In the short term, going crazy at the buffet or office party can make you feel uncomfortably full. But if you’re constantly going back for seconds – or even thirds – you can pack on some serious pounds over time, not to mention a slew of health risks, including high blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
What’s more, overeating can go to your head even more than your stomach. When we overdo it, we tend to beat ourselves up, spiraling into periods of guilt and negative self-talk. “Emotionally, it takes a toll on us,” says Ohio-based registered dietitian nutritionist Tori Schmitt, founder of Yes! Nutrition. As a result, a cycle of emotional eating and guilt can take a toll on both your mental and physical health.
The good news is that there’s always a way to stop. Case in point: these seven expert- and science-backed strategies to break your overeating habit for good.
1. Ask yourself this question. One of the simplest things you can do when you feel like eating is to ask yourself, “Am I hungry?” says Dr. Michelle May, a Phoenix-based family medicine physician and founder of (the aptly named) “Am I Hungry?” mindful-eating programs. According to May, most people aren’t accustomed to tuning into their body’s hunger signals. Often, what people assume is hunger is actually boredom or stress.
If you’re hungry, your stomach will rumble or growl, and you’ll feel the symptoms of low blood sugar such as low energy, difficulty concentrating and even shakiness. “If you don’t have physical symptoms, it’s unlikely that you’re hungry,” May says. If it turns out you’re just bored, figure out what will divert your attention (think: social plans, home projects, taking up a new sport). When the cause is emotion-based – whether rooted in stress, loneliness or guilt – addressing the problem head-on is your best bet for success, she says.
Schmitt has clients use a hunger and fullness scale to help determine when to eat – and when to stop. On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being “ravenous” and 10 being “stuffed,” you want to eat when you’re in between a 3 and a 4, according to Schmitt. If you wait much longer, you’ll start to feel faint. Stop eating when you reach a 6 or a 7, or when you feel satisfied but not full or uncomfortable. Chances are, you’ll need to eat every few hours if you follow this approach.
A 2017 review of 68 studies shows that such mindful and intuitive eating tactics are effective approaches for alleviating overeating tendencies.
2. Get more shut-eye. “Many people don’t recognize that short sleep has such a strong impact on hunger signals,” says Canada-based registered dietitian Georgie Fear, author of “Lean Habits for Lifelong Weight Loss.” In fact, a recent study published in SLEEP found that adults who slept only 4.5 hours for four nights in a row ate approximately 300 more calories in snacks in one sitting than those who had gotten 8.5 hours of sleep per night. Researchers suggest that sleep restriction increases the activation of the body’s self-produced version of THC, the active ingredient in marijuana. The result: a greater desire for foods high in sugar, fat and empty calories.
According to Denver weight-loss coach and eating disorder counselor Dorie McCubbrey, the average adult needs about seven hours of quality sleep per night to keep hunger signals in check. She emphasizes the “quality” aspect, since tossing and turning for seven-plus hours won’t do your hunger signals any favors. McCubbrey recommends creating a nighttime routine that dials down your body’s “fight or flight” sympathetic nervous system and turns up your “rest and digest” parasympathetic nervous system. Try taking a warm bath or drinking a cup of chamomile tea.
3. Slow down. When you spend your day hurrying from one thing to the next, rushing through your meal suddenly becomes the norm. But if you eat too quickly, your brain doesn’t get enough time to catch up with your stomach, which means you could end up taking in a surplus of food and not realize you overdid it until 20 minutes after you’ve finished. According to May, slowing down helps give your brain time to process the chemical signals that indicate you're full.
Moreover, eating on the go has also been linked to overeating. In a study published in the Journal of Health Psychology, researchers found that subjects who ate a cereal bar while walking consumed more calories – five times more chocolate – than those who ate while watching TV or talking. Researchers suggest that because we’re distracted, overeating while on the go becomes easier.
There are several strategies you can use to slow your roll, such as taking three super slow bites at the start of every meal. “Sometimes we’re rushing from A to B, and then we go to eat and we just carry that fast, efficient mentality,” Fear says. But if you start your meal with three slow bites, you’ll make it easier to eat the remainder of your meal at a moderate pace.
Other strategies include cutting your food into smaller pieces, savoring the taste and mouth-feel of each bite and taking a five-minute break once you’ve finished half of your plate.
4. Make post-dinner plans. It’s a familiar scenario: No sooner than you’ve finished your dinner and cleared away the dishes are you rooting around in the fridge or cupboard in search of a snack. Well, research suggests that all of that searching may be in vain. For instance, in one Brain Imaging and Behavior study, women were found to report increased food cravings in the evening, despite the fact that activation of their neurological reward pathways (what allows your food to “hit the spot”) at that time actually decreased.
To resist the urge to graze, Fear suggests making after-dinner plans. It could be as simple as walking to your bedroom to watch your favorite TV show or returning a book to the library. The key is it has to be something relatively enjoyable. Otherwise, you’ll want to procrastinate – likely with extra eating.
5. Create some distance. If you find that you can’t stop picking at your food – even after you’re full – try pushing your plate away, says Fear, explaining that the simple act helps your brain reinforce the fact that you’ve called it quits. What’s more, moving your food farther away means that if you want more, you have to deliberately – as opposed to mindlessly – go for it.
For instance, research published in the International Journal of Obesity shows that office workers eat more chocolate candies when they are within arm’s reach, and even more when they are both within arm’s reach and visible. Try keeping your office snacks in the break room or in the back of your desk drawer where you’ll be less tempted to snack mindlessly.
6. Drink up. Research shows that drinking a glass of water before eating can help keep you from going overboard. One Obesity study found that people who drank water before their meals ate fewer calories during their meals and left them feeling fuller compared to those who didn’t drink water as an appetizer. In the end, they also lost significantly more weight.
According to Fear, drinking water just before eating can help prime the receptors in your stomach to start sending fullness signals to your brain even before you take your first bite. Plus, the symptoms of hunger and dehydration are very similar, Schmitt says. If you’re thirsty, you may feel sluggish or have a hard time concentrating, or your stomach may feel empty. Hydrate before your meal and you reduce the likelihood of overeating out of thirst.