It’s normal to feel like you can’t stop overeating certain things. Today’s hyper-palatable food is creating a modern-day food crisis — one that’s leaving us feeling sick, out of control, and constantly craving more.
Here’s how it works, plus 3 ways to overcome it.
It’s happened to us all.
After a frenzy of lustful grabbing and furious crunching, we find ourselves at the bottom of a jumbo bag of crisps.
“How did that happen?” we ask fuzzily.
“What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I stop?”
But, before going into full-fledged self-loathing mode, consider this.
Processed foods are scientifically engineered to be irresistible and easy to gobble up in large quantities. If you can’t stop, the crisps are doing their job.
That’s why, in this post, we’ll explain exactly how junk food is designed to make us respond with compulsive, manic, gotta-have-more snack sessions.
Even better, we’ll arm you with three useful strategies for examining your relationship with processed food and taking control of overeating.
How processed foods trick us into eating more than we meant to.
There are four sneaky ways that processed food can make you overeat. Often, we’re not even aware of how much these factors affect us.
That’s why, awareness = power.
1. Marketing convinces us that processed foods are “healthy”.
Processed foods come in packages with bright colours, cartoon characters, celebrity endorsements, and powerful words that trigger all kinds of positive associations.
The nutrient content of those foods isn’t particularly impressive, but the addition of nutrition buzzwords and trendy ingredients make us perceive them as healthier.
Ever notice how many processed food slogans sound like this?
“Take some time for yourself.”
“You deserve it.”
Health buzzwords and emotional appeals can make us perceive a food as “good for me”; it seems like a wise and caring choice to put them in our shopping carts, then in our mouths.
2. Big portions make us think we’re getting a “good deal”.
People get mixed up about food and value.
We’re taught to save money and not waste food.
We’re taught to buy more for less.
Given the choice between a small juice for two pounds, and pop with endless refills for the same price, the pop seems like better value.
What we don’t calculate into this equation is something we like to call the “health tax.”
The “health tax” is the toll you pay for eating low-nutrient, highly processed foods. If you eat them consistently over time, eventually you’ll pay the price with your health.
3. Multiple flavours at once are irresistible.
If there’s a party in your mouth, you can guarantee that at least two out of three of the following guests will be there:
These three flavours — the sweetness of sugar, the luxurious mouthfeel of fat, and the sharp savoury of salt — are favourites among those of us with mouths.
When you combine these flavours, they become ultra-delicious and hard-to-resist. This is called stimuli stacking—combining two or more flavours to create hyper-palatable food.
- The satisfying combination of fat and salt found in crisps, fries, nachos, cheesy things, etc.
- The comforting combination of fat and sugar, found in baked goods, fudge, ice cream, cookies, chocolate, etc.
- The irresistible combination of all three—heaven forbid you stumble on a combo of fat, salt, and sugar— a salted chocolate brownie, or chips with ketchup!
Food manufacturers know: When it comes to encouraging people to overeat, two flavors are better than one.
They call it “The Big 5.”
Foods that fulfill “The Big 5” are:
- Calorie dense, usually high in sugar and/or fat.
- Intensely flavoured — the food must deliver strong flavour hits.
- Immediately delicious, with a love-at-first taste experience.
- Easy to eat — no effortful chewing needed!
- “Melted” down easily — the food almost dissolves in your mouth, thus easy to eat quickly and overconsume.
When these five factors exist in one food, you get a product that’s practically irresistible.
3 strategies to find your way back to a peaceful relationship with food.
It’s one thing to know in theory why certain foods are so easy to over-consume, but it’s even more valuable to discover for yourself how food processing, certain ingredient combinations, marketing, and even easy accessibility affect you and your food choices.
So, it’s time to get a little nerdy, try some experiments, and learn some strategies that will help you improve your relationship with food, get healthier, and just feel more sane.
1. Get curious about the foods you eat.
We’ve established that processed foods are designed to be easy to eat.
For a food to be “easy to eat”, it has to be:
- broken down easily (less chewing), and
- low volume (doesn’t take up much physical space).
Less chewing + Low volume = More eating
Chewing takes time. The more we have to chew something, the longer it takes us to eat, giving our fullness signals a chance to catch up.
That feeling of “fullness” matters a lot too.
When you eat, your stomach expands. It’s partly through that sensation of pressure that your body knows you’ve had enough. Processed foods deliver a lot of calories without taking up much space, meaning you can eat a lot before you realise you’ve overdone it.
2. Notice the messages you’re getting about food.
Food manufacturers use creative marketing strategies to imply processed foods are healthy. And even if you know they’re not, they have other ways of getting you to buy them.
Here’s an example:
Ever notice that the produce section is the first area you pass through in supermarket?
Stores have found that if they put the produce section first, you’re more likely to purchase processed foods. This is probably because if you’ve already got your trolley loaded with spinach, broccoli, and apples, perhaps you’ll feel better about picking up some ice cream, cookies, and crackers, before heading to the checkout line.
Let that sink in: The supermarkets we all shop in several times a month are designed to make you feel better about buying foods that could negatively impact your health goals.
The good news? Simply being aware of this trick can help you bypass it.
3. Look for patterns.
We often use food for reasons other than physical nourishment.
For example, if we feel sad, we might reach for a cookie to comfort ourselves. Temporarily, we feel better.
The next time we feel sad, we remember the temporary relief that cookie brought us. So we repeat the ritual. If we continue to repeat this cycle, we may find our arm reaching for the biscuit tin every time we feel blue. We’re not even thinking about it at this point; it’s just habit.
Habits are powerful, for better or for worse. They can work for us or against us.
Luckily, we have control over this.
All it takes is a little time and an understanding.
It’s not just about the food.
As a Nutrition Coach, I know how important nutrition is. So it might surprise you to hear me say the following:
It’s not all about the food.
Structure your diet around colorful, nutrient-dense whole foods, but also remember that a healthy life is not about calorie math or obsessing over everything you put in your mouth.
A healthy life is about giving time and attention to our whole selves.
Eating happens in context.
Pay attention to your mindset, your relationships, your work, and your environment.
When we’re well-nourished in other areas of our life, we’re less likely to use food as a cure-all when we struggle.
So if there’s one more piece of nutrition advice I have, it’s this:
Be good to yourself.
Not just at the table, but in all areas of life.
What to do next…
1. Be kind, curious, and honest
When we fall short of our ideals, we think that beating ourselves up is the fastest way to improve. But it’s not.
Criticism and crash dieting may work in the short term, but can damage our mental and physical health in the long term.
Because overeating is already a painful experience, as you consider how these behaviors show up in your life and how you might address them, please be:
Kind: Be friendly and self-compassionate; work with yourself instead of against yourself.
Curious: Explore your habits with openness and interest. Be like a scientist looking at data rather than a criminal investigator looking to blame and punish.
Honest: Look at your reality. How are you behaving day-to-day around food? The more accurate you are at perceiving yourself, the better you can support yourself to change.
With this attitude of support and non-judgment, you’re more likely to move forward.
2. Use the “traffic light” system.
We have a great tool for creating awareness around food that I use all the time with my clients. It’s called the “traffic light” system.
You see, we all have red light foods, yellow light foods, and green light foods.
Red means stop.
Red foods are a “no-go.” Either because they don’t help you achieve your goals, you have trouble eating them in reasonable amounts, or they plain old make you feel gross.
Often, red light foods are processed foods like crisps, sweets, ice cream, and pastries. Red foods can also be foods that you’re allergic / intolerant to.
Yellow means proceed with caution.
Yellow light foods are sometimes OK, sometimes not. Maybe you can eat a little bit without feeling ill, or you can eat them sanely at a restaurant with others but not at home alone, or you can have them as an occasional treat.
Yellow light foods might include things like bread, crackers, pasta, flavored yogurt, granola bars, or seasoned nuts. They’re not the worst choices, but they’re not the most nutritious either.
Green means go.
Green foods are a “go.” You like eating them because they’re nutritious and make your body and mind feel good. You can eat them normally, slowly, and in reasonable amounts.
Green foods are usually whole foods like fruits and vegetables, lean animal proteins, beans and legumes, raw nuts and seeds, and whole grains.
Create your own red, yellow, and green light food lists.
Everyone’s list will be different! You might leave ice cream in the freezer untouched for months, whereas another person might need a restraining order from that Rocky Road Ben & Jerry’s.
Once you have your list, stock your kitchen with as many green light foods as possible. Choose the yellow foods you allow in your house wisely. And red foods are to be limited or eliminated entirely.
At the very least, consider reducing the variety of red light or treat foods.
Take some pressure off your willpower and surround yourself with foods that support your goals.
3. Put quality above quantity.
It’s tempting to buy that jumbo bag of crisps because it’s such a good deal.
But remember: Real value isn’t about price or quantity so much as it is about quality.
Quality foods are nutrient-dense and minimally-processed. They are foods that you like, and make sense for your schedule and budget.
Quality foods may take a little more preparation and be a little more expensive up-front, but in the long run, they’re the real deal and have a lower “health tax” to pay later in life.
4. Focus on whole foods.
Whole foods will make it easier to regulate food intake and will also improve nutrition.
We can almost feel “high” when we eat processed foods. Whole foods, on the other hand, are more subtle in flavour and require a bit more effort to chew and digest. Instead of feeling high, whole foods just make us feel nourished and content.
Whole foods are generally more perishable than processed foods, so this will require some more planning and preparation. So schedule some extra time in the kitchen — even ten minutes a day counts!
In ten minutes, you can cut up some veggies, boil some eggs, cook some oat, or marinate some chicken breasts to make the following day go smoother.
While this might sound like more work, it’s rewarding. A closer relationship with food often means more respect and care for it too.
5. Find feel-good habits that support your goals.
Make a list of activities that you feel good doing. You might find that you like certain activities better than others depending on your feelings, the time of day, or your environment.
When you feel triggered to eat when you’re not physically hungry, choose an activity from your list.
This could be some gentle physical activity, fresh air, social interaction, playing a game, or a self-care ritual like painting your nails or getting a massage.
The point is simply to disrupt the cycle of trigger > eat > reward, and replace eating with an activity that supports your goals.
6. Slow down.
If nothing else works, and the idea of taking away treat foods totally freaks you out, just do this:
Allow yourself to eat whatever you want, just eat slowly and mindfully.
Slowing down allows us to savour our food, making us satisfied with less. It also lets physical sensations of fullness to catch up, so we know when we’ve had enough.
Bingeing can feel stressful and out of control — by slowing down, we help ourselves calm down and take back some of the control.
7. If you feel like you’re in over your head, ask for help.
Sometimes we need support.
If overeating is especially frequent or extreme, or if you have health problems related to overeating that you don’t know how to manage, seek the help of a coach, nutritionist, dietician, or counsellor who specialises in eating behaviours.
There’s no shame in receiving support. The best coaches and practitioners often have their own support team too.
Want help becoming the healthiest, fittest, strongest version of you?
Most people know that regular movement, eating well, sleep, and stress management are important for looking and feeling better. Yet they need help applying that knowledge in the context of their busy, sometimes stressful lives.
That’s why we work closely with clients to help them lose fat, get stronger, and improve their health… no matter what challenges they’re dealing with.