Anyone can have a complicated relationship with food, particularly in American culture where dieting is so common. “Diet culture” can pressure us to eat as little as possible, or to restrict our calorie intake to a certain level, in order to promote what society considers to be an “ideal” or “healthy” body type.
Unfortunately, this belief can lead some people to feel guilty or ashamed about the amount of food they consume and predisposes many of us to developing unhealthy relationships with food. On college campuses, one study found, diet culture has been linked to worsened eating disorder symptoms and predisposes to development of eating disorders later in life. (1)
In a culture so focused on food and dieting, you may start to question your own eating habits. You might even begin to ask yourself, “why am I eating so much?” If others seem to be eating much less than you are. It is important to move away from judging yourself negatively for the amount of food you eat, as there are several reasons that you may require more calories than those around you.
The first step in understanding the answer to why you’re eating “so much” is developing a deeper knowledge of your hunger cues. At the physiological level, hunger cues originate in your stomach, where the vagus nerve sends messages about how empty or full the stomach is at that time. When your stomach feels empty, hunger cues result in the release of the hormone ghrelin, which stimulates the sensation of having an “appetite” which then motivates you to eat. For this reason, ghrelin is often referred to as the “hunger hormone”. (2)
Certain factors can increase hunger signals in your body. For example, the body of research on hunger cues shows that stress is linked to elevated ghrelin levels. (3) If you’re balancing numerous demands, such as work, school, or family commitments, you may find that you’re hungrier.
Lack of sleep has also been linked to increases in the hunger hormone ghrelin, and sleep deprivation can make food seem more rewarding. (4) Sleep deprivation can even lead you to overeat.
There is never any shame in eating the food that your body needs to thrive, but if you find that you’re overeating to the point of discomfort, some lifestyle changes, including stress reduction and a more consistent sleep schedule, may help you to change your eating habits to better serve your needs.
If you’re comparing your eating habits to those of the people around you, consider the fact that you might simply have higher calorie needs. Beyond factors like height, weight, and genetics, your activity level can influence the number of calories you need. If you’re highly active, you are likely burning significantly more calories than someone who is only moderately active or sedentary, which can increase your appetite and your drive to eat.
Consider athletes, for example. Research has consistently demonstrated that during the competition season, endurance athletes have significantly higher calorie needs compared to when they are not competing. Even preparing for the competitive season increases calorie needs, and studies have indicated that the typical endurance athlete burns over 4,000 calories per day just when preparing for competition. (5)
Even if you aren’t a competitive athlete, if you are someone who is active, you will need more food than someone who is less active. If you aren’t properly fueling your body for the activity you do, you will naturally feel hungrier, as your body attempts to get the nutrition it needs.
Bodies of different sizes also have different dietary needs. Larger bodies require a higher food intake just to maintain daily functions. Historically, medical doctors have used body mass index (BMI) as an estimate for healthy weight. BMI is essentially just a simple comparison of your height compared to your weight. But nutrition research is showing us that it is much more complicated than this, and that “BMI” alone may not be at all a very accurate or important predictor of overall health.
A recent study found that physical activity level is much more predictive of health than body mass index BMI. The study found that individuals classified as “overweight” according to their BMI were not at increased risk of health-related problems when they were physically active. In addition, inactive individuals, even those deemed to be at a “healthy” weight according to BMI, were more likely to have health problems than those who were more active. (6)
What can be concluded from these findings is that it is possible to be “healthy” at any size. For larger bodies, calorie needs will be higher, especially among those who are physically active. There is nothing wrong with consuming the amount of food that your body needs to sustain its daily activities, even if it doesn’t result in weight loss. In fact, interventions within the health at every size (“HAES”) movement, which promotes healthy lifestyle changes without an end goal of weight loss, are beneficial for improving psychological well-being and promoting physical activity and healthy eating habits.
Restricting calorie intake, if done incorrectly, in an effort to lose weight can actually increase your appetite and conversely promote overeating. If you’ve been dieting, when you return to eating normally, you may find that you end up overeating because of the appetite increase that comes with calorie restriction. (8)
If you’re asking yourself, “why am I eating so much?” and you have a history of restrictive dieting, it may be time to try intuitive eating. Instead of fixating on restricting and tracking everything you eat, try to focus on your hunger cues, and make a habit of eating when hungry and stopping when full.
In some cases, extreme feelings like you are eating too much can be a symptom of an eating disorder. If you struggle with feelings of shame and guilt around eating, or you consistently feel as if you are uncomfortable with eating enough to nourish your body, it may be time to reach out to a nutritionist or an eating disorder professional to help you develop a healthier relationship with food.