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Over eating – 5 reasons you can’t break the cycle

By Dr Louisa Hoey

Many of my weight loss clients come to therapy hoping that I will give them strategies and tricks to increase their willpower. Society promotes the idea that people who are slim are ‘good’ at being able to avoid ‘bad’ food. However, in my extensive work with disordered eating I would say that this is unlikely to be true. One question, I ask all my clients in their first session is “what do you think is the reason that you carry more weight than you are comfortable with?”. Here are the top 5 reasons you can’t break the cycle.

Mindless eating

Over eating can be a direct result of not being conscious of what or why you are eating. We have a culture where we are regularly distracted while eating because we are watching TV, on our computer, driving, walking or talking on our phones. The problem here is that we lose touch with our feelings of hunger and satiety and it is very easy to over-eat.

The solution:  Mindful eating. Focus on your five senses as you eat. Eat slowly, savour the flavours and textures, make sure you chew and finish each mouthful before taking the next. Tune into your body and notice when you are pleasantly satisfied (this will happen before you are full!).

Food is your main source of pleasure and relaxation

For many people food is a hobby. My goodness just look at the television and see how many reality programs we have focussed on food. When you catch up with friends do you typically go to brunch or dinner? If you watch a movie do you have popcorn, a Choc Top or wine? Of course food is to be enjoyed and I wouldn’t want a world where a pill could replace actual food – where is the enjoyment in that?! However, there needs to be a balance.

The solution: Find other ways to have fun. Enjoy life and your relationships without food sometimes. Challenge yourself to catch up with friends while taking a walk; see a film without snacks for a change.

Comfort eating

To maintain a stable, comfortable weight, you need to mainly eat when you are hungry. Lots of people that I see, tell me that their over-eating is triggered by difficult feelings and we know that too much of this will lead to weight gain. It makes sense that we eat when we are needing comfort because sugars and fats release hormones in our brains that are calming and soothing (just like if we were to take drugs like cocaine, heroin and other narcotics).

The solution: It is super important that you 1) find other ways to soothe yourself when you face difficult feelings and 2) that you learn to ride the wave of difficult feelings rather than avoiding them by eating.


It may seem counter-intuitive but dieting is very risky business and although in the short term can help people to eat less and lose weight, in the long term people end up re-gaining their weight plus more. You see, dieting leaves people feeling physically and emotionally deprived. Diets come with rules about what foods you can eat and how much. Eventually, when your will power runs dry and stress and boredom run high, people end up breaking the rules. And when they break the rules they think “stuff it, the diet is off, I will eat whatever I want and start again on Monday”.

The solution: This is tricky I will admit it! When trying to maintain a stable weight it is important to be conscious of how many kilojoules you are consuming. However, it is important to be balanced. You want to make sure that you are not too getting too hungry and that you get times when you do enjoy your favourite flavours and foods. Try to steer clear of food rules and eliminating certain food groups from your diet (possibly with the exception of refined sugar!).

Bad body image

Our society idealises a certain type of body: thin for women and muscular for men. It tells us that if you don’t fit into this body type then there is something wrong and you should try to change it. The extremely damaging impact of this is negativity, shame and body hatred. And poor body image rarely inspires people to make long-lasting changes; in fact it usually leads to more comfort eating.  Many of my clients have started therapy believing that once they reach their goal weight they will be able to love their body, but in fact their body hatred is a major barrier to reaching their goal in the first place.

The solution:  So this is a complex one but here are some starter tips: Make a decision every day to accept your body. Focus on the wonderful things your body does. Look for parts of your body that you naturally like.

About the Author

Dr Louisa Hoey is a health psychologist.  She is the Director of the Health Psychology Centre. Louisa specialises in the psychological aspects of food, the emotional relationships around food and the development of strategies to a happier more fuller life.

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