We all know were supposed to eat healthy portions. So why is it that a rough day at the office or even just the smell of chocolate-chip cookies can cause us to throw our best intentions out the window?
We tapped the nations leading experts for the unexpected reasons why so many of us overdo it—so you can break the cycle and prevent an unwanted pile-on of pounds.
1. Youre not getting enough sleep
Missing out on your zzzs not only puts you in a mental fog, it also triggers a constellation of actual metabolic changes that may lead to weight gain. A lack of shut-eye harms your waistline because it affects two important hormones that control appetite and satiety—leptin and ghrelin—says Kristen L. Knutson, PhD, a research associate specializing in sleep and health at the University of Chicagos Department of Medicine.
According to a study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, people who slept only four hours a night for two nights had an 18 percent decrease in leptin (a hormone that signals the brain that the body has had enough to eat) and a 28 percent increase in ghrelin (a hormone that triggers hunger), compared with those who got more rest. The result: Sleep-deprived study volunteers reported a 24 percent boost in appetite. Short sleep can also impair glucose metabolism and over time set the stage for type 2 diabetes, Knutson notes.
How to get control:
When were exhausted, we hunger for just about everything in sight, especially if its sugary or high in carbs. That may be because these foods give us both an energy boost and comfort (since lack of sleep is a stressor), Knutson says. To quell the urge for fattening foods and still get the energy kick you need, reach for a combination of complex carbs and protein.
“If youre feeling tired, you want carbs. But go for high-fiber carbs for long-lasting energy,” says Keri Gans, RD, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association (ADA). “Fiber burns slower than simple sugars, and adding in some protein keeps you satisfied longer.”
At breakfast, have whole-wheat toast with egg whites or a high-fiber cereal with fruit and a yogurt. And for a food-free way to perk up during the day, take a 10-minute walk outside. You also can prevent uncontrollable cravings in the first place by prioritizing a good nights sleep—get seven to nine hours a night in a slumber-friendly bedroom (one thats as dark and quiet as possible and reserved for shut-eye and sex only).
A final tip: If youre plagued by sleep problems, ask your doctor for a referral to a sleep specialist. Also, see Potential Side Effects of Sleeping Pills.
2. Youre sabotaged by stress
Constant stress causes your body to pump out high doses of hormones, like cortisol, that over time can boost your appetite and lead you to overeat. “Cortisol and insulin shift our preferences toward comfort foods—high-fat, high-sugar, or high-salt foods,” says Elissa Epel, PhD, an associate professor at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), Department of Psychiatry and a leader of the UCSF Center on Obesity Assessment, Study, and Treatment.
Fat cells also produce cortisol, so if youre overweight and stressed, youre getting a double-whammy in terms of exposure. Overweight women gained weight when faced with common stressors such as job demands, having a tough time paying bills, and family-relationship strains, according to a study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology.
Cortisol, together with insulin, also causes your body to store more visceral fat, which is a risk factor for heart attack and stroke, Epel notes. Whats more, stress makes it harder to stick with a healthy eating plan. “Its a reason why people go off diets,” notes Marci Gluck, PhD, a clinical research psychologist at the Obesity and Diabetes Clinical Research Section of the National Institutes of Health in Phoenix. Folks who normally restrict their eating, tend to overeat in response to stress.
How to get control:
Sure, real-life pressures can put you in nonstop-nibble mode. But working stress-reduction techniques into your busy days can really help. Yoga, meditation, and deep-breathing exercises are powerful tools that keep tension in check. And spending 20 minutes doing progressive muscle relaxation—alternately tensing and relaxing muscle groups—significantly lessens stress, anxiety, and cortisol, according to a study published in the International Journal of Obesity and Related Metabolic Disorders.
Exercise will also do the trick. “Try dancing to your favorite tunes, running in place, playing a sport, or taking a simple walk,” says Elisa Zied, RD, an ADA spokeswoman and author of Nutrition at Your Fingertips. When youre feeling edgy, make a habit of turning to these activities rather than diving into your candy stash. If youre feeling completely overwhelmed by stress, talk to a counselor who specializes in stress management.
3. Youve got fatty foods (literally) on the brain
Were hardwired to hunger for fatty, sugary, salty foods because, back when our ancestors were foraging for every meal, palatable eats meant extra energy and a leg-up on survival, says David A. Kessler, MD, former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and author of The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite.
So its not just a lack of willpower thats tripping you up, but rather your outdated survival mode. In fact, when you eat fat-rich foods, your brain not only gets a signal that your body is satisfied but also forms long-term memories of the experience, according to new research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. What once helped early humans survive is now giving us ever-expanding waistlines.
Adding to the challenge to control overeating, the mere sight of food can cue up a craving. “[Cravings] are based on past learning and memories as well as the sight or smell of food, time of day, or location,” Kessler says. “Youll walk down the street and start thinking about chocolate-covered pretzels because youve had them before on the same street.”
How to get control:
Avoid eating your favorite treat if youre in a particular mood, if its a certain time of day, or if youre in a specific place; this will prevent you from creating a triggering link between those feelings or locations and that treat, Kessler says. And since the smell and sight of fatty, sugary foods is pure temptation, try to keep yourself from passing the bakery or ice cream shop you cant resist.
Also, pay attention to what youre thinking when temptation strikes. “Once the brain is activated [by a craving], having that inner dialogue of, ‘No, I shouldnt have that, only increases the wanting,” Kessler notes. Instead, focus on something you want more than that slice of cheesecake—from being healthier for your kids to feeling less winded when you walk to work—to help override the urge.
If logic is out the window, indulge in healthier versions of your favorites such as low-fat frozen yogurt with almonds when you crave a sundae or a calcium-rich glass of nonfat chocolate milk when you need a chocolate fix.
Next Page: You pigged out—now what?
You Pigged Out—Now What?
Bounce back after a binge with these smart moves:
- Forgive yourself. “Having one overindulgent meal should not derail you from your healthful eating habits, while being too negative will make you more likely to throw up your hands in despair and overindulge at the next meal or several meals for days to come,” Elisa Zied, RD, says.
- Give yourself a do-over. Immediately start with lean protein, veggies, whole grains, and fruit, and drink plenty of water, Zied suggests.
- Learn from it. Think about what triggered your overindulgence—not to punish yourself, but to choose smarter next time. “If you keep a food journal, you might see you ended up pigging out because you waited too long to eat,” Keri Gans, RD, says.
- Add on exercise. To feel in control again, simply tack on a few extra minutes to your regular walk, gym routine, etc. At the same time, “try not to think of exercise as a punishment for overindulging,” Zied says. If you do, youll grow to dread the gym.
WHY DO WE EAT TOO MUCH?
Research shows that eating while doing another task—working at your desk, watching TV, driving—can cause you to eat more food than when you’re sitting at a table, focusing on and honoring your dining experience. Pull up a chair in the kitchen, a break room or wherever you can escape distraction for each meal, and engage your senses in the moment. Tuning into the taste of a sweet potato, the aroma of freshly made soup or the texture of your sandwich’s multi-grain bread can help keep your focus on what you’re doing so you don’t eat without thought.
EATING TOO QUICKLY
Often a companion of mindless eating, scarfing down your food too quickly can cause you to eat past the point of contentment. To give your brain the time it needs to get the message from your stomach that you’ve had enough (20 minutes), pace yourself as you eat. Try putting your fork down between bites, and check in with yourself during your meal so you are more attuned when you’ve satisfied your hunger.
Many diets ask you to put some of your favorites foods on a “no” list. While it may be wise to limit certain goodies, completely nixing some of your favorites all together generally has one outcome—eating too much of them the next time they cross your path. Instead, set some boundaries around your trigger foods. If you know that it’s hard to each just a square of chocolate, make a rule that you only eat high-quality chocolate that you buy just once a month.
We sometimes forget that the role of food is to nourish our bodies and not our feelings.
Remember that eating well has more rewards in the long run than any immediate gratification eating may bring. Celebrate a triumph, comfort yourself or otherwise cater to how you’re feeling by engaging in activities that don’t center on food; when emotions run high, emotional eating can easily turn to overeating. Congratulate yourself on your promotion by allowing yourself a lazy afternoon with friends, or call up a loved one when you’re feeling low.
Chronic stress can increase your body’s release of the hormone cortisol, which increases appetite and causes you to crave high-fat, sugary foods. Left to build up, you may not only eat too much, but face other health concerns, from headaches to poor sleep and more. Employ stress management strategies to keep your tension—and your overeating—under control.
When you look at the servings of food doled out in restaurants and grocery stores, it’s no surprise that we eat more than we used to. For instance, an average muffin weighed about 3 ounces in the 1950s; today, one is likely to be closer to 6.5 ounces—more than double the size. When dining outside your home, try halving your portion before taking your first bite.
Ever skip breakfast and find yourself gorging on lunch? We tend to eat more than we need when our blood sugar is low—a side effect of skipping meals. Eat your three squares—even better, six smaller meals throughout the day—to keep levels steady and extreme hunger at bay.
THE “CLEAN PLATE CLUB”
Many of us were taught to eat until the food in front of us was cleared, rather than when we felt satisfied. If you’re still in the habit, serve yourself a modest amount of food to start. You can always go back for more if you’re truly hungry, but you may find that you are actually satisfied with far less than what you’re used to eating.