We all have a different threshold for how much is too much, and the definition of overeating can vary depending on the situation. For instance, what you eat for dinner one day may be a normal amount for you — but it can seem like overkill if you also had a very large lunch or did a lot of snacking between meals.
In general, “overeating can be defined as consuming more food than the body can handle comfortably in one sitting, or consuming more calories than the body needs to function optimally on a daily basis,” says Eudene Harry, M.D., physician turned author of three books including Be Iconic. “This can leave us feeling bloated with a multitude of digestive symptoms and lead to weight gain.”
How do you know you’re overeating?
It’s not an easy question to answer without considering someone’s holistic lifestyle and health. If you’re feeling frequently uncomfortable after mealtime, or super tired, in addition to routine stomach aches, these are likely cues that you’ve overdone it.
Your body’s fullness or satiety cues may also differ between meals you’re eating: Certain foods like fruits and vegetables have a high water content and are packed with fiber that can fill you up quickly, making it difficult to overeat those foods. Other foods like cookies and cakes are more dense and may be easier to eat too much of.
A majority of people end up overeating because they have waited too long in between meals or haven’t eaten enough during the day.
Nutrition experts at the University of California Berkely have expanded upon what’s known as the hunger-satiety scale in the field of nutrition, which indicates that people should start eating just after they first notice their hunger. “By not waiting too long, it may make it easier to thoughtfully chose what you’d like to eat until you are satisfied, rather than overly stuffed,” experts share. To keep hunger levels in check, you’ll need to eat 2-3 regularly scheduled balanced meals throughout the day, in addition to nutritious snacks to avoid reaching the lower numbers on the chart.
There are a number of physical and emotional factors that can lead us to that point.
Being tired, stressed, hangry, unfocused as well as eating certain foods can cause us to overeat. More frequently than not, overeating is very psychological and may not have much to do with active choices; if you’re sleeping well, staying hydrated and checking off other lifestyle boxes while still having this issue, it could be something psychological as well that is prompting you to overeat.
How to stop overeating
The trick is to resolve those issues and adopt strategies to avoid overeating on the regular.
Put the best options in plain sight
First things first: We all have those foods that we can get enough of, whether that’s chips, pasta, candy, or ice cream, says Ilana Muhlstein, M.S., R.D.N., registered dietitian nutritionist and creator of the 2B Mindset.“Don’t keep food around your house or office that may prompt you to overeat,” she says. “Out of sight, out of mind, is one of the easiest ways to control this issue.” Enjoy these items in moderation when possible.
Get more shuteye
Sleep improves nearly every system in our body, and when we don’t get enough, our body doesn’t function efficiently. “Studies consistently show that when a person sleeps less than the recommended 7 to 8 hours per night, she may be more likely to feel hungrier the next day, and crave and consume higher calorie and carbohydrate-rich foods,” says Mulstein. If you’re worried that your snack choices may be impacting your sleep routine, try focusing in on proven natural sleep aids.
Stay ahead of hanger
You never want to let yourself get so hungry that you reach for whatever’s nearby. “Keep high-protein snacks handy,” says Susan Albers, Psy.D., psychologist, best-selling author of eight books, including the forthcoming Hanger Management. “Hummus, roasted chickpeas, nuts, energy balls and protein smoothies are some of my go-tos.” Along those same lines, Muhlstein also recommends snackable veggies like baby carrots and cut up cucumbers.
Check in with yourself. “When you feel yourself start to get hungry, ask yourself how hungry are you, really?” advises Albers. “Whether you’re a little bit hungry, moderately hungry, or very hungry, this is going to let you pick the right eating intervention — just a bite, a snack, or a meal.”
“Turn off the television, put down your phone and really focus on your food,” says Dr. Harry. “Eating mindfully allows you to appreciate all the complexities and nuances of food in front of you.” Not only will you be more aware of how much you’re consuming, she says, you’ll often notice a flavor explosion in the first few bites of your meal that gradually decreases and becomes less satisfying.
Include protein and fiber in your meal. These two nutrients may help you feel fuller faster, according to research. They also enable your body to better regulate swings in your glucose levels that may come with eating carbohydrates. Dr. Harry suggests working with your physician or nutritionist to assess the right amount of protein for your needs.
Use a smaller plate
A landmark 2006 study published in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine suggested that we eat more when our plates are larger. Since then, a follow-up Appetite study illustrates that this isn’t always the case for every individual — but it can’t hurt to test it out for yourself at home.
Using a smaller plate that is jam-packed with a balanced dinner can be a “visual feast for the eyes,” Dr. Harry adds, but it’s important to keep that concept in check whenever you dine out. “Know that portion sizes tend to be substantially bigger at restaurants, so it’s not a bad idea to pack half of your entree to-go and avoid cleaning the whole plate. You’ll have better judgment than others at this point. If you’re filling your plate up with the most redeeming ingredients like fiber-packed produce, then don’t worry too much about your plate size.
Make your first bite a veggie
Focusing on vegetables and other low-carb, low-sugar items first (both when you’re at home and eating out) can help you enjoy ample fiber first, which is key to regulating hunger on an everyday basis.
“When we slow down and chew food thoroughly, it starts the digestive process that leads to nutrients being released in the stomach,” says Dr. Harry. “This tells the stomach to make and release hormones that let the brain know it’s full so it can turn off your hunger signal. Some research estimates that this process can take 20 minutes.” For these reasons, Albers recommends cutting your bites into smaller pieces, adding an extra three chews to each bite, and trying to conciously eat at a slower pace than the people you’re with.
Smile between bites
No, seriously. “This brief pause gives you just a moment to ask yourself if you really want the next bite or if you should stop right there,” says Albers. “Also, a smile triggers the release of feel-good neurotransmitters, which helps reduce emotional eating.”
Plan an intermission
Take a break halfway through your meal to gauge your hunger level. “Even a small pause gives your food time to digest and register in your brain that you have eaten,” Albers points out. Everything you can do to help your brain accurately judge how much you’ve consumed can help you avoid overeating.
Remember, beating yourself up after experiencing an episode of overeating is not helpful. “Drop the inner critic and get curious about your overeating,” suggests Albers. “Ask yourself a series of questions like: What lead to the overeating right now? What would I do differently next time? What are some steps that would have prevented the overeating?” This turns the situation into a teachable moment that you can use to avoid overeating in the future.
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