3 Strategies to prevent overeating

Overeating – commonplace during the holidays – is something people encounter all year long. There are two “types” of overeating:

  1.  Initiating an eating episode when there is no physiological need
  2. Eating too much during an eating episode

We live in an environment filled with food messages – often designed to make us eat more – and places that sell food are everywhere. Food advertising, super-sized meals, commercials, and colorful packaging at the grocery store are designed to entice us, and as a result we end up eating when we’re not hungry, or eating far beyond our actual appetites. Additionally, many commercially prepared foods are highly processed, high in sugar, salt and unhealthy fat which can trick our taste buds into wanting more.

Despite the fact that food is everywhere, and that we’ve grown accustomed to “cleaning our plates,” snacking all day long, and eating highly processed foods that may affect satiety signals and promote further eating, you can adopt strategies to tune out the messages, and tune in to your own nutrition needs.

3 strategies to prevent overeating

1. Look at your food

Pay attention to the food you’re about to put in your mouth. Stop everything else you’re doing, and when you’re eating, just eat. Enjoy the food and the eating experience. This is a moment for you to relax and recharge.

Research shows that removing visual information about how much you’ve eaten during a meal increased the amount of food eaten. Eating attentively can influence food intake, and is one of the simplest approaches one can take to prevent overeating. Remember: We eat with our eyes, too. (1)

Try this:

  • Have a technology-free lunch. Leave your desk, and take a break from your computer, phone and tablet. Not only is this a great opportunity to reduce your “sit time” and boost your physical health, it’s also a chance to give your mind a break to simply enjoy your meal.
  • During meals, disconnect from work – and screens – to reconnect with your own hunger and satiety levels. You may even discover that you’re more productive post-lunch as a result.
  • At home, take a few extra minutes preparing and plating your meal – even if you get take out, use a real plate instead of eating from the carton. Sit at a table and avoid looking at screens, instead focusing on the food in front of you & how it can nourish your body.

2. Beware the S’s: Sugar and salt

Sugar and salt are taste bud tantalizers, and as such, it’s easy to overeat sweet and salty food products – which are often highly processed. As you cut down on highly processed foods, your palate will adjust so that over time, you’re satisfied with far lower amounts of sugar and salt.

  • If you really want a sweet treat, take a small piece of your favorite and eat slowly, savoring every bite.
  • For savory snacks, opt for lower-sodium options like lightly roasted, unsalted nuts – try roasting them with herbs for a delicious flavor boost — or dip raw veggies in hummus. Note that some commercially prepared dips are high in sodium, so you need to read the nutrition label carefully. You can even make your own hummus, bean dips and guacamole to have more control over the salt factor.

Try this:

  • If you really want to indulge in high “S-factor” fare, start with only three bites.
  • Slowly savor each one, and think about the flavor: Is this a complex flavor, or does the sugar or salt dominate? After noting that, ask yourself: Will this food truly satisfy me? (2)
  • You may realize that high-sugar and high-salt foods, while easy to overeat, aren’t nearly as flavorful or satisfying as real, unprocessed foods. Does it nourish you, or make you hungrier? Real food should fill you up, not prompt you to eat more.

3. Change your response to comfort-food cravings

“Eat when you’re truly hungry” sounds like common sense, but the truth is that many people eat for reasons other than hunger – including when bored, anxious, stressed or angry. Let meal time be a way to honor real hunger, not a way to soothe your feelings. For food-free ways to handle emotional ups and downs, consider going for a walk, meditating, talking to a friend, writing in a journal, or listening to music.

In a study of 30 women, researchers explored the impact of chronic stress on eating behavior. (3)

  • Women with higher stress levels responded differently to pictures of high-calorie foods than women with lower stress levels. Specifically, there was greater activity in the areas of the brain involving reward, motivation, and habitual decision-making. At the same time, those women with higher stress levels showed less activity in the regions of the brain linked to strategic planning and emotional control.
  • These results suggest that exposure to persistent stress may alter the brain’s response to food in ways that can lead to poor eating habits.

Try this:

  • When tempted to turn to “comfort food” for emotional reasons, ask yourself if you’re really hungry.
  • If not, but you’re still tempted to eat, wait 10 minutes before you prepare anything – and do something else in the meantime. Whether at work or at home, take a few minutes to walk or stretch. Sometimes when stressed we operate on autopilot, so teaching ourselves to “purposefully pause” can help us become more mindful and less stress-driven.
  • Gradually increase your “pause,” to 15 minutes, then 20 minutes, and so on. You may not be able to control your comfort food cravings, but you can change your response to them. By gradually lengthening your response time, you may find that you’re able to change your habit from “crave & cave” to “pause & pass.”


1. Robinson et al, eating attentively: a systematic review and meta-analysis of the effect of food intake memory and awareness on eating. Am J Clin Nutr. 2013 Apr;97(4):728-42

2. Hạnh, Nhất, and Lilian W. Y. Cheung. Savor: Mindful Eating, Mindful Life. New York: HarperOne, 2010. Print.

3. Tryon, MS, Carter, CS, Decant, R, Laugero, KD. (2013).  Chronic stress exposure may affect the brain’s response to high calorie food cues and predispose to obesogenic eating habits. Physiol Behav. 2013 Aug 15;120:233-42.