COVID-19 Resource Center

Review the latest information on visitor policies, safety procedures, vaccines, and more in the COVID-19 Resource Center.

Person's torso wearing a maroon sweater with white reindeer and snowflake patterns on it. The person is holding their stomach as if full.
Person's torso wearing a maroon sweater with white reindeer and snowflake patterns on it. The person is holding their stomach as if full..

Overeating and Your Heart

The Toll It Takes on Your Health

Whether your favorite treat is a burger and fries or chocolate cake, it’s okay to indulge once in a while — in moderation. Moderation can be difficult to determine, though, as portion sizes in America continue to grow. Over the last five decades, the average size of food servings, whether from fast food, sit-down restaurants or grocery stores, has grown by as much as 138 percent. This, along with unhealthy relationships with food, can result in overeating.

Overeating occurs when you eat beyond the point of feeling full. When you overeat, your body works overtime in order to support the digestive system. The amount of blood sent to your gut causes your heart rate to go up. Your stomach has to expand in order to make room for the food. It releases hydrochloric acid to help break down food, which can result in heartburn.

The Link Between a Heavy Meal and Heart Attacks

Fatty meals are particularly taxing on the heart. In addition to contributing to higher cholesterol levels, unusually heavy meals may increase your risk of heart attack, possibly due to changes in blood flow and increases in heart rate and blood pressure after eating. If you have heart disease, limit foods that are high in fat and carbohydrates, particularly at a big meal, a celebration with lots of food, or when dining out at your favorite restaurant.

The Link Between Obesity and Heart Disease

Frequent overeating can lead to obesity. Those extra pounds bring additional health risks for high blood pressure and diabetes. And, individuals who are obese or overweight have a significantly higher risk of developing cardiovascular disease. This occurs for a number reasons.

  • Excess weight can lead to high blood pressure, which, uncontrolled, can cause damage to your heart. This is a major risk factor for stroke, heart failure and abdominal arterial aneurysm.
  • Being overweight increases your risk for atrial fibrillation (AFib), which can lead to stroke, heart failure or other complications.
  • Obesity can cause insulin resistance, which leads to prediabetes or diabetes — a known risk factor for heart disease.

Ways to Avoid Overeating

Choosing healthy, well-portioned meals is one of the first steps to reducing the risk of heart disease and other health issues. You’ll immediately experience benefits, like lower blood pressure and cholesterol.

Here are some ways to avoid overeating:

  • Increase your water intake. You should aim for six to eight glasses a day, possibly more or less, depending on your body size.
  • Control your portion sizes. Ask yourself if you are really hungry before going for seconds.
  • Fill up on fresh, seasonal produce.  
  • Limit bad fat and reduce sodium intake.
  • Plan and prepare your meals, including portions, ahead of time.

– Allison R. Zielinski, MD, Northwestern Medical Group, Cardiology