Dr. Suzanne B. Phillips

Licensed Psychologist, Psychoanalyst, Diplomate in Group Psychology, Certified Group Therapist, Author, Radio Host and Media Consultant Covering a Wide Range of Psychological Topics

Post: Overeating During the Pandemic: Reasons Why and Strategies for Stopping

Do you know why you overeat? If you answer – The Pandemic, Being Sheltered with Family, Losing My Job, Boredom or Binge-Watching Netflix – You will not be alone. Whatever made overeating a common and complex behavior before the world faced COVID-19, has been exacerbated by the way this pandemic has hijacked our lives.

Food expert, Brian Wansink, who conducted research with thousands of people over many years, found that when it comes to overeating, people actually share some common patterns. Some of these findings unfold as possible strategies for taking a little bit more control – even at a difficult time. They may offer some steps that will make you feel in control without adding the pressure of a diet to everything else you are facing.

Some Findings:

  • Most of us don’t overeat based on likes, dislikes, hunger or mood.
  • We overeat based on convenience, visual cues, social and cultural prompts and external circumstances in ways we may not recognize.
  • We do not use our own bodies as our guide.  We give up control to external factors and overlook our internal cues that  signal ” Enough!”
  • You may be saying,  ” What Cue?”  ” There is no Cue!”  Good question; but in small steps, you may find your body can  actually work to your advantage.

A closer look at the research findings of factors causing overeating offer us some strategies for taking back control.


In A Pew Research telephone survey most people reported convenience as their reason for eating junk food. Consistent with this,expert food researcher Brian Wansink and colleagues found that “The more hassle it is to eat, the less we eat.”

What is striking is how just a little inconvenience can reduce a lot of eating. 

  • In one study a dish of chocolate kisses was moved over the course of weeks to different locations in secretaries’ offices – the corner of the desk, the top of the left hand drawer and on a file cabinet 6 feet from the desk- the farther away, the less they ate – a difference reflected in 225 extra calories a day. In the debriefing, the secretaries revealed that the longer the distance, the more time to talk themselves out of eating another piece!
  • In another study a cooler full of free ice cream was placed in a cafeteria. It was in the same visible place every day except on some days the glass lid was left open and on other days, closed. Apparently even pushing open a lid was too much hassle. On the closed lid days only 14% of the diners had ice cream compared with 30% on the days it was “conveniently” opened.


Make junk foods and the foods you tend to overeat “inconvenient.” Put the ice cream in the garage or basement freezer and the cookies and chips in bins in the back of the pantry. Put the foods you want to eat (cut up fruit, yogurt, and veggies) out or in the front.  Stack the deck in your favor with what you keep at the front of your refrigerator. When you are hungry and out of time – the most convenient is likely to be the choice.


Beyond convenience, studies show that visible foods trigger eating in a way that is difficult to resist. One study found that secretaries reached into a clear candy bowl 71% more times than a white colored one. Visibility makes us “too mindful” of food. Neurochemically, the anticipation of food trips secretions that add to our craving and our overeating.


  • Unless you want to battle or overeat all day – don’t leave food, soda or items you really don’t want to eat- out. Don’t expect children to resist overeating snacks that are always visible.
  • Use visibility as a deterrent. Given that one of  Wansink’s studies showed that leaving the chicken bones from eating wings out on the table made people eat less, don’t get a clean plate – leave visible evidence of
    what you have already eaten in front of you.

Visual Cues as Guides

Whoever invented “The Clean Plate Club” should be shot. Historically many people will tell you that from an early age they were trained to use the plate as their norm for consumption, rather than their bodily sense of fullness. Most can’t shake it.

In one of his most noted studies, “Bottomless Bowls,” Brian Wansink demonstrates how people’s use of visual cues makes them unable to correctly detect how much they are eating. In two groups, one eating out of normal soup bowls and one eating out of soup bowls rigged up from the bottom to keep refilling, those with the re-filling bowls not only did not recognize their bowls were refilling – they reported eating a similar amount as those in the normal soup bowl group. They had actually consumed 73% more soup.


 If you are stuck with the clean plate club – use a smaller plate and a smaller glass and that will be a safer guide. In this culture of super-size and “Big Gulp” it is easy to lose perspective as well as your body’s sense of overload. Fill all the food you plan to eat on one plate-let that control  your portion. If when things open up and you are at a buffet, resist the invitation to take a clean plate. There is every reason to think – you will eat more.

Mindless Eating

Anything that takes our focus off the food makes us more likely to overeat. People eat more in front of the computer, the TV, while reading, sitting at their desks, and snacking in the movies-because they are eating in a mindless way.


If eating while viewing is a treasured activity – plan for it. Plan what you will eat and dish out the portion. Remember- people with big ice cream bowls dished out 31% more ice cream!

Social Influence

Research has found that smoking, deciding to get the flu shot, and taking vitamins are all socially contagious behaviors. But our friends have even more influence on how much we eat and drink. They affect our consumption norms and expectations.

Professors Fowler and Christakis found that having a friend who is gaining weight makes you 57% more likely to do so yourself. They consider that consciously or unconsciously, people use what others are eating as a gage for themselves- be it the oversized fries or the chocolate dessert.


  • Rather than getting mindlessly swept into overeating – plan what you will order from the curb side restaurant before you and the family or socially distanced friends have dinner.
  • Put extra water or non-alchoholic beverages in front of you when you are eating so that when you have the urge to consume more, you can continue to drink while others continue to eat.
  • Divide and conquer- if your partner or friends or family members are game, invite someone to share the appetizer  main course or dessert.This almost always works – you and your share partner gets to taste without overeating.

When you consider how easy it is to overeat without realizing what you are doing, slowing down or stopping can begin to feel overwhelming.  Consider experimenting with taking back control.  Try one of these strategies.  Be kind and supportive to yourself. You may just take something out of this storm without adding additional pressure.

You may find that cue that keeps you knowing what you like- as well as – how much of it you need.

Listen in to Jennie Kramer discuss “Understanding and Overcoming Binge Eating” on Psych UP Live