Diet: How to Stop Eating So Much

Enjoying a juicy burger
Woman eating hamburger. (Image: caracterdesign/Vetta/Getty Images)

You’ve tried every imaginable diet to lose weight, but the big problem is that you just can’t stop eating so much. A number of issues may be involved in your habit of overeating, from visual factors to emotional issues to the types of foods you choose or the way you eat your meals. Plenty of techniques can help you stop eating so much, depending on the root cause. Talk to your doctor if your overeating has led to overweight or obesity, both of which can have a negative impact on your health.

Portions, Servings and Eating Too Much

If you consistently eat too much, you may need to look at the size of standard servings versus your portions. A serving is a measured amount of food, as suggested by standard nutrition guidelines and found on food labels; it contains specific calories as well as nutrients. For example, a suggested serving of your favorite ready-to-eat cereal may be 1 cup and amount to 200 calories without milk. A portion, in contrast, is the amount you choose to eat. You may actually pour out and eat 2 cups of cereal, which in turn requires more milk. That amount may look “right” in your bowl, but before you know it, you have doubled your calories and overeaten.

Visual cues influence the portion sizes you choose. Brian Wansink, Ph.D., director of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab at Cornell University, has authored numerous studies that show package, plate and utensil size all affect how much food people eat. You can stop eating so much by sticking to the servings suggested on food labels, and following visual guidelines for whole foods -- for example, a serving of meat is about the size of a deck of cards. Use smaller plates and bowls to make your portions look larger. Keep serving bowls off the table, so you can’t as easily help yourself to more food. When portions at restaurants are too large, ask for a take-out container and bring half of your meal home for the next day.

Stress Eating

Emotional reasons may also prompt overeating, especially if you’re under stress. Short-term stress – getting cut off in traffic or running late for a meeting, for example – tends to take away your hunger. Persistent stress, however, like caring for a sick family member or dealing with a difficult boss, fuels it. As part of the stress response, your body releases a hormone called cortisol, which boosts appetite. Ideally, when stress subsides, so does your hunger. But with chronic stress, your cortisol levels remain high, causing you to overeat. Elevated cortisol can also lead to poor food choices. In particular, you may crave “comfort foods” loaded with sugar and fat, liked cookies and ice cream – the most highly caloric and least nutritious foods.

To stop eating so much, incorporate stress-management techniques when your stressors kick in. Movement helps manage stress, so take a brisk walk or do some other form of physical exercise instead of grabbing a doughnut – or the whole box. Activities like meditation and yoga can also help bring down your stress levels, as can a hobby like coloring or listening to music. A supportive network is important, too; instead of immediately dipping into a carton of ice cream when you feel stressed, call a friend.

Leptin Resistance and Overeating

If you can’t stop eating too much, it may be the sign of an issue called leptin resistance. Leptin is a hormone that tells your brain you’ve had enough to eat, while the hormone ghrelin signals that you’re hungry. Research has found that in obese people, leptin and ghrelin malfunction, leading to overeating. Scientists have investigated drug therapy to alleviate the problem, but one study – published in the journal Diabetes in 2004 – showed that dietary choices may trigger leptin malfunction. The scientists found high levels of triglycerides in the blood could induce leptin resistance. Regular milk, for example, impeded the proper functioning of leptin, while fat-free milk did not. Although more research is needed in humans, the researchers concluded that decreasing triglyceride levels in the blood could promote the proper leptin functioning.

Foods that contribute to high blood-serum triglyceride levels are unhealthy saturated fats, like fatty meats, or trans fats in margarine, snack and fast foods, and any product containing hydrogenated oil. Sugary foods and refined carbohydrates are also culprits in raising triglyceride levels, including soda, white bread and rolls, pastries and other baked goods, pasta and crackers. If your diet is heavy in these types of processed foods, you may be overeating because of leptin resistance.

Artificial Sweeteners and Overeating

Other dietary choices could also contribute to eating so much. Some evidence suggests artificial sweeteners, so popular among dieters, may actually boost appetite. An article published in the Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine in 2010 reviewed evidence suggesting artificial sweeteners have contributed to the obesity epidemic. These sweeteners, the author wrote, do not seem to activate the “food reward” circuitry in the brain in the way that regular sugars do, so you don’t feel satisfied and may continue eating. Also, the author stated that these sweeteners may actually fuel sugar cravings, leading to eating too much. Avoid artificial sweeteners by limiting your intake of "diet" foods, including sugar-free gum, and go for water flavored with fruit or herbs instead of diet sodas.

Eating for Satiety

Your best bet to stop eating so much is to make the switch to a healthier diet filled with “low energy-density” foods, which have fewer calories per gram and higher water content, like fruits and vegetables. These foods tend to be more filling, which means you can actually eat more of them for very few calories. In one study, published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2014, adults who doubled their vegetable intake over the course of a year not only lost weight, but reported greater hunger satisfaction than a group that ate fewer vegetables.

Protein and fiber are the two nutrients most associated with satiety, so if you are not getting enough of them, you may continue to eat even after you’ve enjoyed a full meal. Make sure you have lean protein at every meal and snack. Good protein choices include skinless chicken and turkey, fish and seafood, low-fat dairy, eggs, legumes, nuts and seeds. Fiber is the indigestible part of plant foods that doesn’t add calories to your meals; it takes up room in your stomach, then travels through your system, removing waste. Fiber-rich foods include whole grains, legumes, berries, nuts and seeds, squash and cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts and kale. Current guidelines recommend 25 grams of fiber for women every day and 28 grams for men, but most Americans only get about 15 grams.

Other Techniques to Stop Eating So Much

Simply becoming aware of how and when you eat may also help you stop eating so much. Poor habits that may fuel overeating include skipping meals and snacking at night while watching television. You may think that forgoing a meal will save you calories and help you shed pounds, but it may actually make you overeat at your next meal. And a study in the journal Eating Behaviors in 2003 found that having snacks while watching TV increased women’s overall calorie intake.

Eating quickly and thoughtlessly also leads to overeating, and practicing mindful eating at each meal may help you stop eating so much. In mindful eating, you slow down, and taste each bite, appreciating its taste, texture and smell. You even develop an appreciation for the sound of food – the satisfying crunch of a crisp vegetable, for example. Pay attention to what you’re eating, put your fork down between bites, and don’t allow yourself to get distracted. This practice will keep you in tune with your hunger and satiety cues to help you to stop eating as much.

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