"If it is every now and then, it should not be a problem," says Nan Allison, a registered dietitian, nutritionist and president and managing partner of the Allison and Beck Nutrition Consultants Inc, a Nashville-based firm specializing in dietary health, which she co-owns with Carol Beck. She has spent 18 years working with people who have struggled with dietary ailments, including compulsive overeating. She is also the co-author of the book, Full and Fulfilled: The Science of Eating to Your Soul's Satisfaction. Yet, she adds that "if this is a consistent pattern in their life, yes it is a problem."
The reason why this could be a problem is very clear: Those extra calories we're packing on as a result of eating more than we need to can cause a host of problems, such as weight gain, heart disease, diabetes and depression. Allison cites "guilt, physical discomfort and less emotional feeling or less intensity of their emotions" as common results people experience once they've realized they've eaten more than they need.
"Sometimes these feelings can fester for years and cause other biochemical stress in the body," Allison says. This can cause "health consequences of constant stress ... heart disease, compromised immune systems and chronic anxiety."
For the most part, a good portion of American consumers don't even realize they are are overeating. This often happens completely by accident and without notice until later. There are occasions when overeating may not even be noticed at all.
"We are busy with other things in life that consume our time and attention," Allison says. "We starve ourselves, trying to be 'good,' and after a while, we lose connections with what hunger is. We are taught in this society to ignore pain, hunger, feelings ... told to work harder, sleep less, keep a stiff upper lip ... in general, ignore physical and emotional feelings ... so this becomes a way of life."
She adds, "We are not taught how to listen to these signals and respond appropriately to feelings like anger, sadness, frustration, shame ... instead, we are taught to cover them up, and just move on."
Listening to our body's signals is a major point in avoiding eating more food than we need. While the old adage of "taking time to chew" can help you prevent overeating, Allison points out that an individual must look deeper at the problem. "Chewing your food slowly can only help if a person has support to deal with the underlying issues behind why they overeat," she says. "A more productive approach would be ... why am I eating so fast? If I slow down and chew slowly, then what will I feel ... or experience?"
She also suggests other ways to avoid overeating. "Often it helps to keep a food and feeling log. To rate their degree of hunger and fullness on a scale of, say, 1-5 or 1-10," she says. "I also ask some of my clients to rate their satisfaction (which is different from hunger). I also ask them to stop and ask themselves how much food they think it will take to satisfy them ... how much juice or Coke or meat or bread ... or crackers ... or whatever ... or what it is that would really satisfy them. Often they would never be satisfied because they don't like the food ... but eat a certain way just because they think they should, then they go eat something else that really satisfies them ... even though they are full. Keeping food records really helps them to identify what their particular patterns and issues are."
Debbe Weinberg, MS, who runs the Emotional Eating Group at the Renfrew Center Foundation in Philadelphia, specializes in the topic of "emotional eating," a condition characterized by someone eating and overeating based on negative feelings and emotions.
"We deal with the underlying issues that cause a person to eat in response to their emotions," she says. "Often, clients eat for various reasons other than hunger." She adds that "not being aware of their physical hunger and eating automatically without realizing how much they have consumed is common for emotional eaters."
Weinberg suggests an exercise used at the Foundation to help one discover if they are full or not.
"One exercise we do is a hunger fullness check-in," she says. "I have them think of a number progression from zero to 10. Zero is wobbly and dizzy progressing to 5: you're not hungry, not satisfied. Neutral to 10 is stuffed, Thanksgiving full. Checking in with hunger levels can be at first confusing. If someone has been eating disordered or has not experienced physical hunger, the slightest sensation may feel like a zero or one when it could be closer to three or four. This exercise takes some practice."
One point Allison makes is that there is a difference between being full and being satisfied. "Someone can be full from eating a lot of volume (like a large salad), but not satisfied," she says. "Or a person can be really full from eating a lot of cereal or potatoes, but not satisfied. I have had people explain to me that they were 'not hungry' because they had been nibbling on candy all day, but were not satisfied until they had a real meal."
Keeping this in mind, it's important to stop and think the next time you're sitting down at a meal. Take time to chew and analyze how much food you are eating, wait a few minutes between each bite and get to the root of any underlying problems which may cause you to automatically reach for another piece of cake or have a second glass of soda. The more careful you are with how much you eat -- and how satisfied you are with each meal -- the better your chances of improving your health, from the inside and out.
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