WE’RE all guilty of a little overeating here and there.

But when does it become a problem? When it’s ingrained into your daily life?

Can't get your hand out the cookie jar? Overeating has a number of causes

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Can’t get your hand out the cookie jar? Overeating has a number of causesCredit: Getty

Overeating, put simply, is “eating more than we would like to”, or, “more than our body needs”, says Jane Ogden, Professor of Health Psychology at University of Surrey.

It’s not just eating seconds when you’re already full and lying down in discomfort.

Overeating includes treats throughout the day or habitual snacking attached to an activity, such as watching the TV. 

Jane, who has authored books on the psychology of eating behaviour, says these habits can all lead to guilt around food as well as weight gain.

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She told The Sun: “Food has piled out into all sorts of different bits and pieces of our lives where it doesn’t need to be.”

The reasons for overeating fall into a number of categories, including environmental triggers or as a way to cope with certain emotions.

We go through some of the most common with Jane…

1. For comfort

Comfort eating is something a huge proportion of Brits are familiar with.

Jane says it comes back to our childhood, revealing: “We learn as a child that food is a source of comfort, a treat or a way to manage stress. 

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“So as adults, when we feel these emotions, we can turn to food to make ourselves feel better.”

‘Comfort eating’ may help you cope with symptoms of mental illness or body confidence issues; it can offset boredom, upset or frustration. 

Jane says: “People are often very critical of themselves and have negative scripts in their heads. 

“Food can be a source of comfort to boost their mood and give them a sense of wellbeing.

“But this can often be short-lived, leading to self-criticism and then further overeating.”

Sometimes it’s only minor daily stressors that trip people up.

“We don’t necessarily eat because we’re depressed or we’re anxious,” says Jane. 

“We eat because we need a bit of a treat or pick-me-up because we feel a bit stressed.

“For example, reaching for a cup of tea and a biscuit after coming off a difficult phone call.”

How to fix it: “The solution is to first work out which emotions are your triggers by being mindful of when you eat and watching for links with how you feel,” recommends Jane.

“Then you need to start finding other ways to manage these triggers.  

“This could involve talking to friends, going for a walk, doing yoga, listening to music or watching a film.”

Removing foods in the house may also help limit temptation.

2. Out of habit

Picture the scene: You’ve just sat down to watch your favourite soap and feel an aching longing for your usual snack.

You go and grab a huge bag of crisps, a packet of biscuits or a slab of chocolate, even though you were satisfied with dinner.

This is habitual overeating and “can be linked to a certain time of day, a certain table, the sofa or a chair, specific people, driving in the car, watching TV or going to the cinema”, says Jane. 

“Throughout our lives we constantly make associations between people, places and behaviours.

“These are habits and we eat not because we are hungry but because the person or place simply made us think we are hungry.”

How to fix it: Jane says the best way to break a habit is to wait for a natural change in your life.

For example, when you get back from holiday, or change where you sit at work, or the arrangement of furniture in a room.

“That’s the time to embrace and start again, because it’s all been shuffled around anyway,” she says.

She encourages reverting back to a simple “breakfast, lunch and dinner” way of eating “so that food doesn’t spill out into every activity – like every time you have a cup of tea”.

3. Due to your environment

Your environment may set your cravings off. After all, it’s hard to deny food when it’s being waved in your face. 

“We often eat because it is there, as the sight or smell of food is a powerful trigger,” Jane explains.

“This might be because our partner gives us food, even when we are not hungry.

“This often causes mindless eating when we eat without really processing what we are doing.”

Jane says you might live or work with a “feeder” – someone who constantly offers you food and often won’t take no for an answer.

“People feed for all sorts of reasons. It can come from love or be a sign of affection, but can also be to stop them[selves] from eating,” she says.

Environmental triggers can also include spotting biscuits at the supermarket till, or takeaway shops on the street.

“We tend to overeat because the world that we live in and the food industry prompts us to eat,” says Jane.

How to fix it: Jane says to confront feeders and ask them: ‘Do you know this is what you’re doing? I’m trying to be healthier and eat well’.

Tell them to throw food in the bin if they don’t want it, or when at a restaurant, ask them if they really need that extra side because they didn’t eat it last time.

4. If you suffer an eating disorder

More serious cases of overeating may be underpinned by an eating disorder (ED).

This is usually part of a binge eating disorder – when someone feels compelled to eat a large amount of food in a short period of time until they’re uncomfortably full or sick.

Jane says: “They’ll swing between undereating – periods when they’re seriously restricting their food intake – which leads to rebound effects and overeating.

“Their weight might fluctuate or overall stay stable, but their eating behaviour is still unhealthy.

“Binge eating as part of ED can happen for many reasons such as difficult childhood, perfectionisms, a need for control, abuse or having been reinforced at sometime for being thin, leading to under-eating and compensatory overeating. 

“Overeating can be a source of comfort and sometimes vomiting after can be a source of relief.

“But again, these benefits are short-lived and can be followed by self loathing.”

How to fix it: Jane says food has a much larger significance in the lives of someone with illnesses such as anorexia or binge eating disorder – it can become their sense of self.

People with eating disorders should always reach out for help, for example by calling the eating disorder charity Beat’s helpline on 0808 801 0677.

5. You’re on a diet

Similar to binge eating disorder, but on a lesser scale, you may be overeating in the evening simply because you are not getting enough calories in the day.

Jane says: “Dieting during the day can lead to under-eating and a sense of denial. This can then trigger overeating to compensate in the evening.”

How to fix it: Eating patterns that are too restrictive may drive binges later on, when you are both physically drained and emotionally weak around food.

Don’t skip meals – try to always have a balanced plate at every meal time.

And don’t deny yourself a treat in order to “save it” for another time. This is ignoring natural hunger or emotion cues, which can lead to a cycle of restriction and bingeing.

6. It’s down to family life

Food isn’t just “fuel” – it is part of how we entertain ourselves.

Perhaps your culture and family time is centred around food (and lots of it).

This can make it harder to detach the two, as you may have grown up enjoying a feast at every family get-together.

“Food is a massive part of how we interact with our children or with our partners or in a social situation, or to celebrate,” says Jane.

“Culture also influences how we eat and food is tied up with festivals, religion, rituals and times of year.”

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How to fix it: Jane says work out ways to manage overeating in social events by “learning how to celebrate without food – perhaps by seeing friends or playing music”.

“Or we just accept that at special times we will overeat, enjoy it, don’t beat ourselves up about it and move on with life,” she adds.

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