Americans are overeating—this is no secret. For years, nutritionists reinforced the idea of eating good portion sizes by comparing food to everyday objects, like a deck of cards or your own fist. But when it comes down to you at your dinner table, trying to remember if your pasta should look more like a tennis ball or a softball gets annoying.
To prevent overeating, we’ve compiled a list of seven ways to mentally keep yourself from overeating without having to think about sports equipment (or what an ounce really feels like).
1. Commit to an order before stepping into the restaurant.
There’s no place where we’re guiltier of overeating than at a restaurant. Samantha F. Grant, a Los Angeles-based nutritionist, recommends checking out the menu ahead of time to prevent making a bad decision once you’re tempted or absolutely starving. “Before you go to the restaurant, I think it’s important to already have in mind what you want to order, and if you’re going to splurge, what you’re going to splurge on,” Grant advises. “Planning ahead of time is key when you can.”
To avoid temptation once you’re there, she recommends not showing up famished. “Have a handful of nuts before you go if it’s been hours since your last meal,” she recommends. Also, distract yourself! Grant suggests drinking water or tea to distract yourself from delicious enticements and keep your hands and mouth busy. Definitely better than bingeing on the bread basket!
2. Don’t fall prey to the endowment effect.
One of the reasons we overeat while we’re out for a meal can be chalked up to the “endowment effect,” according to Brian Wansink, PhD, author of Slim by Design: Mindless Eating Solutions for Everyday Life. According to Wansink, the endowment effect influences our minds in this way: “When you’re given a huge portion of something for dinner, you’re really unwilling to give anything up if giving it up either means leaving it on the plate to be thrown away or it means putting it in a to-go box.”
The reality, however, is that it can be difficult to leave food when you’re digging into your delicious (sometimes addicting) dinner, enjoying great conversation with friends. To avoid the temptation to clear your plate, Wansink recommends mentally committing to leftovers before you even have the food in front of you. If you tell yourself you’re going to take part of your meal home, you’re more likely to actually do it.
Plus, by taking your oversize portion home, you’ve turned one overindulgent meal into two—or even more.
3. Avoid health halos.
By now we’ve realized that not every salad is healthy and necessary to finish in its entirety (read: barbecue chicken salad with croutons, cheese and ranch dressing). However, we often trick ourselves into thinking something is healthy when it’s not, and then find ourselves falling prey to “health halos”—things that seem good for us just because of some healthy characteristics.
In his studies, Wansink found that people end up eating 30 percent to 44 percent more calories when they believe something is healthier.
To avoid overeating, Wansink recommends estimating the calories in your meal—even if you don’t have a calorie calculator on hand. “Take your best guess as to [how many calories] there are in it—as accurate or inaccurate as that is—and double it. You’ll be closer to the actual estimate of calories if you double it than if you don’t. Simply doing that action is a powerful enough tool to get a lot of people to say, ‘Let’s share it’ or ‘I’m going to take part of it home.’”
4. Train yourself to eat slower.
Many studies have reported decreased calorie consumption when people take the time to eat slowly. But when we’re hungry or on the go, it’s hard to slow down and eat at an appropriate speed. And when we eat fast, we often eat too much because we haven’t given time for our stomach to signal to our brain “Stop eating! We’re full!”
So how do you start eating slower, especially if you’re accustomed to wolfing down your meals? The solution is all about patience and exerting some willpower. “I don’t think it’s realistic that people are going to put their fork down between bites,” Grant admits of this would-be good trick to eating more slowly. “I think that happens over time, and with practice you consciously tell yourself to slow down or to chew a little slower. It’s just one of those things that over time becomes a habit—to send that message to your brain to slow down.”
5. At a food free-for-all, try the “two trick.”
Whether you’re at a backyard BBQ with reception trays or a Las Vegas buffet, these food free-for-alls can be risky. Everything looks delicious and there are so many options, it’s easy to find yourself overeating. While the food isn’t necessarily going anywhere or running out, we often find ourselves loading up our plates with as much as they can hold and, in turn, eating way more than we should.
“What we tell people to do is take whatever you want, but [on each trip up] you can only put two different things on your plate,” Wansink explains. “What we find is that there is only so much you can actually put on the plate, so people tend to put a reasonable amount of those two things, but they also put the two things they want the most.”
And his thinking works: “People report eating about a third to a quarter less when they limit themselves to two things on their plate each time,” he says.
6. Hold yourself accountable with a food journal.
Hiring a nutritionist isn’t realistic for everyone, but you can find other (free) ways to hold yourself accountable. “Accountability is important,” Grant says. “It has been shown in numerous studies that people will consume less food when they are keeping a regular food journal.”
Luckily in today’s smartphone world, you don’t need to carry around a food journal and scribble down all of your meals. You can use an app to track your food intake, like Calorific, My Diet Diary or MyPlate by Livestrong, all of which can help you record your food and calories so you’re aware of how much you’re eating in a day (all that grazing can add up!).
7. Distract yourself when you want to emotionally eat.
You know yourself better than anyone else, and you know when you’re guilty of emotional eating. Whether it’s caused by a bad day at work, a fight with your significant other or just the stress of regular life, it happens to the best of us.
Grant first suggests to her clients not to stress about one bad eating day. “Start over at the next meal. The more you dwell on it, the more stress it creates and the cycle continues,” she explains.
However, there are plenty of things she recommends to distract yourself from overeating and take the opportunity to emotionally eat out of the equation. Grant recommends calming your stress and emotions with activities like taking a walk (not to the convenience store!), calling a friend, taking a relaxing bath, doing yoga, meditating (she recommends the app Headspace for a quick meditation) or using Yoga Tune Up balls by Jill Miller, which help to regulate your nervous system.
Trying these activities before you veg out with a carton of ice cream or bag of potato chips should help you learn to turn to other methods of self-soothing that aren’t so unhealthy!