Be honest. During the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns, you’ve indulged on an oversized meal once or twice. An extra slice of pizza, extra sweets or second helping of comfort food. Occasional overeating probably won’t ruin your health. Making it a habit, however, is a recipe for serious health issues.
Even during under stay-at-home orders, the grocery store, convenience store, liquor store and take-out restaurants were all still available to you. So was the massive variety of food choices, complete with easy snacks, convenience foods and a seemingly endless supply of rich, sugar- and fat-laden comfort foods.
These are most often sold in portion sizes far bigger than the recommended. What looks like a reasonable amount of food can often be far in excess of the calories and macronutrient quantities your body actually needs. If you are unaware of the correct portion sizes, overeating is easy to do.
Here are six reasons to pay attention to portion sizes and the macronutrient content of the food you eat.
You’ll be sleepy (maybe grumpy and dopey, too!)
Have you heard of “reactive hypoglycemia?” If not, that’s okay. You might have been sleepy that day in biology. (I’ll stop milking the seven dwarves jokes now, but it won’t make me happy.) Reactive hypoglycemia happens when you eat a big meal and your blood sugar crashes. (1, 2, 3)
It’s common for insulin-dependent diabetics to have this happen when they give themselves too much insulin. The condition is thought to be related to an excess of insulin.
Nausea, bloating and gas (oh my!)
Doesn’t that sound like fun? As an adult, your stomach is roughly the size of a clenched fist. It’s volume when empty is roughly 2 1/2 ounces, but that can expand to as much as 1 quart. (6) These measures vary from person to person, based on body size and how much you consistently eat.
Overeating means overfilling your stomach, or at least pushing it’s limits. Doing this regularly will lead nausea and indigestion. Big meals push your stomach’s limits, leading to that nauseous feeling. Push it too far and that feeling will trigger vomiting. That’s your stomach’s way of saying “enough.” (7)
Eating too much can also cause bloating and gas. This is especially true when you eat foods that are fatty or spicy. Carbonated beverages like sodas can do it, too. Healthier foods like whole grains, some vegetables and beans are known to cause gas, but these don’t seem to be the ones people overeat.
Part of the problem of gas, nausea and bloating caused by overeating is the fault of food makers. Many processed foods are actually engineered to overcome your natural aversion to overeating. High sugar and saturated fat content “tricks” your digestive system into craving more of this food, even when you are full or approaching full. Of course, some of the problem is that some of your favorite foods (processed or not) taste really good and make you feel good. So, you want to eat more of them.
Slow down, control your portion sizes, chew your food and let it enter your system slowly. This will help prevent nausea, bloating and gas. (8, 9) Then again, you could just cram it down like a crazy person, then rely on over-the-counter medications to relieve it.
Messed-up digestive hormones
Normally, two key digestive hormones keep your hunger and satiety in balance. Leptin suppresses your appetite, while ghrelin fires it up. If it’s been a while since you’ve eaten, ghrelin will tell your brain that it’s time to eat. Once you’ve eaten, leptin tells the brain it’s time to stop.
When you overeat, especially those foods high in sugar, salt and fat (you know, the delicious, high-calorie ones,) you get a dopamine shot. Dopamine is a “feel good” hormone that lights up the pleasure centers in your brain.
Your brain will make the connection between these dopamine-stimulating foods and pleasure sensations over time. This can wreak havoc with your body’s ability to regulate hunger. This can lead you to eat for pleasure, even when you aren’t actually hungry. (10)
Obviously, this can lead to a vicious cycle of overeating. This can also be counteracted with portion control for those foods you might be prone to overeat, along with eating them slowly. You’ll enjoy them more and know when you’re full.
Increased disease risk
Obesity and metabolic syndrome seem to go hand-in-hand. Doctors define obesity as a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or above. While many argue about the value of using BMI to define obesity, there is little argument that metabolic syndrome is a serious issue.
Metabolic syndrome is made up of a variety of conditions. It’s usually indicated by high blood pressure, high blood lipid (fat) levels, insulin resistance and inflammation. (14) Metabolic syndrome increases your risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes and other health issues.
Insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes are closely linked. Excess sugar in the bloodstream lowers insulin’s ability to store blood sugar in your body’s cells. Type 2 diabetes likely isn’t far behind.
The answer to improving your chances of avoiding disease isn’t complicated. Limit processed foods and those high in sugar and calories. Eat whole foods, lots of vegetables and limit your intake of starchy carbohydrates.
You might get dopey
I know, I know. I promised to lay off the seven dwarves jokes. Last one, promise.
Jokes aside, it’s true. Eating too much over time can cause your brain to work less efficiently and even lead to loss of function.
Research studies have shown a connection between obesity and habitual overeating and a decline in cognitive function, including memory, in older adults, when compared with those who don’t overeat. (15, 16, 17)
Your brain does need fats. After all, it’s about 60 percent fat. Stick to the good fats like olive oil, fatty fishes like Salmon and Tuna, nut butters and maybe even some avocados. That will give your brain the fats it needs while giving you the best shot at enjoying good foods and avoiding the other issues related to overeating.
You’ll get fat (duh!)
Did you know that virtually every weight loss diet plan you can think of works exactly the same way? That’s right. Every single one works on the same principle.
Caloric deficit. Expending more calories than you take in. This is an essential law of physics. If you put more energy into a system, it’s mass has to increase in order to accommodate that mass. For humans, that energy is measured in calories.
Eating excess calories (more calories than you expend) leads to a caloric surplus. That caloric surplus will be converted to fat for storage.
So if you overeat on a regular basis, you will find yourself on the wrong end of the caloric balance, with a surplus.
Why do some diet plans work better for some people than other plans, you ask? It’s not magic. It’s not even rocket science.
Different diets (keto, paleo, Whole30, etc.) work differently for different people for a variety of reasons – satisfaction factors, convenience, intellectual acceptance, belief factors and others. This can change over time, too. What works for someone now may not work for them in six months or a year.
But enough about how diets work.
Sometimes, it can seem like some foods are fine to overeat. For example, most people can overeat protein without seeing an increase in body fat. This is likely due to the differences in how your body metabolizes protein, as compared to fats and carbohydrates. (18, 19)
That being said, a balanced diet that includes lean proteins, healthy fats, fruits and high-fiber vegetables is your best path to avoiding excess body fat.
Next time you’re faced with an opportunity to gorge on your favorite comfort foods, remember these pitfalls. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying rich, delicious foods occasionally and in the right portion sizes. But habitually stuffing yourself with comfort foods, processed foods and other foods high in fats, sugars and salts can lead to some real health problems.
Keep the faith and keep after it!