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Finding the Root Cause of Overeating

What causes so many people to overeat to the point of damaging their bodies and limiting their quality and length of life?

Most adults are aware that the calories they consume minus the calories they burn dictates whether pounds are gained, lost or stay consistent. However, this doesn’t seem to change the fact that overeating remains a serious concern in America.

There is significant research on the subject that shows a variety of causes for overeating, from genetic susceptibility to psychosocial factors such as stress and depression. And some recent studies show that the factors that influence our decisions may be environmental.

Systems Out of Balance

Research into the science of overeating shows that the root cause of obesity to be a neurological disorder, similar in many ways to other forms of addiction. This suggests a different direction for the treatment of those who are overweight, one that is focused more on controlling brain imbalances in what are called “food addicts”.

The National Institute of Health study posits that there are similarities between drug additions and various forms of overeating — that they may be triggered by dopamine reward pathways that are found in goal-directed behavior. Sweet foods are even found to have an analgesic pleasure effect, linking the palatability of the food to the reward system. Scientists believe that these reward centers are triggered more often due to exterior stressors such as depression or a feeling of being out of control. Sugar addicts will certainly relate to this concept, but there are other schools of thought that consider external triggers that are as important or more so than an internal system that’s out of balance.

Environmental Controls

For more than 10 years, researchers at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) have been looking into eating as an automatic behavior — meaning, Americans are thoughtlessly being led by their environment on a regular basis. Subconsciously, humans are following environmental cues instead of proactively managing their eating habits. This study pulls together previous studies, showing that:

  • Disregarding other factors, being served larger portions causes overeating
  • A reduction in effort to eat food increases overall consumption
  • Large groups eating together tend to overeat in correlation with the size of the group
  • Individuals will eat until food placed in front of them is gone, regardless of satiety

These so-called automatic behaviors are in response to cues to eat, suggesting that a reduction in environmental eating cues can be successful at helping reduce obesity.

Interaction of Hormones

Researchers at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School made headlines in 2015 by publishing a study showing that humans aren’t the only ones whose biology will cause obesity. A specific hormone glucagon was blocked in the brain of laboratory mice, causing them to consume high-fat food and overeat beyond their caloric requirements. However, when the hormone was reintroduced and enhanced, the same mice lost much of their interest in foods with a high-fat content.

These GLP-1 peptides are secreted by cells in the brain and small intestine and their biological imperative is to monitor when we are satisfied with the amount of food that’s been consumed. This same peptide is tied back into the pleasure centers of the brain, rewarding us for eating high fat or sugary foods. This promising research may eventually provide a path for treating overeating and obesity that has fewer side effects than traditional treatments.

While it would be easier to simply blame the problem on poor wiring in our brains, the cause of overeating and ultimately obesity is more complex. Environmental factors such as availability and ease of consumption as well as psychosocial elements all appear to contribute to the national pastime of eating more for enjoyment than for providing the body with the fuel that it requires.

Finding the Root Cause of Overeating

Mike Bundrant

Mike Bundrant is the author of Your Achilles Eel: Discover and Overcome the Hidden Cause of Negative Emotions, Bad Decisions and Self-Sabotage and co-founder at The iNLP Center which offers online certification in Neuro-Linguistic Programming and life coaching.

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APA Reference
Bundrant, M. (2018). Finding the Root Cause of Overeating. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 9, 2020, from


Last updated: 18 Jun 2018
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