Staying socially distanced from others is necessary to prevent COVID-19 community spread, but being quarantined at home can be isolating and trigger boredom and stress. You’re stuck inside on another Saturday watching the 30th Netflix series this summer, and it’s super tempting to head over to the fridge to make your fifth snack of the day.
It’s normal to overeat. It’s how we cope with these emotions, but overeating isn’t doing your body or mind any favors. Overeating is defined as eating too much in one sitting, and it can be a difficult habit to break, especially in today’s world with growing portion sizes and hustling lifestyles.
While the sporadic overindulgence of a midnight snack may be harmless, it is important to identify overeating patterns over time as it can lead to chronic health conditions like diabetes and heart disease.
While overeating can be caused by many factors, it can be prevented with healthy lifestyle changes. Here are five, expert-approved, healthy steps you can take to reduce overeating.
1. Eat more whole foods.
Make sure you concentrate on whole, unprocessed foods while allowing yourself to enjoy an occasional treat here and there. Try substituting healthy, satisfying options for the foods you find yourself overeating. For example, if you enjoy a sweet chocolate bar, opt for a fiber-rich protein bar instead. Restricting yourself from those unhealthy foods is unrealistic and may cause you to feel deprived and develop a stronger urge to overeat.
Dr. Shebani Sethi Dalai, MD, MS, Founding Director of Stanford’s Metabolic Psychiatry Clinic and Silicon Valley Metabolic Psychiatry recommends eating nutritious foods rich in protein and fiber that can help you feel more full, reducing the urge to overeat.
“Ultra processed food actually tells our body to store the food,” she says, “increasing insulin and ultimately lowering blood glucose further — making us feel hungrier.”
2. Drink more water.
Calling all Hydro Homies. Staying hydrated can reduce overeating. Not only does water help the body feel satisfied, but it fills your body with the purest source of hydration – a much healthier alternative to sugary drinks and sodas. Make sure to boost your water intake in lieu of sweetened beverages, as sugar can increase intensity of cravings.
Dehydration can negatively impact energy levels and attentiveness.
“If you do not stay hydrated, it causes fatigue,” Dr. Sethi Dalai says. “When you are fatigued, you are in a vulnerable state predisposing you more likely to start binging.”
3. Avoid skipping meals.
There is a common myth that skipping meals may lead to weight loss. Avoiding meals is unhealthy as it can cause eating more later in the day, especially if meals are not well balanced. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends eating meals at regular times spread throughout the day to control appetite. There may be days where your meal schedule is not as uniform and that is okay. Make sure to eat at least three meals stretched out from the morning, afternoon, and evening.
Dr. Sethi Dalai finds skipping meals may lead to unhealthy eating patterns.
“Listen to your internal hunger cues, not emotional hunger,” she says. “Clinically, I find that those who pass on adequate amounts of protein and healthy fat at the beginning of the day resort to consuming higher amounts of ultra-processed foods and sugar later in the day. In fact, most Americans consume less than adequate levels of protein. I recommend my patients to consume these foods first, which helps reduce later consumption of unhealthy foods.”
4. Reduce stress.
It is important to focus on ways to cope with stress in your life as it can lead to overeating. A 2017 study published in Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews found that stress exposure is strongly linked to overeating, increased appetite, and weight gain.
“Stress is here to stay, but how we react and respond to it is critical,” Dr. Sethi Dalai says. There are many ways to de-stress; staying physically active, connecting with others, and taking the time for self-care. Dr. Dalai recommends practicing mindfulness, which allows us to focus on the moment. “Practicing mindfulness even for just 5 -10 minutes a day has many benefits including reducing stress eating, lowering blood pressure and improving the immune system,” she says.
5. Seek professional help.
If you are concerned about your eating habits and overeating, it may be time for you to seek help from a professional, such as a physician who specializes in disordered eating or other licensed clinician. Recognize that overeating is not the same as binge eating disorder. Individuals with binge eating disorder experience frequent and continuous episodes of eating large portions of food, despite the absence of hunger. Generally, they feel ashamed, guilty and/or even sick after a binge. If this sounds more familiar, it is important to seek help from your healthcare provider.
“Oftentimes I see patients who have not sought treatment for decades,” Dr. Sethi Dalai says, “and have been struggling with disordered eating for such a long time that they have developed medical sequelae (e.g diabetes or insulin resistance) by the time they reach my office. There are treatments and professionals that can help and intervene earlier.”