One of the biggest hurdles to being at our desired weight is that we tend to eat way more than we should. There are many contributing factors to overeating and we all do it from time to time. It could be that you didn’t have time to eat and now you are starving, or the portion you were served was huge (hello super-sized portions!), or you were stressed out and you get comfort from food.
There’s no perfect world and you will always end up overeating at one time or another in your lifetime. The key is not to beat ourselves up over it - stand back up, dust yourself off, pass go, collect your $200 and stay away from getting stuck in jail.
There are many reasons people overeat and everyone’s reasons are different. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. However, I think there are some key factors that can make a significant difference in being consciously aware of how much you are consuming - and help you to eat less.
1. Meal timing
With all of the research on the positive effects of intermittent fasting or time-restricted eating, I’m not going to tell you not to skip breakfast. The research on this topic is actually very promising. However, many people end up eating most of their calories (sometimes 80-100%) at night because they didn’t eat anything all day due to overly packed schedules (this is not the same as people who consciously do timed eating and consume one healthy meal a day). When you are starving like that, your food choices tend to be the snacky comfort foods that tend to be high in fat, processed carbohydrates and refined sugars (you know what I’m talking about!).
Spread your daily intake over a period when you are busy. This prevents overindulging because you are starving to death and provides your body fuel when you need it, not when you don’t. I always tell my clients, food is fuel. You don’t fill up your car with fuel if you plan to store it for a long period. It doesn’t make sense to give your body fuel when you are going to sleep (and all that digesting won’t promote a restful sleep anyway).
Set a time after which you won’t eat or drink anything else (besides water or plain tea). For me, it’s 8pm, but your schedule may be different. Your no-go time should be at least two hours before your bedtime. Doing this will most likely eliminate a lot of excess food intake that isn’t contributing to your health anyway.
2. Reduce Your Portions
Yea, yea, I know you’ve heard this one a million times, but really, portion control is the key to maintaining a healthy weight. But how do you know how much to eat?
What about those super-sized portions you get when eating out, nowadays? I rarely go to fast-food restaurants, but when I do, it amazes me how large the “small” soft drink is. When I was a kid, that was the large. Portions of other foods have also increased over the years, bagels, muffins, entrees at restaurants (ever eaten at The Cheesecake Factory?).
Research has shown that the size of the portion you are offered is directly correlated to how much you eat. That means, the more food on your plate or drink in your cup, the more you eat and drink. The Cochrane report, which consists of over 60 research studies and nearly 7000 participants, concluded that package and portion sizes increase food consumption. Smaller sizes decrease daily energy intake by up to 29%.
Let’s put it this way, if you eat 2000 calories a day, 29% is 580 calories. Considering that there are 3500 calories in a pound of fat, if you do this every day, you are well on your way to dropping a pound a week. That’s weight loss without even trying, just by eating a little less.
This portion size increase has happened gradually over time without us really knowing it and now our current portions are considered normal, but they are not. Start with eating 25% less than your normal amount. When you go out to eat, try to eat ½ to ¾ of what’s on your plate and take the rest home (leftovers = no cooking!). At home, use the dessert plate instead of the dinner plate and only fill your plate once - no seconds!
There’s a lot to say about portion control, so I will write another blog just on this topic. Just start with being consciously aware of how much you are eating and start eating 25-50% less. If you want my visual portion guide so you can visualize a standard portion, you can get it here.
3. Do You Know When You’re Full?
When you are starting to feel hungry, do you feel it or do you have to be starving to realize that you need to eat something? When you are eating, do you feel satisfied before you feel absolutely stuffed and wish you didn’t eat so much?
If you are the starving/stuffed type, you aren’t alone. This is a huge contributor to unhealthy eating patterns for many people. If you don’t eat until you are starving, you are most likely to make the wrong food choices and overeat once you get your hands on food. And then you scarf down the food so fast that before you know it, you ate a huge portion and now you are stuffed.
To break this pattern, you need to tune in to your body. We all get caught up in the rat race and just forget to eat, but making it a habit to pause to nourish your body is essential. Set times during the day when you will take a break to eat. Just like you have to stop what you are doing to go to the bathroom, you have to stop to take time to eat something. It doesn’t have to be a big meal, a well-balanced small meal will do the trick.
If you aren’t starving to death when you eat, you are more likely to take the time to eat nourishing foods and take your time to eat them. You’ve probably heard that it takes 20 minutes for your brain to register that you are full. Research has shown that those who take 20 minutes or more to eat ate 100 less calories than those who ate their meal in less than 10 minutes. Fast eaters are 42% more likely to be overweight.
Eat slowly, taste your food, sit down to eat, unplug, recognizing internal feelings of hunger and satiety. Take time for meals rather than eating on the go. When you eat slower you feel full with less food.
4. Eat More Food with Low Energy Density
I don’t know if you ever heard of Volumetrics by Barbara Rolls? The concept is that you fill up on foods that have a low energy density. Low energy density means low calories for the volume of food. For example, water has zero energy density because it has no calories, no matter how much of it you drink. Soft drinks have a high energy density because they have a lot of calories per portion. Another example is vegetables. They are very low energy density because they are mostly made of water and have low calories per gram or ounce (ie: 1 cup of spinach has 7 calories). Starches, like potatoes, rice, etc. have a higher energy density because of the amount of calories per gram or ounce (ie: 1 cup of rice has 200 calories). This doesn’t mean they are bad for you, you should just eat less. Therefore, it would make sense to fill up on the low energy dense foods, like vegetables, and eat a smaller amount of the high energy dense foods, like starches and fats.
Foods with a high fiber content will also fill you up, making you feel more full with less. High fiber foods include vegetables, fruits and whole grains. Soluble fiber is the one that becomes gel-like when you cook oatmeal. It slows down how quickly food is digested, so you feel satiated longer. Insoluble fiber fills space in your stomach and intestine, hence making you feel full. Both fibers help delay the release of sugar into your bloodstream, so you don’t get that energy high and then crash, causing you to want to reach for sugary foods to boost your energy again.
Along these same lines, another tip is to fill your belly with something low calorie to take up some space and take the edge off your hunger. Drink a glass of water before you eat, have a cup or bowl of soup as an appetizer, you can even eat an apple before a meal. These things will help you to start to feel full before you eat, and lead to eating less.
5. Slow Down and Just Eat
I think one of the biggest issues most people have is that they eat WAY TOO FAST! My husband is one of these people. I don’t think he really chews his food and he definitely doesn’t taste it. By the time I sit down, have a few bites from my plate and look over at him, his plate is pretty much clean. Sometimes I joke with him and ask him if he even chewed his food or if he tasted it, and usually he smiles and says, no.
I know this is one of those habits that are really hard to break, but really, if you can just slow down how fast you eat, tips #2 and 3 will come automatically. If you eat so fast, your stomach doesn’t have time to communicate to your brain that you are full and you end up overeating and feel stuffed. Is this you?
What I usually tell my clients is to put their fork down between bites. Take a bite, put your utensils down and chew. Don’t pick up your utensils until you have completely swallowed your bite. People who eat fast have the next bite ready to shovel in right after they got the first bite in their mouth. And you just cannot hold off on shoving that hovering bite of food into your mouth, so you hurry up and swallow what’s in your mouth before it’s really chewed completely.
The trend for the past few years has been mindful eating. Perhaps you roll your eyes at this, but honestly, eating mindfully will make a huge difference in your overall health. How many people do you know who eat while doing something else - working behind the computer, watching TV, surfing on their phone? Even at my own family dinner table, we have to remind everyone to put their phones away and focus on just eating and conversing.
Take the time to look at your food, what color is it? What IS it? How does it smell? How does it taste? What is the texture in your mouth? Put your fork down and chew. Try to count how many times you chew - 10, 20, 30 times? Make eating a fully conscious activity. I promise if you just slow down, you will feel full with much less.
These tips are not about weight loss, they are about lifetime wellness. If weight loss is what you seek, weight loss will just be a side effect that you will experience when you fill up on nutrient dense foods and eat less. The primary focus is on acquiring and maintaining healthy eating habits that you can maintain for a lifetime, and you can give yourself a kick start by starting with these five tips!