We’ve all been there: You sit down after a long day of work and pull out a bag of chips for some light snacking before dinner. Suddenly, it’s clear that you’ve made a larger dent in the bag than anticipated, and the stomach pains and feelings of guilt start to creep in.
The struggle of overeating is a common one, generally occurring during times of stress or the holiday season. When overeating becomes a regular habit, though, it can lead to the development of serious health conditions, like type 2 diabetes, obesity, and heart disease.
Overeating is an issue that often requires a multifaceted approach, focusing on emotional, mental, and physical well-being. If you struggle with overeating, learning more about the why behind these behaviors will be helpful with the guide of a mental health professional. It can also be helpful to work with a Health Coach or registered dietitian to set goals around how to shift to healthier habits.
Why do we overeat?
The root of unhealthy eating habits often stems from anxiety or stress, commonly known as “emotional eating,” or eating to numb uncomfortable feelings. It could also become a subconscious habit, developed from living in a society where overindulgence is common and food advertisements are everywhere.
Eating sugary snacks or processed foods full of sugar, salt, and fat causes the release of feel-good chemicals, like serotonin, in the brain, making you more likely to continue eating more than the recommended portion size. There are going to be times, such as holidays and birthday gatherings, where you may overdo it, but it’s important to find solutions that allow you to enjoy your meals without worrying about overeating.
Here are ten tips to stop overeating:
1. Eat slower.
Eating slower can give the brain more time to realize you are full so you can better determine when it’s time to stop eating. It usually takes up to 20 minutes for your brain to get the message that you’ve eaten enough. A study found that people who ate one meal over a three-hour period reported feeling fuller and as if they had eaten a larger portion than people who ate their meal more quickly. Three hours is likely longer than you would take on a normal day to eat a meal, but it’s significant to demonstrate how taking a designated lunch break in the middle of the day, for example, can help you feel more satisfied after a meal.
Practice mindful eating by pausing between bites of food and taking a moment to breathe, allowing your body time to enjoy each bite. You may find that you didn’t need to help yourself to as large of a portion as you did, and you can adjust for the future.
2. Avoid eating from the container.
Eating straight from the container of ice cream or chips is a slippery slope that may cause you to eat more than you anticipated, especially if you tend to do this while standing at the kitchen counter. Pour chips or popcorn into a bowl – and even leave the kitchen – to start creating healthier habits around snacking and avoid mindless eating. This is also a great way to control your portion size, preventing a potential stomachache following your snacking.
Also, your eyes tend to be bigger than your stomach! Do your best to follow guidelines on the food label when estimating the portion size you’d like to put on your plate. The portion sizes that appear on food labels are actually based on how much people tend to eat in one sitting. It may appear smaller than you’d like, but know that our eyes are used to overestimating the amount of food we actually need to sustain us.
3. Try to keep to regular meals.
While a specialized intermittent fasting schedule can improve your metabolism, three structured meals may be better to help fuel your focus and productivity throughout the day. These meals should include small portions of various food groups and nutrients, like whole grains, proteins, fruits, and vegetables.
Starting your day with a hearty breakfast of whole-grain oatmeal or protein-packed eggs can help you feel satiated and avoid excess snacking before you’re able to have lunch. Having regular nutrient-dense meals can also help lower your body’s level of ghrelin, the hormone that stimulates hunger.
4. Stay away from distractions while eating.
It’s easy to sit down with your dinner in front of the television – all of a sudden, you find that you’ve eaten your dinner super quickly and perhaps eaten more than you needed or even wanted. Set yourself up for success by using mealtime as an opportunity to step away from technology and focus on the meal in front of you. You’ll be better able to read your own cues for when you’ve had enough or need more food to become satiated.
5. Focus on protein.
Whether it’s a scoop of almond butter in your smoothie or tofu on your salad, high-protein foods are a great way to bring nutritional value to your meals. Protein can help sustain you for longer periods, especially if combined with some fiber (more on that below), giving you energy to focus on your tasks throughout the day.
If you’re on the go and need healthier snack options, try packing chia seed pudding (easy to make overnight in a mason jar), a protein bar (look out for added sugar, though!), or a handful of nuts. These options are a great way to curb your hunger between meals and avoid overeating once you get to mealtime.
6. Stay hydrated.
Craving that chocolate bar before bed? It could be your body telling you you’re dehydrated! Drinking plenty of water during the day can help curb food cravings and prevent overeating. Proper hydration can help you maintain a healthier BMI and weight. If you often feel “hungry” just a short time after eating a meal, it could mean you’re thirsty! Staying well hydrated can help you differentiate between your hunger and thirst pangs.
Try to keep a big reusable water bottle with you at all times and mark tabs on it with goals for how much you aim to drink during the day.
7. Get your share of fiber.
Fiber is a plant-based nutrient that can help your body feel full for longer. This means eating more whole fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and legumes, such as beans, peas, and lentils. The FDA recommends women get at least 25 grams of fiber per day, while men should get 38 grams.
How can consuming fiber prevent overeating? When you successfully meet your dietary fiber needs, you’re able to crowd out the possibility of filling up on unhealthy junk foods that don’t bring nutritional value to the body. You physically won't have room to overeat if you are consuming adequate fiber and other key nutrients in all your meals.
8. Remove temptations.
One way to reach your goal of stopping overeating is setting your pantry up for success. It’s hard to avoid over-snacking or binging during a late-night movie when you have a variety of junk food front and center in your kitchen cabinets. These shouldn’t be viewed as “forbidden” items but rather have them out of sight and come back to them when you want to treat yourself mindfully.
Visiting the grocery store when you’re hungry or undernourished can be tough, so try shopping after a nutritious meal. When you are feeling strong and satisfied, you can avoid stocking up on empty-calorie foods that you’d be drawn to when you were hungry and wanted a quick boost of sugar. Instead, choose foods that taste great and make you feel great.
9. Minimize stressors
When you’re feeling stressed or anxious, the body releases cortisol, the “fight or flight” hormone. In addition to increasing heart rate and elevating blood pressure, cortisol can cause an increase in your appetite and resulting food intake. This elevation in hormones that cause you to feel like you’re in “danger” will actually influence you to eat more sugary and unhealthy foods because your body thinks it needs quick energy to fight this danger. These chronic feelings of stress and continual overeating can lead to weight gain and more stress, perpetuating this vicious cycle.
The best way to relieve yourself from this cycle is to pinpoint the source. Prioritize self-care and try to minimize stressful situations, which could look like reframing your mind-set around what’s causing you stress. Try taking a 20-minute break to run around the block, waking up early for a meditation session, or planning your day with an organized list of tasks you need to complete. This can ease stress on your mind and prevent you from grabbing a last-minute candy bar at the convenience store for a stress-induced snack.
10. Limit your alcohol intake.
A glass of wine can be a great way to unwind after a long day, however, too much of a good thing can cause weight gain and increase appetite. A study found that the brain’s exposure to ethanol stimulates the same neuroactivity as starvation, which could explain why a night of drinking may leave you craving carbs and oily foods.
Try limiting your alcohol intake by replacing your glass of wine with a cup of tea or hot cocoa. These alternative calming rituals can satisfy your sweet tooth while preventing you from snacking later in the night.
Changing your lifestyle will not happen overnight.
As with any diet or lifestyle change, it takes time to break out of longstanding habits and activities that make us feel good. However, when you integrate a couple of these techniques into your lifestyle, you’ll find that the body notices good habits and will lean toward avoiding overeating in the future.
Building healthy eating habits is an important component of holistic health, addressing the way you view food and helping you approach mealtime with a positive outlook. Check out our Emotional Eating Course today to learn more about how to transform your relationship with food and improve your overall health in the process.