Strategies for Overcoming Overeating

Why do we eat? We all know why we should be eating: to supply our bodies with plenty of energy to get through the day; to get nutrients like vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and phytochemicals, which help us to stay healthy and free of disease; and to get useful carbohydrates, proteins and fats—all of which contribute to running our bodies properly and maintaining good health.

But sometimes we can all be guilty of eating for other reasons, including celebrations, boredom or just because we enjoy it. Other times, we let our emotions take over. When we’re stressed out, sad, angry or lonely, we often turn to food for comfort. Even starting (and staying on) a new diet can be stressful, especially when emotions creep in.

In our food-obsessed culture with out-of-control portions always lurking within our grasp, how can we not overeat? It’s hard to break habits and go against the lessons we have always been taught, like cleaning our plates, not being wasteful or getting the best deal—which usually means ordering up and getting a lot more food for the money.

There are many ways to stop overeating. From the following list, find a few that work best for you. For example, if you find visiting a lot of restaurants, experiment with the dining out options. After finding the strategies that work, stick with them. Over time, you’ll break the habits of overeating and form new habits. Pretty soon, you won’t even need the strategies at all, and you’ll be on your way to a permanent lifestyle change.

Skills for Any Setting

Whether you’re cooking your own meal, eating at work or snacking at a football game, here are the strategies you can take anywhere:
  • Know your portion sizes. Make your own "portion pack" to take with you or keep the following common items in mind when preparing and eating meals:
    • A golf ball is the size of a serving of nuts (including peanut butter) or cheese.
    • A deck of playing cards is equivalent to three ounces of any meat.
    • Use a die to estimate a proper serving of oils and fats.
    • For fruit and veggie servings, use a tennis ball.
    • One serving of cooked grains or potatoes is about the size of a computer mouse.
  • Divide your plate. When cooking at home, looking at pictures on menus or shopping at the office cafeteria, your plate should look like this:
    • Half (or more) of the plate should be filled with fruits and vegetables.
    • Protein-rich foods (meat or legumes) and starches (grains, potatoes, bread) should take up one-quarter of the plate each.
    • Fill your "divided plate" only once. If you’re still hungry, have another half-plate of vegetables.
    • Portion-controlled plates are available to buy as well, although they’re much more expensive than drawing an imaginary line.
  • Quench your hunger with water. Instead of high-calorie, low-nutrient drinks like soda, alcohol or other sugary drinks, choose water. Most people don’t meet their eight to 10 cups-a-day requirement. Drink water before, during and after a meal to slow yourself down and to curb hunger.
  • Fill up on fiber. The healthiest and most filling foods are high in fiber—think fruits and veggies, and whole, unprocessed grains. Adding fiber to your diet will aid in weight loss and keep you feeling fuller longer, so you may eat less.
  • Supportive groups are crucial. Surround yourself with positive people who motivate you to reach your goals, not those who want to sabotage your efforts. When you feel tempted or emotional, or if you have already gotten off-track, turn to your support group. Sometimes all you need is a short word of advice from a friendly voice.

Tips at Home 

Cooking at home may be the easiest way to control your portions during a meal, but it also presents fully stocked cupboards and refrigerators that can be tempting.
  • Bring home healthy fast food. Try precut, frozen, canned or microwave-in-the-bag vegetables for automatic portion control.
  • Stop the taste-testing habit. If you’re the cook in the family, you may be eating a lot of calories when you taste your foods as you cook. To stop this natural habit, try chewing gum while preparing your meals. Each time you are tempted to sneak a bite, you’ll have to take the gum out of your mouth. This will make you more conscious of what you’re doing.
  • Make fruit your dessert. It’s a great way to get more produce into your diet, and it satisfies the sweet craving many people have after a meal. Experiment with new and exotic fruits. And when it comes to fruit, eating a little extra isn’t a bad thing.
  • Keep your hands busy. Many people want to eat when bored or just out of habit while watching TV. Keep your hands occupied with something else and you won’t want to eat. Try knitting, painting your nails, shuffling cards, petting your cat—anything that keeps your hands moving will do the trick. Or, keep your whole body busy by doing crunches, squats, lunges or other body exercises while you watch.
  • Feeling hungry? Try this first. Try drinking a glass or two of water. Many people mistake what is actually dehydration for hunger.
  • When you feel the urge to snack or keep eating, take an exercise break. Walk around the block for five or 10 minutes, run up and down the stairs or distract yourself with anything for about 10 minutes. You’ll probably find that you weren’t really hungry, but bored instead.
  • Buy snack-size portions. Don’t buy more unhealthy snacks just to save a buck or two. If you have trouble controlling yourself—if you eat the whole bag of chips before you realize what you’ve done, for example—then buy snack-size items. You can find chips, pretzels, cookies, snack cakes, soda, juice, ice cream and even cereal in single-serving sizes.
  • Make a rule that works for you and your family. No eating in front of the TV, in the car or at your desk. This will help you avoid mindless eating when you’re not hungry.

Tricks for Dining Out 

It’s difficult to control your portions—not to mention ingredients and cooking methods—when you are at a restaurant. Despite this, there are several things you can control:
  • Inquire about portion sizes. If it sounds huge, ask the server to split your entrée in half. Tell them to box up half ahead of time (and maybe even keep it in the kitchen until you’re ready to leave). Or, split the dish with a friend.
  • Order ala carte. Most restaurants are notorious for their enormous portions. When you feel like you can’t win on size, or if even half of an entrée is still too big, order side items. Most restaurants do offer staples like baked potatoes, steamed fresh veggies and rice dishes. Or, even if it’s dinnertime, ask for the lunch portion. You may have to pay the dinner price, but you’ll save yourself from eating way too much.
  • Decide ahead of time what you’ll order. That way, you won’t be tempted by the less-healthy fare when you look at the menu. If you’re familiar with the menu, don’t even look at it—simply order what you already had in mind.
  • Don’t be afraid to make substitutions in ingredients and cooking methods. Many people don’t like to be picky at restaurants, but think of it this way: They’re there to meet your needs and serve you. If they don’t have something you want, ask! Vegetarians and vegans know this scenario all too well, because they have to modify almost every dish on the menu. Servers will want to comply and help out (because it means tips for them), and chefs can easily make modifications. Some things to try:
      • Different cooking methods. If your dish is fried or high in oil, ask for steamed or stir-fry options.
      • Take something out. Ask for less or complete removal of cheese, sour cream, gravy, special sauces, mayonnaise, etc.
      • Add something new. Ask for extra veggies in your salad, or to add vegetables to a dish (like pizza or pasta) that doesn’t normally contain them.
  • Substitute. Get the plain baked potato instead of the mammoth french fries; ask for grilled chicken on your salad instead of breaded.
  • Tell your server you don’t want the free bread, chips, etc. when you first arrive. Or, if you do eat it, let them know you don’t need another round.
  • Ask for dressings, sauces and condiments on the side. Use just enough to taste. Many "sides" of salad dressings are still two to five times as big as the recommended two-tablespoon serving.
  • Don’t pick at the food left on your plate. Put your utensils on your plate so the handles get dirty. You won’t want to pick them up again, and you won’t mindlessly eat more while chatting over dinner. Or, try laying your napkin on top of the remaining food. Out of sight, out of mind.