Effective Ways to Prevent Overeating

Eat when you’re hungry. It sounds simple, but it’s not. Many people eat more when they’re bored, distracted, or splurging with friends. The new habit that threatens people with obesity and diabetes is overeating. University of Illinois lab director Brian Wansink says that lowering your food intake by 50 or 100 calories can greatly aid your health.

Once you know the techniques to prevent over-eating, the rest is easy. Drinking water before meals and putting down your phone is all you need to cut those 50 calories. Here are the most effective, research-backed methods to stop overeating.

Put Down Your Phone During Meals

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Study after study has proven that distracted eating prompts people to consume more. In The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, a review of 24 studies concluded that eating while distracted causes people not to remember their meals. When they’re not paying attention, they tend to overeat.

Howard LeWine, Chief Medical Editor of Harvard Health Publishing, says that it takes around 20 minutes for your brain to understand when you’re full. That’s why mindful eating helps us reduce portion size. On top of that, those who eat while distracted tend to feel more hungry later on.

Slow Down!

A man eats his lunch quickly at a Burger King restaurant
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Ian Waldie/Getty Images

In 2018, a study in BMJ Open found that those who eat slowly tend to weigh less. Slow eaters were 42% less likely to develop obesity. Rushed meals create the same result as distracted eating: you can’t tell when you’re full before it’s too late.

On top of that, those who eat slowly feel fuller faster. The brain takes a while to register hormones from digestion. When you’re too busy eating, your brain doesn’t focus on this hormone change. To slow your mealtime, sip on water in between bites. It’ll help you feel fuller, too.

Determine Your Eating “Cues”

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Watchara Phomicinda/Digital First Media/The Press-Enterprise via Getty Images

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, people often eat when they’re not hungry due to a cue. A “cue” is an action or sign that reminds you to eat. Common snacking cues are opening the pantry, walking past a candy dish, or driving by a restaurant every day.

James Clear, the author of Atomic Habits, says that you can change your habit by removing the cue. Lock the pantry at certain times, throw out the candy dish, or take a different route to work. Often, the cue tells our brain to crave the food when we’re not hungry.

Don’t Buy In Bulk

Woman loads her car with groceries at a Costco Warehouse
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Michael B. Thomas/AFP/Getty Images

The more you buy, the more food you have to eat. The more food that’s available, the more you’ll want to eat. In 2007, researchers at the University of Tennessee gave college students four weeks’ worth of snacks and handed some students double the amount. Those who owned more snacks ate 81% more.

Instead of buying groceries for the month, you may want to food shop for the week. If you do buy in bulk, keep your extraneous snacks out of sight. The phrase “out of sight, out of mind” works wonders for overeating.

The Worst Thing You Can Do: Skip Meals

Aspiring beauty queen Monica Joelle Ortiz cooks lunch in her house in Manila.
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NOEL CELIS/AFP/Getty Images

Skipping breakfast, lunch, or even snack time will make you overeat later. “When people skip meals, they feel like they’re owed something later in the day, so they tend to overeat at their next meal,” says Registered Dietitian Bonnie Taub-Dix. She adds that if you spread your meals out, your body will process the nutrients more efficiently.

If you skip meals strategically through intermittent fasting, you could stop yourself from overeating later. In general, dietitians recommend eating every three to four hours. If you’re one of the 31 million Americans who skip breakfast, you may want to rethink that habit.

Limit Variety

Customers grab food at a 20-dollar buffet food stall at Choi Hung Road Market
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Nora Tam/South China Morning Post via Getty Images

Many people are taught that healthy meals involve a wide variety of shapes, textures, and colors on your plate. However, research shows that this variety can cause you to overeat. A study in Physiology and Behavior noted that participants ate more when three yogurts had different flavors, colors, and textures.

Scientists call this phenomenon “sensory-specific satiety.” After you’re exposed to a stimulus for a while, your senses grow numb to it. You can use this experience to your advantage by restricting the variety of foods on your plate. If you have many food options, limit your plate to three foods and one drink throughout the evening.

Sugary Foods Make You Want To Eat More

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Research has indicated that sugary and fatty foods trigger your brain’s “reward system”–the same circuits that push people to take more drugs or gamble. After you taste sugar, you’ll want to consume more food, says clinical psychologist Michael Lowe.

“A lot of overeating, maybe all of the eating people do beyond their energy needs, is based on consuming some of our most palatable foods,” Lowe told Scientific American. While you don’t have to cut out sugar completely, limiting your sweets intake can prevent overeating and future cravings.

Drink Water Before Your Meal

Young female driver drinks water.
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Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Drinking water helps you feel fuller. During a 2018 study, participants who drank 300 ml (just over one cup) of water before a meal ate less. Drinking after a meal did not have the same effect. The study, published in the Clinical Journal of Nutrition, added that participants felt fuller throughout the day as well.

Researchers at the University of Birmingham achieved the same results. In their study, participants drank two glasses of water 30 minutes before their meal. But even one glass of water can prevent you from eating too much.

If It’s Not Around, You Won’t Eat It

Jackie Klock, 10, finds a gluten free cereal in the family's pantry.
Doug Jones/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images
Doug Jones/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images

When someone leaves out a bowl of chips or free candy, it can be hard to resist. The simple fact that this food is around and available persuades people to eat, according to Pennsylvania State University researcher Barbara Rolls. Don’t keep seconds on the dinner table if you want to prevent overeating.

In a 2005 study, participants unknowingly ate from a bottomless bowl of soup. Those who did consumed 73% more than people with a normal bowl of soup. The research author stated that “people use their eyes to count calories and not their stomachs.”

Keep Visual Reminders Of What You Ate

Family eats dinner at Peter Lugar's Steak House.
Mark Peterson/Corbis via Getty Images
Mark Peterson/Corbis via Getty Images

When we’re reminded of how much we just ate, we’ll limit our future servings. During a 2007 study in Perceptual and Motor Skills, participants ate chicken wings while either keeping the bones or discarding the bones. Those who kept bones on their plate ate 34% less, or two fewer chicken wings, than those who threw them away.

Using this strategy, you can keep track of your meals during distracting situations. Keep your old plates on your table at a buffet, or display your empty beer bottles during game night. Remaining mindful of what you’ve consumed will help stop you from overeating.

Alcohol Makes You Hungrier

Katie Courvoisier talks with friends while partaking in the late night happy hour
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Josh Lawton/Digital First Media/Boulder Daily Camera via Getty Images

For centuries, people have used alcohol to increase appetite. Researchers still aren’t sure why alcohol prompts overeating, but a 2017 study in Nature Communications suggests that it might be ethanol. This active ingredient activates the same brain cells that react to starvation.

During the study, participants who drank before their meal ate over 15% more than those who didn’t. Remember this next time you’re at happy hour. According to the Netherlands Organization for Applied Scientific Research, alcohol makes people crave salty and fatty foods. One-and-a-half standard drinks increased salty and fatty food consumption by 24%.

Don’t Eat From The Container

A brown paper bag containing the remnants of fast food from Burger King is discarded on a seat in a London bus
Richard Baker / In Pictures via Getty Images Images
Richard Baker / In Pictures via Getty Images Images

Most food containers hold more food than you need. One example is a Pringles can, which was examined during a 2012 study in Health Psychology. When researchers dyed every seventh chip red, participants ate 50% less. Transferring your food from a container to a plate can counter overeating.

Another option is to buy smaller packages. Research in the 2016 Journal of Marketing found that people who ate from a large bag of 200 M&Ms ate more–31 more candies and 112 extra calories–than those who ate from 10 bags of 20 M&Ms.

Switch To Smaller Plates

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Unsplash/@dsmacinnes

If you want to control your portions easily, use smaller plates. A 2015 study in Cochrane Library found that people who ate on smaller plates consumed less. Not only do the plates limit portion sizes, but the serving appears larger, which tricks your brain into feeling more satisfied.

This technique doesn’t always work, according to a 2018 study by Ben-Gurion University. When people are hungry, they’ll eat the same amount as they did with large plates. If you want to force yourself to eat smaller portions, though, give smaller dishes a try.

Great Minds Eat Alike

Two friends eat pizza as they watch TV  on the couch.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The more people you dine with, the more you eat. A 2007 study in Obesity found that eating with one person increases consumption by 35% while eating with a group of seven raises the meal by 96%. When you eat with others, you spend more time sitting with your meal.

On the other hand, joining healthy eaters can influence your meal habits. Dining with slow eaters decreases your eating speed, according to Psychology Bulletin. Joining healthy eaters can also dissuade you from ordering dessert. Be mindful of who you’re eating with to avoid over-consumption.

Your Snacks Should Have A Lot Of Protein

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Protein helps you feel fuller than breads and produce. Although it sounds obvious, many who aim to eat less don’t take this into account. In a small 2014 study, women who ate high-protein snacks ate less later in the day. The research, published in Nutrition Journal, listed yogurt and protein bars as appetite-controlling snacks.

Contrary to popular misconceptions, you don’t need a low-carb diet to compliment your high-protein meal. Research in 2012 noted that a high-protein, high-carb breakfast helps people eat less later as opposed to low-carb meals. Some high-carb foods, such as quinoa, contain protein as well.

Follow Your Stomach, Not The Clock

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Many people time their meals: breakfast at 8:00 a.m., lunch at noon, etc. Unfortunately, this technique can work against you. Research in a 2007 issue of Obesity determined that people who ate by the clock consumed more than those who relied on internal cues. Normal-weight people relied on hunger alone.

If you struggle to distinguish between hunger and craving, ask yourself whether you’d eat an apple. Hunger doesn’t discriminate between foods, whereas cravings rely on whatever you’re desiring. (Of course, if you’re craving an apple, choose another food.)

Is Your Stress Making You Eat?

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Unsplash/@jeshoots

Sometimes, when people feel stressed, they resort to comfort food. This can lead to frequent overeating, according to a 2014 research review in Frontiers in Psychology. The researchers say that chronic stress activates hormones called glucocorticoids that stimulate the appetite. They also prevent people from feeling satisfied after a full meal.

According to Harvard Health Publishing, stress also changes food preferences. Stressed people tend to pick more high-sugar, high-fat snacks–also known as comfort food. This not only pushes people to overeat, but it also harms your blood sugar levels.

Write Down Your Progress–And Your Mistakes

Meghan Cooper uses her lunch hour from her assistant manager job to write thank you notes and eat orange chicken.
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JOEY MCLEISTER/Star Tribune via Getty Images

How do you know when you’re overeating? By keeping a food diary. During a 2019 study in Obesity, researchers found that those who wrote down what they ate lost weight faster. Journaling makes you more aware of what and when you’re eating, so you’ll learn when to limit your portions and cut down on extraneous snacks.

The researchers added that people need to self-monitor for only 15 minutes every day. “It seems the simple act of writing down what you eat encourages people to consume fewer calories,” says Jack Hollis, a researcher at Kaiser Permanente.

Fiber Helps You Feel Fuller

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Unsplash/@studiomedia

High-fiber foods make you feel fuller than low-fiber foods. In the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, a review of 60 studies found that fiber makes the body absorb more nutrients. When you feel more satisfied, you won’t overeat.

There are two types of fiber: insoluble and soluble. Researchers believe that soluble fiber prevents overeating. Insoluble fiber adds bulk to your stool, but soluble fiber speeds up your metabolism and lowers your risk of obesity. High-fiber foods include whole wheat, legumes, berries, apples, leafy greens, nuts, seeds, and beans.

Make Your Snacks An Inconvenience

Girl eats popcorn for a snack.
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Twitter/@ADINspection

If you’re a snacker, you may want to relocate your favorite foods. The more inconvenient it feels to grab a snack, the less likely you’ll eat when you’re not hungry. Researchers from the University of Illinois discovered that workers took five fewer candies a day when they had to walk to the candy bowl as opposed to when it was on their desk.

Keeping less nutritious snacks out of reach can help your health, too. Psychologists assert that we eat out of boredom to increase our pleasure neurotransmitter, dopamine. If your snacks are hard to reach, you won’t mindlessly eat when bored.