graduate diploma in Personalised Nutrition & Nutritional Therapy. She is a member of the British Association for Applied Nutrition and Nutritional Therapy (BANT) and a member of the Guild of Food Writers. Over the last 15 years, she has been a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including BBC Good Food.
All health content on bbcgoodfood.com is provided for general information only, and should not be treated as a substitute for the medical advice of your own doctor or any other health care professional. If you have any concerns about your general health, you should contact your local health care provider. See our website terms and conditions for more information.
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