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How not to overeat

Reading Time: 3 minutes

For millennia humans had barely enough to eat. Yet these days many people find it difficult to keep their eating in check. Knowing the health consequences isn’t enough. So here are some ideas we’ve found on how not to overeat from experts around the world

1. Change your crockery

Using a smaller plate can offer some form of restraint. Studies show using smaller plates leads to eating smaller amounts, without feeling hungry afterwards (Cornell University food psychologist Brian Wansink and others). It seems that dinner plate sizes have been increasing – from around 23 cm diameter in the 1960s to around 28 cm now – so go small and see if it helps to make a difference.

Studies that looked at plate size also looked at colour1. Brian Wansink also investigated plate colour. He found plates whose colour contrasts with your food can reduce the amount you serve yourself. Red seems to be the most effective – except when eating pasta with tomato sauce or other red foods.

And in Thailand the government health board are developing the “AbsorbPlate” with 500 tiny holes in its base to soak up the excess oil in your meal

2. Identify your “trigger” foods

Some people have foods they turn to when they’re stressed, bored or angry. But experts seem to agree that banning foods outright simply doesn’t work. With 24-hour supermarkets it’s almost always possible to get hold of those temptations.

So authors Sophie and Audrey Boss recommend actively stocking up on trigger foods. They suggest you can eat as much as you want, when you want, but eat only that food as your main meal, taking time to enjoy it. Their theory is that this reduces that food’s allure and allows you to change your attitude to it.

Others, including Brian Wansink (again), suggest it’s better to keep those tempting foods well out of reach or to hide them.  Office workers ate nearly 50% more chocolates from a jar on their desk than when it was two metres away. Hiding them in the desk drawer (near, but invisible) reduced the amount they ate by 25%.

The only problem was that test subjects recognised they were eating less, but overestimated the drop. So they ate more chocolates than they realised (and probably saw lower weight loss than they expected).

3. Stick to a daily plan

Some argue that three balanced meals a day at regular times, without snacks, is the best way to control food intake. They point to the lower levels of obesity when everyone stuck to traditional meal times, and before the wide availability of packaged snacks. If each meal includes foods that release energy slowly then indulging in sugary and salty snacks may be less tempting.

Other experts say that it’s all about the amount you eat through the whole day. Some people do better eating six smaller meals, spread evenly across the day. That way your next meal comes before your blood sugar drops to levels that incite you to snack. The key to this plan is making sure all six meals are high in nutrients. The risk? – you could eat twice as much, with six full-sized meals replacing three.

The third way is practiced by the people of Okinawa, Japan, who often live to be 100. Eat when you’re hungry and stop when you’re nearly full. That’s quite a change in habits if you were brought up to eat everything on your plate (and then be rewarded with something sweet).

4. Think about processed foods

Some nutritionists blame the popularity and availability of highly-processed foods for overeating. They explain that our brains can’t understand the high levels of calories in many foods and drinks, so can’t tell us when we’ve reached satiety (eaten enough). Food writer Michael Pollan sums up his recommended alternative as, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”2

However many weight management programmes that rely on meal replacement shakes and snacks work for many people. Sticking to these plans can ensure you get nutritionally balanced meals and keep control of your calorie intake.

5. Make eating a pleasure

A common finding from the Blue Zones (pockets around the world where people live measurably longer and better – researched by longevity expert Dan Buettner) is that people who eat together live longer.3 And there’s evidence that children who don’t eat dinner with their parents at least twice a week are far more likely to be overweight than those who do.

Many champions urge us to think about our food. Some call it mindfulness; others talk about a return to eating respectfully. The idea is to consider your hunger and match your food to it. Then concentrate on enjoying every mouthful, without the distractions of TV, phone or laptop. This way, the theory goes, you’ll be aware when you’re full (or nearly full) rather than eating too much without noticing.

A final thought

With so many overlapping and even conflicting ideas perhaps it’s easiest to think this way: Keep trying until you find what works for you.

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