January 22, 2019

Ruled by Food? 5 Strategies to Break the Cycle of Overeating

A psychologist offers tips for healthier habits

Pile of donuts wearing crown

Maybe you’re celebrating at your niece’s 6th birthday party or there’s doughnuts at your morning staff meeting. Or you’ve made a double batch of your favorite oven-baked mac n’ cheese for a quiet dinner at home, decompressing after a rough day. Let’s face it — life is full of opportunities to eat more than you should.


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Of course, overindulging isn’t a problem if it’s just once in a blue moon. But, if the days of overeating turn into weeks and it’s a habit, your health could suffer. So how do you rein yourself in and take control?

Breaking the cycle of overeating requires focus and dedication, but the benefits are worth it, says psychologist Susan Albers, PsyD.

“It’s very important when you think of your health, well-being and quality-of-life,” Dr. Albers says.

“People often talk about how they don’t feel good in their bodies when they overeat,” she notes. “Their energy is lower. They stress about weight gain, and they rob themselves of opportunities to do things with others because they worry about overeating.”

Why are you overeating?

Overeating, or mindless eating, has several triggers, Dr. Albers says.

Stress, negative thoughts, depression or even the presence of your favorite food can prompt you to overdo it. But, whatever the reason, the result is the same — you aren’t paying attention to your body.

With each trigger, in some way, you’re not listening to or recognizing your hunger level. Your mind continues to say ‘more’ because the food tastes good or you’re zoned out. You’re not paying attention to when you get full.

Can you break the cycle?

In most cases, yes you can, Dr. Albers says.

To set yourself up for success, always focus on what you’re eating and how it makes you feel.

You’ll likely have to make other changes too. That could mean eating at the table instead of in front of the television and not eating too quickly.

“We do an internal tug-of-war when stopping old habits,” she says. “But, when we develop new habits, it’s sometimes easier to change our behaviors altogether.”

Adopting these five habits, she says, can help you avoid overeating.

  1. Sit down when you eat. It’s easier to get distracted and lose track of what you’re eating when you stand or walk around.
  2. Don’t multitask. Avoid working at your desk while you eat, for instance.
  3. Savor your food. Pay attention to its taste, texture and smell. Actively decide whether you like it or you’re eating it just because it’s there.
  4. Take your time. Chew slowly. Put your fork down between bites. Slowing your pace reduces the likelihood you’ll overeat.
  5. Check in with your hunger. Intentionally reassess whether you’re still hungry several times during meals to determine when you’re full.

Additionally, get enough sleep and stay hydrated. Both will help control your hunger pangs.


You overdid it again — now what?

If you slip up once in awhile, don’t worry. One overeating episode won’t destroy your progress.

“If you’re hard on yourself, you’ll feel bad and engage in comfort eating. Instead, be forgiving,” Dr. Albers says. “Realize you have another opportunity — tomorrow is another day to start again.”

Try to identify the habits that derailed your efforts. And don’t let them lead you to self-sabotage. Remember why you’re eating and concentrate on your levels of hunger and fullness.

However, if you feel like you’re stuck or unable to control your overeating, ask for help, Dr. Albers advises.

“If that’s the case, consult your primary care doctor or a psychologist. There could be an underlying medical issue involved,” she says.

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