Improve your willpower over food with these simple tips to help you avoid overeating. By: Carolyn Williams, Ph.D., R.D.
April 02, 2015
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How to Avoid Overeating
Do you ever have days where you just want to eat and can’t seem to feel satisfied or full? These days can make it really hard to stay on track, and we’re quick to blame ourselves or our stomachs. But, researchers have found that there are biological, psychological, and even environmental causes for why we feel hungrier at times and want to eat more. So stop blaming yourself for having a lack of willpower, and read on. Understanding the causes can help you combat these appetite triggers.
If you’re not getting at least seven to eight hours of sleep per night, you’re likely sleep deprived. A lack of sleep actually disrupts hormones that regulate your appetite the next day, increasing the one that causes hunger and decreasing the one that suppresses appetite. They’re disrupted so much that research shows people who get less than six hours of sleep per night consume more calories the next day compared to people who get seven or more hours. These extra calories may come from higher calorie meals to keep energy up, as well as more frequent sugar and caffeine pick-me-ups. No matter the source, the end can wreck your dieting efforts. Aim to get at least seven hours of sleep most nights, and catch up on sleep with a periodic nap on days off.
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Staying hydrated is one of the best ways to keep your appetite and food consumption in check. If you’re not replenishing your body with fluids regularly, then it’s not uncommon to get slightly dehydrated. The problem is that if you’re busy or distracted you may interpret your body’s dehydration signals as hunger instead, causing you to reach for food instead of what your body truly needs: water. One of the easiest ways to stay hydrated is to carry a water bottle with you or sit it on your desk so that water is always at your fingertips. Set the timer of your phone to go off every 20 minutes to remind you to take a few sips to get in the habit of sipping regularly.
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Some people eat when they’re sad; others eat when they’re happy. Some reach for chocolate when stressed; others can’t stomach anything. Every person has a unique emotional relationship with food. The problem occurs when we turn to food to try to resolve our sadness, stress, or other feelings instead of addressing the underlying issue. Emotional eating may feel good at the time but doesn’t fix the real issue and can derail you diet efforts. The first step in resolving emotional eating is to become aware of what feelings trigger you to eat. If stress is your trigger, then exercise, meditate, or journal. If sadness or loneliness makes you eat, get together with friends or call someone. If happiness or excitement causes you to forget your healthy eating, journaling your food intake can help you stay in the moment and in check.
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The two main hormones that regulate hunger and appetite are ghrelin and leptin. Ghrelin causes hunger while leptin suppresses appetite. Under normal conditions, ghrelin rises after several hours of not eating, so you’ll eat. Leptin rises after you eat, so you stay content. Poor eating habits and lack of sleep can get these two out of balance causing you to be hungrier than normal and have little satiety when you do eat. One other hormone that triggers eating is cortisol, an adrenal hormone that’s released during brief times of stress. The problem with cortisol arises when our stress is not momentary or brief but continued. Sustained, higher cortisol levels have been linked with increased hunger, decreased insulin efficiency, and increased fat storage. Bottom-line: The best way to keep levels balanced is to get adequate sleep, eat complex carbohydrates and lean protein, and avoid high fat meals.
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If the cold, wet winter months make you want comfort food such as lasagna, mac and cheese, and beef stew, you’re not alone. People tend to consume more calories during the colder months and choose meals higher in carbohydrates and fat. The key to not letting winter sabotage your waistline is to pay close attention to portion sizes. Carbs won’t make you gain weight if you’re eating healthy ones (whole grains, beans, fruits, veggies) in appropriate amounts and pairing them lean protein. Look for lighter versions of those comfort foods you're craving so you don’t feel deprived. Don’t forget to stay hydrated as well. Water should be a staple in your diet year-round, but in the winter you may want to add in hot teas or other hot low-calorie beverages. These will help keep you hydrated as well as warm and full.
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Whether you’re getting together with girlfriends or heading to a party, food and drink is usually the focus at any social event. The trouble with this is that you often get distracted talking and socializing causing you to not be as diligent in making good food choices or monitoring portion sizes. If you’re a people pleaser, this can be worse. Research has shown that individuals with this personality type tend to eat more in social settings to fit in and to put others at ease, whether they’re hungry or not. Other research shows that we tend to copy the eating habits of the people we are with. This can be great if dining with like-minded healthy eaters, or disastrous if the company is beer-guzzling, all-you-can-eat pizza friends. To keep from eating more than you need in social settings, go in with a food game plan, position yourself away from the food, and find people with similar health goals in the room.
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We’re so used to multi-tasking and receiving constant feedback that when we do slow down it can feel a little odd to find ourselves bored. To fill the uneasiness of boredom, you may find yourself eating—even if you’re not hungry. Research says this is partly due to our overstimulated lives (think technology, social media, etc.). When we have nothing stimulating to think about or do, our minds start searching for something. If that leftover pizza in the fridge or slice of carrot cake pops in your head while the brain is unconsciously searching for stimulation, the pizza or cake can be almost impossible to forget. Avoid this by finding activities to keep your mind and hands busy such as reading, knitting, or finishing a crossword puzzle, or scheduling relaxing activities such as bike riding or volunteering during long periods of downtime.
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Skipping Your Workout
An occasional rest day is healthy, but regularly skipping workouts may actually make you eat more. The reason is partly due to hormones and partly due to psychology. Although many think exercise increases appetite, this is not usually true. Moderate-intensity exercise actually decreases appetite by increasing the hormone that suppresses appetite and decreasing the hormone that triggers hunger. So when you don’t work out, you aren’t getting the hunger-suppressing effects of these hormones and you’re likely to eat more compared to a day when you do workout. The other effect that you miss when you skip a workout is the healthy mind-set it creates. A strenuous workout frames the next 24 to 36 hours in a positive health perspective meaning you’re more likely to make good food choices, monitor portions, and resist temptations.
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Skipping breakfast may seem like a good way to keep calories low at the time, but research tells us that people who skip breakfast eat more total calories when compared to people who eat breakfast. The reason for this is when you skip breakfast (or really any meal) you allow your body to get hungry so when you do eat, you eat more than normal and may not make the healthiest choices. Your metabolism also temporarily slows in the morning when the body doesn’t get nourishment. Bottom-line: Eating a healthy breakfast gets your metabolism up and burning and helps you eat less during the rest of the day.