Written by Julie Tang, MS, RDN, CNSC on May 20, 2020
We’ve all done this at some point in time. Maybe it was Thanksgiving dinner, happy hour with coworkers, at an-all-you-can-eat restaurant, or eating out of stress or boredom. What is it that many of us can relate to? It’s the case of overeating.
This might happen occasionally and not cause much harm, but when it becomes a frequent occurrence, it can subsequently affect our health and risk for chronic disease such as obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. It’s important to understand why overeating happens and how we can plan ahead to prevent it.
Effect on the body
Our body produces a hormone called ghrelin that increases our appetite and signals to our brain to eat. The higher the levels of ghrelin, the hungrier we get. In addition to hormones, how much we eat is often influenced by environment, sleep quality, sights and smells, nostalgia, emotions, and certain medical conditions such as those involving the thyroid.
Overeating can cause unpleasant effects such gastrointestinal issues, changes in energy level, and unwanted weight gain. Aside from the physical aspects, it can affect our mental health and increase the risk of certain chronic conditions. Take a moment and think about the factors that may cause you to overeat. Bringing awareness to your own eating patterns and triggers is the first step to curbing unhealthy habits.
What can you do
Here are strategies you can implement to help resist the urge of overeating:
1. Stay hydrated throughout the day.
Our body can confuse thirst, a sign of dehydration, with hunger. Assess your hydration status before you start eating right away. Tip: Before reaching for a snack or meal, drink 4-6 ounces of water then wait 15-20 minutes. If you still have hunger cues, it’s best to honor them.
2. Pace yourself.
Eating too quickly can cause you to lose track of how much you eat. Tip: Sit in a calm environment with minimal distractions so you can focus on smelling, chewing, and enjoying the textures of your food.
3. Plan ahead when ordering at restaurants.
Thanks to modern technology, most restaurants have menus available online for you to review. When you decide on what to order ahead of time, there’s less chance of impulsive food decisions. Tip: When available, look at the menu’s nutrition information to guide your decision.
4. Choose to do a family style meal. Sharing is caring!
Consider ordering a few items to share with others. It will help with portion control and you get to try several dishes, it’s a win-win. Tip: Ordering for a group can be tricky. Try to gauge what is a reasonable amount of food to order and when you need help, ask your server for advice.
5. Take home a doggie bag.
Choose to portion out what you intend to eat and save the rest to pack as leftovers. Tip: Ask to pack a portion of the food at the start of the meal to minimize the temptation to eat more than you plan.
6. Practice the 80% / 20% rule.
There’s popular Confucian teaching called Hara Hachi Bu that guides people to eat until they are 80% full. Our minds may take up to 20 minutes to register that we are full. Based on this theory, it would be just a few moments later when we realize we are actually 100% full. Aim to feel satisfied without the feeling of being stuffed. Tip: Use a scale of 1-10 to gauge your fullness. If you think you are at an 8 out of 10, that’s a good indicator to stop eating.
7. Eat fiber rich foods.
Including fiber rich foods such as fruits, vegetables, beans, whole grains will help keep you fuller longer and help minimize overeating. Tip: For a healthy adult, aim for 25-35 grams of fiber in a day. Consider taking a fiber supplement if you do not get enough from food.
8. Avoid all-you-can-eat restaurants.
Let’s face it, it’s common to try to eat our buck’s worth when eating at these restaurants. Instead of enjoying our food, we lose focus and subconsciously overeat when food seems endless. Tip: Food should be nutritious and enjoyable. When eating out, choose a restaurant with a variety of options that you know you will enjoy and can practice mindful eating.
9. Don’t eat out of the containers or communal bowls.
It’s easy to lose track of what much we eat when we reach for foods straight from their original packaging or communal bowls. Tip: Take a portion of what you intend to eat on to your own plate. If you don’t want anymore, sit away from the communal bowls, or ask for them to be moved.
10. Ask for half portions.
Some restaurants offer the option of ordering half portions. If you’re not sure if they allow this, simply ask your server. You’ll not only save yourself from overeating, but it will usually cost less. Tip: If half portions are not available, consider sharing an entrée with someone or simply packing a portion to go.
11. Manage stress.
High levels of stress on the regular basis is unhealthy for the body. The hormone, cortisol, is released when we’re stressed, and having chronically high levels of cortisol has been associated with increased hunger, overeating, and weight gain. Tip: Take time to find simple ways to cope with stress such as reading, meditation, exercise, spending time with loved ones, gardening, or yoga.
12. Use a food journal.
Writing down what, when and how much we eat is a self-monitoring technique that can help bring awareness. It can help identify patterns, triggers, or certain emotions associated with overeating. Tip: Recording a food journal is important, but don’t forget to take the time at the end of each day to review the information and gauge what you would do the same or differently.
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13. Seek like-minded people, resources, and support.
It’s okay to ask for help. We are often influenced by those around us. Having the right resources and support will keep you accountable to your health goals. There are plenty of resources available such as blogs, apps, support groups, or working with a registered dietitian to help keep you on track. Tip: Share your goals with like-minded people for the best support.