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Overeating: Understanding and Taking Back Control


Overeating: Understanding and Taking Back Control

November 28, 2020

Overeating is a common and complex behavior in this culture. Do you know why you overeat?

Pew survey finds that about six-in-ten Americans say they eat more than they should, either often (17%) or sometimes (42%). More particularly, a majority of Americans report that they eat more junk food than they should, either often (19%) or sometimes (36%).

More than 85% of people say that Americans are more overweight today than five years ago and two-thirds of the public call this a “major problem.”

While issues with eating are often driven by personal or familial dynamics, research suggests that when it comes to overeating, people actually share some common patterns. Most of us don’t overeat based on likes, dislikes, hunger or mood. We overeat based on convenience, visual cues, social and cultural prompts and external circumstances in ways we often don’t recognize. We do not use our own bodies as our guide. We give up control to external factors rather than using an internal cue to signal “Enough!”

A closer look at the research findings of factors causing overeating invites strategies for taking back control.


In a Pew Research telephone survey, most people reported convenience as their reason for eating junk food. Consistent with this, expert food researcher Brian Wansink, author of Mindless Eating, found that “The more hassle it is to eat, the less we eat.” What is striking is how just a little inconvenience can reduce a lot of eating.

In one study a dish of chocolate kisses was moved over the course of weeks to different locations in secretaries’ offices – the corner of the desk, the top of the left hand drawer and on a file cabinet 6 feet from the desk- the farther away, the less they ate – a difference reflected in 225 extra calories a day. In the debriefing, the secretaries revealed that the longer the distance, the more time to talk themselves out of eating another piece!

In another study a cooler full of free ice cream was placed in a cafeteria. It was in the same visible place every day except on some days the glass lid was left open and on other days, closed. Apparently even pushing open a lid was too much hassle. On the closed lid days only 14% of the diners had ice cream compared with 30% on the days it was “conveniently” opened.


Make junk foods and the foods you tend to overeat “inconvenient.” Put the ice cream in the garage or basement freezer and the cookies and chips in bins in the back of the pantry. Put the foods you want to eat (cut up fruit, yogurt, and veggies) out or in the front. Stack the deck in your favor with what you keep in your office drawer or at the front of your refrigerator because when you are hungry and out of time – the most convenient is likely to be the choice.


Beyond convenience, studies show that visible foods trigger eating in a way that is difficult to resist. One study found that secretaries reached into a clear candy bowl 71% more times than a white colored one. Visibility makes us “too mindful” of food. Neurochemically, the anticipation of food trips secretions that add to our craving and our overeating.


Unless you want to battle or overeat all day – don’t leave food, soda or items you really don’t want to eat- out. Don’t expect children to resist overeating snacks that are always visible.

Use visibility as a deterrent. Given that one of  Wansink’s studies showed that leaving the chicken bones from eating wings out on the table made people eat less, don’t get a clean plate – leave visible evidence of what you have already eaten in front of you.

Visual Cues as Guides

Historically many people will tell you that from an early age they were trained to use the plate as their norm for consumption (“the Clean Plate club”), rather than their bodily sense of fullness. Most can’t shake it.

In one of his most noted studies, “Bottomless Bowls,” Brian Wansink demonstrates how people’s use of visual cues makes them unable to correctly detect how much they are eating. In two groups, one eating out of normal soup bowls and one eating out of soup bowls rigged up from the bottom to keep refilling, those with the re-filling bowls not only did not recognize their bowls were refilling – they reported eating a similar amount as those in the normal soup bowl group. They had actually consumed 73% more soup.


If you are stuck with the clean plate club – use a smaller plate and a smaller glass and that will be a safer guide. In this culture of super-size and “Big Gulp” it is easy to lose perspective as well as your body’s sense of overload. Fill all the food you plan to eat on one plate- let be your portion. If, as they suggest at a buffet, you keep taking a new plate( resist this) – there is no telling how much you will eat.

Mindless Eating

Anything that takes our focus off the food makes us more likely to overeat. People eat more in front of TV, while reading, sitting at their desks, and snacking in the movies because they are eating in a mindless way.


If eating while viewing is a treasured activity – plan for it. Plan what you will eat and dish out the portion. Remember- people with big ice cream bowls dished out 31% more ice cream!

Social Influence

Research has found that smoking, deciding to get the flu shot, and taking vitamins are all socially contagious behaviors. But our friends have even more influence on how much we eat and drink. They affect our consumption norms and expectations.

Professors Fowler and Christakis found that having a friend who is gaining weight makes you 57% more likely to do so yourself. They consider that consciously or unconsciously, people use what others are eating as a gage for themselves- be it the oversized fries or the chocolate dessert.


Rather than getting mindlessly swept into overeating – plan what you will order before you meet your friend or go out with your partner.

Order extra water or a non-alcoholic beverage you like so that you can continue to drink while your companion continues to eat.

Divide and conquer- if your partner or friends are game, plan on dividing everything – you get to taste without overeating.


When you consider how easy it is to overeat without realizing what you are doing, slowing down or stopping can begin to feel overwhelming.

Consider experimenting with taking back control.

Try one of these simple strategies. In the long run in many ways: “Less can be more.”



Suzanne Phillips, PsyD Bio

Dr. Phillips is a licensed Psychologist, Psychoanalyst, Diplomat in Group Psychotherapy and Co-Author of Healing Together.

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