Why We Gain Weight: Rationalizing Overeating and Eating Amnesia

Sometimes we eat more than we need because it’s on our plate.

Sometimes we eat more than we need because it’s on our plate.

Why We Gain Weight: Rationalizing Overeating and Eating Amnesia

What did you eat yesterday? Do you remember?

People are notoriously bad at reporting what and how much they eat. Research shows this to be true. In this study, participants ate more than 400 calories per day in excess of what they reported, and also showed that even dietitians under-reported their intake by nearly 250 calories per day!

This is a big reason why we gain weight. Most of us don’t pay enough attention to really remember what or how much we eat…and most of us are great at rationalizing food intake.

People are notoriously bad at reporting how much food they’ve eaten.

People are notoriously bad at reporting how much food they’ve eaten.

Why do we gain weight?

On the most basic level, weight gain is (usually) a result of overeating – eating in excess of the body’s energy needs.

The reasons people overeat and gain weight are varied and complex. Hormones, how much sleep we get, the amount of stress we’re under, socioeconomic status, activity level, sex, age, and genetics all play a role in appetite, overeating, and propensity to gain weight.

But there are also “sneaky” ways that food finds its way into our mouths, and/or reasons we rationalize overeating, and consequently gain weight.

The definition of rationalize is an attempt to explain or justify (one's own or another's behavior or attitude) with logical, plausible reasons, even if these are not true or appropriate.

Yup…I definitely do that with food!

I think this is my sign!

I think this is my sign!

What are the ways I allow myself to overeat and gain weight?

So I decided to come up with a list of ways I allow myself to gain weight without realizing it…ways that I rationalize eating or pretend that I haven’t really eaten. (I wish this brilliant journal exercise was my own, but it’s not. I got this idea from Geneen Roth’s wonderful book When You Eat At The Refrigerator, Pull Up A Chair.)

This is the list I came up with for myself:

Eating food off my kid’s plate. My kid never eats her PB&J crusts. I don’t particularly like bread crust myself, yet I feel compelled to eat her leftovers. Those crusts aren’t calorie free!

Eating what’s left on my plate – even if I’m not hungry – so as not to “waste” food. Food that is wasted on your waistline is still a waste…maybe even more so!

“Taste-testing” food while I cook (like, a lot). Sometimes I sit down to dinner and I’m not even hungry because I’ve eaten so much while cooking. Of course, I still feel compelled to eat with everyone, so I overeat and feel stuffed and miserable.

Grabbing a handful of chocolates or Werther’s Original candies out of the dish every time I pass it. My mother and mother-in-law always have pretty crystal dishes filled with chocolates, candies, or nuts. I find it almost impossible not to grab a handful every time I walk by the dish…and I make a habit of passing the dish frequently.

It doesn’t count if it’s only a few (handfuls), right?

It doesn’t count if it’s only a few (handfuls), right?

Free samples at the grocery store. I have to give credit to one of my clients for thinking of this one (thank you Mary!). And it’s so true! I’ll eat 8 cubes of cheese, a cookie, and whatever random meat they’re giving away as samples at the grocery store…and then go home and eat lunch!

My husband is eating. Maybe it’s my need for belonging, but my husband’s nightly convention with Captain Crunch causes an overwhelming desire to conform. I’m not hungry, but I want to eat too!

Weekend warrior syndrome. This usually goes hand in hand with dieting, and goes something like this: “I was so good all week…sticking to my diet…so it’s okay to eat an entire pizza/gallon of ice cream/entire package of cookies on Friday or Saturday night.”

Tomorrow is Monday. And since all diets start on Monday, I might as well eat everything in the kitchen/everything I won’t be allowed to have tomorrow, right now.

Eating the “broken pieces” of cookies/crackers/chips. That broken-in-half Oreo just doesn’t belong! The only solution is to eat it.

Pretty much anything eaten after exercise. I worked out so hard…I definitely deserve an extra large triple-chocolate milkshake.

Demanding food symmetry. If you’ve ever found yourself shaving off slices of cake or pie to “make it even”, you might be a food symmetrophile (yes, that’s a word I just made up). Geneen Roth calls this “edging a cake”…and I happen to be an expert.

Only leaving even numbers of cookies/brownies/slices of pie. Leaving three, five, or seven cookies just doesn’t make sense. I must eat the odd one.

This is unacceptable…I would have to eat until the pie had nice even edges!

This is unacceptable…I would have to eat until the pie had nice even edges!

Anything eaten after fasting/dieting. I tried my hand at intermittent fasting, and while I did experience some benefits, most of the time I just used it as an excuse to eat larger amounts of food. Pretty much any sort of diet or food restriction causes me to rationalize overeating at some point.

Anything eaten standing at my kitchen counter or in front of my fridge. When I eat standing up, I’m usually not hungry, and only vaguely aware that I’m eating.

Anything eaten while driving. Same as eating in front of the fridge…I sort of realize I’m eating, but sort of don’t. In both scenarios I’m often eating more than I think I am. A “handful” of nuts might’ve actually been the entire can.

Anything eaten after my second glass of wine. If alcohol can cause you to wake up next to someone you don’t know, it can also cause you to wake up with a massive food hangover. OMG…Did I really eat an entire half-gallon of Haagen Dazs last night?!?

Food that someone else has offered to me or purchased for me. When grandma makes apple pie/meatballs/biscuits/baklava/spaetzle/chicken soup/mashed potatoes…I stuff myself whether I was hungry or not.

It’s my birthday/Christmas/Hanukkah/Kwanzaa/Easter/Valentine’s Day/Earth Day/National Teacher Day. Okay, so I’m all for cutting loose and indulging during truly special occasions…but “special occasion” eating can quickly get out of hand!

A taste here, a spoonful there, a little food from your kiddo’s plate…it all adds up over the course of a day!

A taste here, a spoonful there, a little food from your kiddo’s plate…it all adds up over the course of a day!

What are the sneaky ways you allow yourself to gain weight?

Do you recognize any of the behaviors or rationalizations from my list in yourself? What are ways that you allow yourself to overeat without really realizing it? Write it down!

Most of us are simply unaware of what, how much, and how often we eat because we’re always distracted, and food has a way of “sneaking” into our mouths in seemingly benign ways. When you become aware of your own habits and patterns, you’ll be more likely to put the brakes on eating food your body doesn’t need…and sometimes you won’t. Sometimes you’ll still choose to keep the peace at grandma’s by stuffing yourself silly. But at least with awareness it’s a choice…and you are no longer the victim.

I hope you enjoyed this post and thank you for reading!

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Blog Author: Kelly Bailey, IIN certified holistic nutrition coach, and NPTI certified personal trainer

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