How can you stop overeating?

There was a new article posted on the Washington Post on Monday, which highlighted the fact that many of us believe that our bodies will tell us when we are hungry, or indeed full. In fact it turns out that there are multiple psychological factors which can affect how much we eat, including who our memories, and our social surroundings.

Eating at home:

For example, it is now relatively common knowledge that the size of our plates affects how full you feel after a meal, with the smaller the plate, the less food you’d need in order to feel full. This is because when we see that our plates are seemingly overflowing with food, that information goes to our brain and in turn we feel satisfied. Because the plate in smaller however, you are actually eating less food.

Similar effects have been seen with people who eat whilst watching television, vs those who focus on their food when eating. Those who watch television whilst eating are ‘mindlessly eating’, and therefore do not recall eating that amount of food. As memory has been deemed as highly important in determining when one is full, being unable to recall how much food you’ve eaten will inevitably lead to you eating more than you would if you focused on your food when eating.

Mindful eating, eating without distraction, is thought to be a way to combat overeating. By focusing on every bite, you will tend to eat less, but to actively enjoy what you are eating too.

Dining out:

When dining with others, there are other more subtle factors which can influence the amount of food you eat, including the weight of your waiter, the size of your table, and the weight of your dining guests can all affect how much food it would take you before you’re full. We all desire to fit in, and when others eat higher levels of food, you typically adjust to what we think is expected.

Take out / Snacks:

When food is convenient, it is very difficult to convince ourselves that we are not hungry. This is because we experience feeling full a period of time after eating (which makes sense when you think about it). The author of “Secrets of the Eating Lab” Tracy Mann argues that “The easier it is to eat, the more you’re going to eat — it’s that simple,”. This principle can be applied to buffet carts, drive thru’s, and perhaps the most importantly, grocery shopping. As we live in a obesogenic society (a society which encourages frequent, high-calorie food consumption), it may be prevalent to try and encourage people to buy healthy foods instead of unhealthy foods. This would make unhealthy snack foods less convenient, and as a consequence people will eat less.

(Obviously the definition of ‘healthy’/’unhealthy’ is variable, but you know what I mean)

One way to deal with this is to discover foods that you love to eat, within your new healthy remit. If you find something delicious, it takes a far smaller amount to feel full. Probably because you are being so much more mindful about what you are eating. I have have had experience of this, by discovering hummus (especially chilli and paprika hummus!). By loving the taste of hummus, I find that I am reaching for that and slices of cucumber instead of cookies. In addition, because these foods have a lower calorie content than cookies, you are able to eat more of these healthier alternative if you wish, without the guilt.

In a sense, as highlighted by David Just, a professor of behavioural economics at Cornell, “we are no different from dogs”. We eat whenever the opportunity arrives, and as such we have to focus on our food in a mindful way, as well as making it more difficult to obtain the food, in order to prevent overeating.

If you would like to know more about the psychological principles behind dieting, my friend Lucy has written a two part post about why dieting as we know it, simply doesn’t work.

What do you think about why we overeat, or if there are any other factors to consider?


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