It happens to the best of us: You get to your favorite restaurant, order your favorite delectable dish and finish the entire plate. But when your stomach protests, you know your eyes were bigger than your belly, and now you wish you could rewind and eat half as much as you did.
Overeating is easy to fall into, especially in the US where restaurant portion sizes seem to get bigger by the day. Overeating can lead to weight gain and blood sugar issues — both of which are linked to chronic diseases such as diabetes. But it can also make you feel just plain gross, and that can affect you for the rest of the day. There’s no reason to beat yourself up if it happens to you — but if you’re overeating more than you’d like, there are several things you can do to help prevent it.
Keep reading for tips from two nutrition experts on why you’re overeating and how to replace it with healthier food habits.
Try to pinpoint why it’s happening
The first step when you want to change a habit is awareness. This means finding out the “why” behind what you’re doing, which applies to overeating and your food habits. Pinpointing why you are overeating and what could be causing it is helpful since there’s usually a reason (even if that reason is simply you’re doing it mindlessly).
According to dietician Amanda Nicole Steinberg, one of the most common causes of overeating is not eating enough throughout the day or skipping meals. “Many times clients will skip breakfast or work through lunch. Since they may not have eaten enough during the day, their bodies are in starvation mode at night,” Steinberg tells CNET. “When they’re finally around food, it becomes impossible to control.”
Sometimes people feel guilty when they overeat because it feels like they are “bad” or have no self-control, but that’s often not the case. “Individuals may think that they lack willpower to control themselves at night. However, it’s not a lack of willpower; it’s the biology of our starved body screaming for food,” Steinberg says.
Even if you find it difficult to fit in full meals throughout the day in a busy schedule, one thing you can do is always carry snacks. Keeping healthy snacks at your desk, in your car or in your purse or backpack is one way to ensure that you at least have something to eat, even if it’s not a full meal.
Try to be more mindful when you eat
It’s easy to spend all three meals in front of some kind of screen — from phones to computers to the TV. Even though that’s common, it’s not exactly ideal. This is why mindful eating can be helpful if you struggle with this habit.
“Technology, eating at our desk, eating out of boredom — all of these can equate to mindless eating,” says Jayne Williams, an integrative nutrition coach. “When we aren’t tuned in to our plate, we are missing common ‘hunger’ and ‘full’ signals. We end up eating more than we would have if we’d been focused on what we were doing.”
Even if you’re not mindlessly eating, another common cause of overeating is using food to help cope with emotions. Emotional eating is common since we often associate foods with happiness and celebration — like cake and ice cream on your birthday. So if you’re feeling down, sometimes you crave those things as a pick-me-up.
There’s science to explain this too. “Food can give you a dopamine effect to the brain, making you feel good temporarily,” Steinberg says. “Many times, individuals will overeat to numb pain from emotions with food.”
If you find yourself emotionally eating, you can try and find other ways to naturally feel happy. Listening to music, playing with a pet, talking to a friend or getting some exercise can give you the same dopamine-enhancing effect.
Listen to your body to see if you’re full
Most packaged food comes with a serving size on the box, but otherwise you’re basically left to your own devices to figure out how much you should eat in one sitting.
And restaurants don’t make this easier, because portion sizes often have several times more calories, carbs, fat, sodium and sugar than you should eat each day. So how do you know what portion sizes are appropriate? Regardless of how much food is on your plate, you should check in with your body while eating to see if you want to keep eating because you’re hungry, or if you actually feel full and should stop.
“When you’re halfway done with your meal, check in with yourself to see if you’re full or still hungry to keep eating more,” Steinburg says. “An important reminder is you can always eat the food again, so there is no reason to have to finish it in one sitting. If you’re at home, put the food away to enjoy later when you’re hungry again. If you’re out to eat, take the food to go.”
If you tend to fill your plate with lots of food, one tip you can try is using smaller plates or bowls. You might be surprised how well this simple swap can help. “Six-inch diameter bowls are one of my favorite tricks,” Williams says. “It’s harder to overeat if it doesn’t fit in the bowl. Just make sure you are loading up on fresh vegetables with lots of color, fresh greens for added fiber, lean protein (animal or vegetable) and healthy fat in that bowl.”
Make sure you’re eating a balanced diet
First, consider the basic food groups and macronutrients that you need, and how to balance them. When you get the right amounts of protein, carbs and fat, your blood sugar stays balanced, which means you will feel full and satisfied longer. Within each food category, there are better choices than others. Choosing complex carbohydrates like whole grains, for example, will help you feel more satisfied than a simple carb like white bread. Adding protein and fat to each meal will also ensure that you stay satisfied longer.
“The advice I give all my clients is balance their plates half with vegetables, a quarter with carbohydrates and a quarter of protein,” Steinberg says. “Also, incorporate healthy fats into the meal, for instance avocado, olive oil or nuts. This balance keeps you full without making you feel heavy. Combining carbohydrates with protein, fat and fiber from vegetables or fruit slows down the digestion of carbohydrates, keeping you full for longer.”
If you struggle with overeating at night especially, being more mindful of balancing your meals is a great way to start.
Don’t make any foods ‘off-limits’
It’s normal for people to fixate on what we are told we “can’t have.” This is why if you resolve to quit sugar or never have an Oreo again, you’ll crave those foods you can’t have. “When we don’t allow ourselves to have a specific food, it becomes hard to control ourselves around that food when we finally allow ourselves to eat it. Instead of setting foods off-limits, allow yourself to have what you’re craving in a mindful way,” Steinburg suggests.
Another tip is when you allow yourself to indulge in something like a dessert, make sure you’re nourished and satisfied with healthy food first. This makes it less likely that you’ll go overboard when it’s time for dessert.
“For example, if you have set pasta off-limits because you feel like you cannot control yourself when you eat it, try having a portion of pasta with protein and vegetables,” Steinberg says.
The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.
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