5 Subconscious Reasons You Can’t Stop Yourself From Eating Too Much

And how to change.

September 18, 2016
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Have you ever felt out of control with food and swept up by emotions? Have you ever wondered why you just can’t seem to stop overeating time after time? 

There are many factors that contribute to why, how, and how much we eat, but here are a few examples of how subconscious lessons you learned in childhood may be driving your current relationship with food.

You Had To Clean Your Plate

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After all, there are starving children in Africa, right? Unfortunately, this “clean plate club” teaches children to ignore hunger signals, relying on external cues like the presence or absence of food to dictate when and how much is eaten. They eat until the food is gone, no matter how it makes them feel.

As adults, these children may continue to eat beyond the point of comfort at restaurants and buffets to “get their money’s worth,” finish food they may not even like so that it doesn’t “go to waste,” or absentmindedly pick leftovers off their own child’s or spouse’s plate.

Dessert Was The Reward For Eating Your Vegetables

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This teaches children several lessons. First, they’re encouraged to again ignore their hunger signals (by eating more of their dinner than they like) so that they can get to the part of the meal that they really want (and therefore eat even more and feel even more uncomfortably full). Second, they learn that nutritious foods are eaten out of obligation rather than enjoyment. Finally, they come to place “junk” food on a pedestal.

You may be struggling with this if you find that you force yourself to eat nutritious foods before allowing yourself to have what you really want, or if you tend to have a negative view of “healthy” foods while referring to “unhealthy” foods as guilty pleasures.

You Were Told What To Eat 

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Parents of very slender children may worry that they are not eating enough, so they allow him or her to eat any food ad libitum. Meanwhile, parents are tempted to restrict “junk” foods if they are told (or they themselves believe) their child is overweight. This teaches children that they only need to worry about nutrition if they are considered to be overweight.

The slender child may wind up with a palate distorted from years of not being encouraged to eat a variety of nutritious foods, while the overweight child may grow up to view healthy foods with resentment. You may struggle with some form of this if you associate healthy foods with dieting or a need to lose weight; in other words, if you feel nutrition is only needed temporarily, as a means to an end.

Junk Food Wasn’t Allowed 

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When less nutrient-dense foods are forbidden, children tend to overeat them when they do become available. After all, who knows when they will get them again?!

Adults who have had these types of experiences in childhood may struggle with overeating unhealthy foods and categorizing foods as either good or bad. This black-and-white thinking often leads to judgments based on foods consumed: you’re “good” when you eat salad and “bad” when you eat a cookie. People who grew up this way may also have trouble stopping, once they start eating a food they see as being unhealthy or off-limits.

How To Fix The Problems

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If any of these obstacles (or others!) resonates with you, the first step is awareness. When do you first remember struggling with your relationship with food? What was going on in your life at the time?

Forgive yourself: you’ve been coping with these internalized lessons the best way you could at the time. Remind yourself that most of the people who may have contributed to the development of your struggles genuinely meant well; they, too, were acting in the best way they could at the time. If these thoughts are very difficult for you to navigate, consider working with a counselor to sort through them in a safe, non-judgmental space.

Once you begin to unfold the factors that helped shape your current relationship with food, you can begin to mindfully choose a new path. There will always be bumps and curves, but there’s also always a way forward.

Remember: you are not a trash can. There are no rules with food, only choices. You are more than what you eat. And more than anything else, you are not alone.

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