7 Surprising Causes of Overeating (And What to Do About It)

By Mattthew Kadey, R.D. |

Ever wonder why you can't stop after just one handful of chips? A dietitian breaks down what's happening - and how to get your food intake back in line.

close up shot of a plate of food for a story on surprising causes of overeating

Just finished breakfast and already looking for a snack? Or maybe you find it hard to eat just one cookie and always need to grab a few more.

Appetite — or the desire to eat — involves your body and mind. For many people, controlling your appetite might seem like a daily struggle. It can quickly lead to periods of overeating. And when you eat more calories than your body needs, it can lead to health concerns like weight gain. This is especially true when those calories come from foods that are not nutritious like sweets or ultra-processed foods.

But remember not everyone is going overboard on calories. For some older adults, a lack of appetite and not eating enough can also cause serious health issues. Talk with your doctor or a nutritionist on how to meet your nutritional needs. (Read more in How to Gain Weight in a Healthy Way.)

Here are some of the surprising key culprits of increased hunger and overeating. You'll also learn the best ways to manage these and how to get your food intake back in line.

Healthy eating and fitness go together! SilverSneakers classes and events are happening right now at participating gyms, online through SilverSneakers LIVE, and at community centers near you. Activate your free online account to get started.

1. You Eat Meals in the Wrong Order

If you are a big fan of bread or potatoes, save the best for last. Eating vegetables and protein (like chicken) before high-carbohydrate foods (like bread) can improve your blood sugar response to a meal.

Why? A sharp rise in blood sugar can make you want to eat more. (This is one reason the waiter wants to drop off a breadbasket before taking your order.)

Protein and fiber from vegetables likely slow down sugar entering your bloodstream. This lowers your diabetes risk, improves your energy levels, and decreases cravings.

Starting a meal with protein and veggies may also boost levels of hunger-lowering hormones like GLP-1. This hormone makes you more likely to skip the dessert.

Your action plan: It might be worthwhile to practice this carbs-last approach at your meals. For example, eat your hard-boiled egg before your breakfast oatmeal. Or devour your salmon and steamed broccoli before digging into the brown rice.

2. You Multitask While Eating

Do you find that whenever you sit down to eat, you turn on your favorite TV show? Or maybe you use mealtimes to online shop or scroll through social media. This habit can lead to mindless eating, which happens when your brain is distracted by something else other than your food.

This can be a problem if you're trying to stop overeating. In a 2019 study, about 55 adults who ate meals while using media consumed nearly 150 more calories than those who ate without media. They also did not eat fewer calories at another meal to balance out daily calories.

The takeaway? Staring at screens while eating may lead to you being hungry for no reason and not realizing when you’re full.

Your action plan: To break this unhealthy habit, try eating your meals at your kitchen or dining room table without any screens. This will help you make sure your food is the center of your attention. That way you won’t look down at an empty plate and wonder where it all went.

Screen-free eating is one of the tenets of mindful eating. Learn more about it by reading The Five Rules of Good Nutrition here.

3. You’re Not Managing Your Stress Levels

Stress and anxiety can cause hunger cues which may lead to eating more than normal. And it may boost your sweet tooth. Stress combined with “comfort food” like pizza and cake can create changes in your brain that cause you to eat for pleasure and possibly lead to excess weight gain.

Do you ever get "hangry" when you're feeling stressed and hungry at the same time? Turns out, there is a reason for that. In a 2022 study, researchers linked increased hunger in participants to negative emotions like anger, irritability and less pleasure.

Your action plan: Avoiding some stress completely is not always possible. But there are steps you can take to better manage it. These include:

Lower stress may mean a diet that better meets your nutrition and calorie needs. If you are dealing with long-term stress, try your best to seek out therapy or professional support and continue to eat the healthiest diet you can.

Recommended reading: 11 Easy Tips to Avoid Stress Eating

4. Your Meals Are Too Protein Light

If you typically find yourself hungry after you've just finished eating, it could be a sign that you need more protein on your plate. It's important to remember that among the macronutrients - carbs, fat, and protein - protein will satisfy your hunger the most.

A 2022 study in the journal Obesity found that when people ate a low-protein breakfast, they tended to eat larger amounts of food in later meals throughout the day. And adults who ate a higher-protein breakfast chose foods lower in saturated fats, sugar and salt later in the day.

More protein may also impact hormones involved in appetite, which works to keep hunger at bay and potentially lower the chance of overeating calories. And it may help balance blood sugar numbers that impact feelings of hunger. Also, remember that older adults need to eat enough protein to help keep lean body mass, which is an important part of healthy aging.

Your action plan: Aim to include higher protein foods in each of your meals and snacks. This will help you create a well-balanced diet. Good protein options include:

  • Chicken
  • Eggs
  • Fish
  • Greek yogurt
  • Lean ground beef
  • Tofu

Recommended reading: 10 Ways to Sneak More Protein Into Your Diet

5. You’re Not Getting Enough Sleep

Poor sleep can be linked to cardiovascular disease, diabetes, depression, and other chronic health conditions. It may also be a risk factor for unwanted weight gain. One reason for this might be that a lack of proper shut-eye effects our eating habits.

In fact, a recent study found that individuals who get less than seven hours of sleep tended to snack more often on high-calorie and sugary snacks. Better sleep quality can also lead to overall better-quality diets.

Your action plan: If you’re struggling to maintain a healthy diet and find yourself choosing many unhealthy snacks, working on your sleep schedule is a good place to start. This might mean getting to bed earlier or creating a bedtime routine to help you unwind at night. Lowering feelings of stress can also improve how well you sleep and, in turn, how well you eat.

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6. You’re Not Sweating Enough

Exercise is good for more than just getting your heart and muscles in good shape. It could also help balance food intake in some people. According to a 2021 study, when participants who were identified as “stress eaters” increased the amount of time they spent exercising, they overate less and were less likely to give into cravings.

Exercise can help stop something called hedonic hunger. This is the desire to eat for pleasure. And the foods we tend to seek out to satisfy hedonic hunger are usually fatty, sugary and salty.

Your action plan: If you are already exercising every day, that’s great. But if not, it’s important to get in the habit of staying active. Daily workouts can help keep your diet on track. Many forms of exercise count toward your weekly total goal. These include:

If you are new to exercise, chat with your doctor and a fitness professional who can help you create an appropriate and safe exercise plan.

7. You Order in the Moment

It's always a good idea to prepare more meals at home. But if need a night off and are heading to a restaurant or ordering takeout, order from places that lets you choose your meal ahead of time.

If that's not an option, try to read the menu and decide on your meal at least an hour before you order. Ordering your food when your stomach is already growling, and you have less time to make a wiser decision can lead to high-calorie or unhealthy choices. This is especially true when you can smell and see foods in the restaurant that make it more difficult to skip the temptation.

Your action plan: Don’t order food in the moment. Try using apps that let you submit your order before entering the restaurant so you’re more likely to make healthier, low-calorie choices.

Or simply browse a restaurant's website ahead of time and commit to a healthier menu choice before walking through the door. This can help lower the chances of ordering something you're craving in that moment which may not be as nutritious as other menu items.

Recommended reading: 7 Tips for Eating Out With Diabetes

See our sources:
Veggies before carbs: National Institutes of Health
Watching TV while eating: Obesity
Stress and hunger cues: Neuron
Emotions: PLOS One
High protein: Obesity
Risks of poor sleep: Biomedical Reports
Sleep and snacking: Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics
Sleep and diet: Journal of Medicine and Occupational Toxicology
Exercise: Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise

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