Do You (Really) Know Why You Gain Weight?

The importance of discovering the "why" behind overeating.

Posted Oct 07, 2019

My dinner companion was less overweight than the last time I saw him about three months ago, and he made sure I realized that by telling me he had lost 20 pounds. “It was hard,” he said, “because I really like to eat.”

“I like to eat as well,” I responded. “Indeed, most people do. That is why some of us are sitting here in this restaurant. But why do you think you were overeating?” I could ask this because he had been, before retirement, a therapist and I assumed he had insight into his own eating issues.

“I am addicted to food,” he responded. And then after a minute, he said, “No not really. That’s not the reason. If I am honest, I overeat when aspects of my life become hard to bear.” And he went on to tell me about his 60-pound weight gain several years earlier when experiencing a difficult period in his career. “I couldn’t even contemplate losing weight until I was in a better place professionally and emotionally.”

Well, one hopes that a therapist would perceive why he had gained weight and why he now is able to lose it. Unfortunately, most of us who have to lose weight do not have any psychological training, and even if we did, we may find it hard to apply that training to understand the etiology of our weight gain.

And yet without knowing why we overeat, we may limit our chances to keep off the weight loss from going on a diet.

A friend who I saw often, she told me many years ago that she ate whatever she wanted, in whatever quantity, because she had the perfect solution to preventing herself from becoming fat.  “I allow myself to gain 20 pounds,” she told me, “and then I go to Weight Watchers. I lose my 20 pounds and then go back to eating everything again.“

“Why not keep the weight off?” I asked her. She shrugged but gave me no answer. I saw her recently after an absence of about 15 years. She is at least 70 pounds overweight. I suspect if she knew why she needed to return to her pre-weight-loss eating habits, she might not now be obese.

One problem that deserves more attention than it gets is why stress causes overeating as opposed to normal eating.

We all know the common stress triggers: exhaustion, frustration, anger, depression, anxiety, and being overwhelmed with problems/work/family. We know that the stressed eater wants chocolate, cookies, chips, French fries, pizza and on and on. But is the dieter ever asked, “Why didn’t you stop after you ate one piece of chocolate, one cookie, one piece of pie, cake, doughnut, or brownie, a handful of potato chips or nuts rather than a bag? Why did you eat so much?”

We know that portion size contributes significantly to weight gain; this cause has been complained about for decades. But no one is forcing the diner, either at a restaurant or at home, to clean his or her plate. Servers are used to their diners taking home uneaten portions or sharing a large entrée with another diner. Is the dieter ever asked, “Why are you eating such large portions? Is it hunger or something else that makes you continue to eat long after you are full?” 

Weight-loss programs that incorporate strategies to make sustainable lifestyle changes, such as Weight Watchers or Noom or many hospital-based weight management centers, they rarely probe into the reasons their dieter-client was overeating meals and/or snacks. Probing into each dieter’s reasons for not stopping at a snack of one cookie, or finishing four cups of pasta and sausage, or half a fried chicken on top of two waffles drenched in maple syrup (a favorite entrée at a local restaurant), and instead obtaining the honest, insightful reason, takes time and patience.

The recommendations offered by the programs with a strong behavioral component follow predictable but useable formats like tracking calories, not skipping meals, controlling portion size, not avoiding the scale, and avoidance of using food to deal with stress.

Certainly paying attention to the size of a meal or the number of chips or peanuts being munched is effective in bringing food intake down to a weight-loss promoting level. Free or inexpensive apps that inform the dieter about the calorie and nutrient content of foods, apps that plan meals, record what is consumed and whether it meets or exceeds daily calorie quotas… and perhaps relates this to daily activity, these computer apps which support the dieter in ways that were not available 10, or even 5 years ago. 

But even with our current technology that allows a “box” to turn on our lights, play our favorite music, and call our mother, neither device nor computer program can replace a conversation about the, “Why?” behind the overeating. It is not enough to have someone fill out a questionnaire or checklist. Listening, and really hearing the why overeating occurred, takes time. The answers do not tumble out; indeed, they may be hidden even from the overeater.

To fix the weight gain and help an individual return to a permanent (or at least long-term) normal weight, it is necessary to know what is broken.

People who want to improve their skills, be it playing golf or the cello, must first demonstrate their level of competence. Then the golf pro or musician-teacher corrects the swing, the bowing, or whatever else needs to be changed for improvement to occur. The dieter also needs guidance not just to develop new skills in food choices and exercise, but also help in correcting dysfunctional eating behavior that might prevent the new skills from cementing. Fortunately, like a dedicated golfer or musician, the eater gets to practice every day.