The consequences of overeating

Dr Cassy Richmond
Friday, December 3, 2010
Are your eyes bigger than your stomach?

When it comes to eating, are you a "supersize me" type of person? Do you generally heap food onto your plate, and consume everything, before going for seconds and dessert? If your answer is an uncomfortable "yes", you are by no means alone.

In fact, in the Western world, people today are eating much more than they used to — and way more than they need to. Moreover, many of us are quite unaware that we are eating too much as we have become so used to seeing (and devouring!) large portion sizes. Dr Cassy Richmond explains what happens to our bodies when we overeat.

Here's some food for thought. Did you know that your stomach is about the size of your fist? And if you close your fist and look at it, you will see that this is about the amount of food most people require in a typical meal to be adequately satiated.

Now if you are wondering how on your earth your stomach was able to accommodate that largish dinner you consumed last night, the next piece of information you should know is that, as your stomach is a muscular sac, it can expand to hold a greater amount of food than it needs to. In fact, it can expand up to three times its size after a huge meal.

When you're stuffed...

Stuffing yourself to the gill (literally!), and stretching your stomach beyond its normal capacity, causes a variety of consequences you are probably aware of such as

  • nausea;
  • discomfort;
  • heartburn;
  • belching.

If you have experienced heartburn after a massive meal, this may be because your stomach has become so distended that the valve between the oesophagus and the stomach (called the lower oesophageal sphincter) has difficulty closing properly.

This then enables digestive acid and food particles to flow back into the oesophagus to cause reflux pain. If reflux following a large meal happens on a regular basis, the delicate tissue lining the oesophagus may become inflamed and ulcerated.

Weight gain

When you overeat, you consume many more kilojoules than your body requires for energy. If this happens frequently, you will gain weight (you know the drill!), and this increases your chances of becoming obese. Being over-weight or obese is medically significant as it may raise your risk of developing high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, bone and joint problems, and heart disease. It also increases the risk for depression.

Thankfully, there are many ways you can prevent yourself from overeating:

  • Eat slowly and stop just before you think you are full. Most people don't realise that it can take about 20 minutes for the stomach to communicate to the rest of the body that it has had enough. If you chew slowly, and put the fork down in between bites, you are more likely to recognise your 'full' signal, and be satiated by a smaller meal size.
  • Have a snack if you are hungry in between meals. Rather than starving yourself, it is best to choose a healthy snack. This will reduce your chances of binge eating at your next meal-time.
  • Be mindful of portion size. As a general rule, fist-sized portions are usually best. Using a side plate instead of a dinner-plate may be a helpful reminder for you.
  • Take a break before diving in for seconds. If you wait for 20 minutes before reaching for a second helping, you may find that you are actually quite full — and that you do not require that extra helping after all!

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