Is your eating a bit – or a lot – out of control? Want to know how to stop overeating?
In this article and accompanying video, we’re going to dive into the science and practice behind limiting your food intake to portions that will support your ideal weight and robust health.
The Spectrum Of Satiation
In my experience losing and keeping off 62 pounds and helping dozens of coaching clients lose weight over the years, it’s become clear to me that everyone experiences (or at least notices) satiation in different ways.
Your ability to observe your body’s message that you’ve eaten enough seems to fall into a spectrum. My personal experience is that you can get a lot better at listening for this signal, but ultimately, the signal won’t get much louder than it naturally is.
If the signal is going off and you don’t notice it, or you do notice it and and you don’t heed it, you’re overeating. If you consistently overeat by a significant margin you may be saved by a faster-than-average metabolism or a high level of NEAT activation, but most people simply get fat and see their health decline.
So how does this scale work?
Level Ten: “I’m Full. Get This Food Out Of My Sight”
For some people, when their blood sugar rises enough and their stomach reaches a certain reasonable volume of fullness, it’s like an air-raid siren goes off in their head, warning them that it’s time to stop eating.
Take another bite? Me? Don’t you hear that siren?
If these sort of people are 90% of the way through juicy peach when they get the signal, they’ll literally put down the last 10% without a second glance, feeling no desire to polish it off. They might even be disgusted at the idea of eating more.
Unsurprisingly, these eaters are rarely more than moderately overweight (and only if their diets are not ideal). Often, their big problem is not learning how to stop overeating, but how to keep fatt or muscle on their bodies due a smaller caloric intake.
One of my friends falls into this category, and it’s amazing to see his desire for food turn off like a light bulb when he’s eaten a modest meal. It’s frankly an experience that I’ve never had, and I find it fascinating to see him reliably getting these strong “cease-and-desist orders” day after day.
Level Five: “Oh, Is That What That Noise Is?”
Most of us fall into the the great middle portion of this spectrum. I’ve generally pegged myself as a three or four on the scale. If I’m being mindful (we’ll cover that concept later), I can figure out if I’m still in need of more food as my meal winds down about 90% of the time.
For me, the signal isn’t anywhere near an air-raid siren level. It sounds more like a distant alarm going off in the next room with the volume down pretty low. It’s kind of faint, but I can make it out if I pay attention. However, it’s still easy to get distracted enough to not hear it (lack of mindfulness or stress) or simply choose not to heed it.
I used to be obese, and a slower-than-average metabolism played a role in that, but there’s no question that I sometimes ate more than I strictly needed because I wasn’t paying close attention to my satiation signal. I was also depressed for much of this time, so the fact that I could drown out emotions with overeating eating was something I took advantage of.
Level One: “Dum de dum dum dum” *keeps chewing*
Those on the lower end of this spectrum still have a signal, but it comes in the form of a barely audible whisper. Often, this whisper is missed, or mistaken for another signal.
If people at the lower end of the spectrum want to know how to stop overeating, it’s going to take adopting an ideal diet that maximizes physical satiation cues while dialing in the mindfulness strategies and habits that make a reasonable caloric intake sustainable.
How To Stop Overeating: Setting The Groundwork
If you’re in the lower half of the satiation signal spectrum, you can’t go on eating like most people eat. It’s clearly not working for the average person (68.6 percent of US adults are overweight or obese), but it definitely won’t work for you.
This article is not going to focus on the science behind the foods that cause cravings or how you might go about cutting them out of your life (cold turkey is the answer), since I’ve covered these topics at length.
But if you want to know how to stop overeating, the first step is maximizing your body’s satiation cues and minimizing triggers for cravings and food addiction. The healthiest diet in the world doesn’t guarantee the achievement of your ideal weight if you’re continuously overeating.
That being said, it you want to know about the diet that’s allowed me to lose 62 pounds over the course of a few years and keep it off for more than 12, then check out my book, Raw Food Weight Loss And Vitality.
How To Stop Overeating: Three Powerful Strategies
Two of the following strategies are backed up by studies demonstrating their effectiveness, while the third is pretty effective for obvious reasons. If you’re not situated at the top quarter of the satiation signal spectrum, adopting one or more of these strategies is probably a good idea.
One: Turn Off Eating Mode
Let’s say you’ve just polished off a nice-sized dinner. Maybe intellectually you understand that you’ve consumed enough calories for the day, but either because you’re not being mindful or because you just can’t seem to hear that signal today, the idea of going for seconds, or desert, seems appealing.
Since you’re done with your work obligations for the night, there’s nothing stopping you from grazing till bed time.
So what do you do? Turn off eating mode.
The best way to do this is to shift your hormonal levels through 1-3 minutes of intense aerobic exercise.
Intense aerobic exercise reduces your desire to eat because it lowers your levels of the hormone ghrelin (which stimulates appetite when present at higher levels), and elevates blood lactate and blood sugar, which lessen the drive to eat3.
Most of the studies that have looked into this have found good results with intense exercise sessions lasting at least 10 minutes. The much shorter doses I’m suggesting haven’t been studied, but I’ve found them very effective, and more manageable if you’ve got a gut full of food and want to avoid a cramp. Longer exercise sessions might make you hungry, but the quick doses I’m talking about don’t seem to.
What I often do is push away from the table and do 20-25 burpees. (A youtube search will show you how to do them). Other exercise that leaves you gasping for breath will likely work as well, but I’ve found burpees to turn off my appetite better than any other exercise I’ve tried. A single set of 20 or so also shouldn’t be enough to make you sweaty and or require a clothing change, so you should be able to segue into the next part of your day without interruption.
The effect is like going from I could keep grazing all night to temporarily feeling like the idea of eating one more mango doesn’t tempt me in the least.
It’s enough of a shift to remind me that I’ve actually eaten enough already, and can then change my focus to other things for the rest of the night.
If you’re not in a situation that allows for you to crank out burpees or another intense exercise, another suggestion is to simply drink a cup of hot water. Although I’m aware of no studies looking into this, it seems to bring about a weaker but still noticeable version of what exercise does by making your stomach feel differently.
The water doesn’t need to be boiling; steaming is good enough. Sip it slowly for a few minutes (best if combined with mindfulness). I don’t really drink beverages besides water with any regularity, so I’m not sure how other hot beverages might work for this.
Two: The Power Of Mindfulness
It doesn’t matter how loud your satiation signal is if the buzz in your mind is so overwhelming you can’t notice it.
The constant buzz of thoughts – and the fact that many people spend most of their waking life wrapped up in the past or thinking about the future instead of immersed in present – makes overeating a lot easier.
If you’re not even paying attention when you’re eating – the very thing you’re worried about doing too much of – how can you expect to find satiation and contentment before you go over the line?
Science is increasingly finding that regularly immersing yourself in the moment can really help.
When one group of obese patients were instructed to meditate and practice mindful eating, they made major strides without even changing their diet. The patients became more restrained in their eating, decreased their weight by an average of 1.3 pounds per week, experienced less binge eating, and claimed to feel much better4.
A larger meta analysis of studies that attempted to treat binge eating with mindfulness found that, “mindfulness-based psychological interventions for reducing binge eating have large or medium-large effects.6.
If you’re interested in how to stop overeating, I suggest that you spend a minimum of 10, but preferably more like 20 minutes a day meditating. After 30 days or so, you’ll likely notice profound impacts on not only your eating behavior, but also benefits in many other areas of your life. Check out my free Beginner’s Guide To Meditation for more info on how to do this.
Meditation will also build up your capacity to recenter your attention on the present when practicing mindful eating.
In the common quest to learn how to stop overeating, this may be the most powerful and least practiced strategy we have at our disposal.
Let’s say you’ve got your bowl or plate in front of you and your fork is traveling between it and your mouth. Chewing is going on, of this you’re certain.
But beyond the vague awareness that you’re eating, how involved in this process are you?
Is the Television on? Are you scrolling through your Facebook feed on your laptop? Maybe you’re doing homework or reading a book, or are merely lost in thought. Perhaps you’re replaying that contentious conversation you had at work this morning, dreaming about how great it’s going to be when vacation time gets here, or wondering when your partner will get home.
If any of these are true, can you really say you’re giving your food more than 10 or 15% of your attention?
When you finish your food and decide you want or crave more, but you weren’t actually paying attention when you were eating your first serving, maybe it’s because you consciousness never really registered the eating process.
So Try This: Force yourself to stay present the entire time you’re eating. Want seconds? Ok, but stay in the moment-to-moment experience of that serving as well. Your mind will wander; that’s totally ok. The important thing is to commit to continually bringing your attention back to the present moment and the eating experience.
There are two important parts to this.
First, commit to chewing each bite 25 times. Count the bites in your head, as this will serve as a focus that can keep your mind from wandering, and will prevent you from inhaling your food so quickly that your body can’t even react before you’re on to portion number two. When your attention wanders, and it will, bring it back to the counting.
Also feel free to focus on the eating process, the texture and flavor of the food in your mouth, and how your stomach feels as food builds up there.
If you do this, whatever food you eat will be more satisfying, and the drive to add more on top of it will be cut down because you actually noticed the first serving you consumed and enjoyed it.
You just might also find that, once a certainly level of hunger has been dispelled, that you’re simply not interested in devoting more time to eating. There are other fun and important things in life, particularly if you’re present enough in the moment to notice them, and many of them are impaired by a stomach so stuffed that it’s uncomfortable to move your body.
Three: Calorie Counting
The most straightforward way to know how to stop overeating with a reasonable level of certainty is by simply strictly weighing your food on a scale so you know how many calories you’re taking in.
Metabolic rates vary a bit, but weighing your calories will give you a fairly objective count of how much energy is going into your body. If you also know your metabolic rate and activity level, you can figure out roughly how much you require to maintain or lose weight. If you’re losing too much or not losing any, you can simply adjust up or down by a few hundred calories.
This strategy, to some degree, replaces mindfulness and awareness of satiation with far more concrete knowledge.
You may decide that this ironclad guarantee is so effective in getting you the body you want that you’re going to do it forever. Don’t let anyone tell you that’s obsessive or wrong if it gets you to where you want to be in a stable way.
Most people will find weighing food burdensome, but they may wish to use the scale as a temporary knowledge-building exercise. If you see what sort of portions of food actually meet your caloric needs, you’ll likely learn more about how to moderate your intake even when you aren’t weighing food.
I think the majority of overweight people could benefit from spending a bit of time with a food scale because it reduces eating choices down to simple arithmetic. Should I eat more? The answer is at Cronometer.com (or one of many other websites and apps that track calories).
Davis, C. Et al. Sensitivity to reward: implications for overeating and overweight. Appetite. 2004. Apr;42(2):131-8.↩
Davis, C. Et al. From motivation to behaviour: a model of reward sensitivity, overeating, and food preferences in the risk profile for obesity. Appetite. 2007 Jan;48(1):12-9. Epub 2006 Jul 26. ↩
Sim, AY. Et al. High-intensity intermittent exercise attenuates ad libitum energy intake. Int. J Obes (Lond). 2014 March; 38(3):417-22.↩
Dalen, Neanne. Et al. Pilot study: Mindful Eating and Living (MEAL): Weight, eating behavior, and psychological outcomes associated with a mindfulness-based intervention for people with obesity. Complementary Therapies in Medicine (2010) 18, 260—264↩
Anderson, K., & May, M. (2012). The Mindful Eating Cycle: Treatment for Binge Eating Disorder. Arizona State University, Doctor of Behavioral Health, Culminating Project. ↩
Kathryn, M. Et al. Mindfulness-based interventions for binge eating: a systematic review and meta-analysis. J Behav Med. DOI 10.1007/s10865-014-9610-5↩