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Eating Less Requires Training

“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants,” says Michael Pollan. While I’m pretty good at eating real, non-processed food and basing my diet on plants, I struggle with the “not too much” part.

I love food. I probably love it a little too much. Although I’m very active, I carry around 10-20 extra pounds from being such a big eater.

Part of the problem is that, as a grad student, I don’t get nearly enough sleep. Sleep deprivation can make you fatter by increasing levels of appetite regulating hormones and eroding your ability to make good decisions. I also spend an inordinate amount of time in front of my computer doing work that I don’t really want to do, so I snack to stay awake and make my work more enjoyable.

So what’s a food-loving, sleep-deprived gal supposed to do? I have enough experience training animals that I know I can’t simply tell myself to stop certain behaviors. (Ever try yelling at your dog to get it to stop barking? Usually doesn’t work, does it? Distracting your dog with a game works much better.) Instead of telling yourself that tomorrow is the day that you will stop overeating, you need to replace a bad habit with a good one to be successful.

Here are some strategies for replacing habits that lead to overeating with healthier habits:

  • Shopping hungry → Shopping full.

Go shopping after you’ve eaten instead of when you’re coming home from work half-starved. When I go to the market hungry, I inevitably come home with a bag of chocolate-covered something and then consume it all in front of my computer later that evening.

  • Snacking → Drinking tea.

Drinking tea satisfies that urge to be consuming something without adding a lot of extra calories.

  • Using food as a reward → Finding non-food rewards.

I often use food as an incentive to get through a long, arduous day or a tough week. Unfortunately, I have a lot of difficult days/weeks and viewing dinner as a reward often leads me to overindulge. So, instead of getting take-out, try to replace a food-based reward with a non-food reward – a hot bath, a glass of wine, a phone call to a friend – whatever is fun and relaxing for you.

  • Snacking mindlessly → Choosing healthy snacks that perk you up.

If you need to snack to stay awake or keep yourself interested in your work, choose fruits and veggies that are crunchy or cold. There’s something satisfying and stimulating about carrot slices or frozen grapes when you’re working at your computer or studying for an exam – I think because they require a lot of chewing.

  • Reaching for a nighttime snack → Calling it a night.

Go to bed instead of getting that extra snack. This is a hard one. If you know that you’re more likely to overeat at night, try to go to bed earlier and do work in the mornings when you’re less tempted to snack.

Have a strategy to combat overeating?  Please post a comment!

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(Image courtesy of memyselfandkai at flickr under a Creative Commons license)

5 comments
  1. Julia

    Fruit, fruit, and more fruit! Whenever I need to snack, or am having a food attack, fruit has been the best answer. I’m also in school and totally understand the cravings that come with sleep deprivation. Sometimes, when I’m needing a jolt, tea and an apple (or multiple) help a lot. The fiber will also make you fuller faster. If only school didn’t bring on stress :)

  2. William Furr

    Those are some great tips. I’ve used a couple of them successfully (never shop hungry, go to bed instead of eat more).

    However, what really worked best for me was to reduce eating out to one night a week, maybe two if I was traveling on a weekend. When you eat out, it’s really, really easy to overeat, because most restaurants serve portions that are way too big. I also try to make a habit of eating half and bringing the other half home for later.

    I find I don’t overeat as much with home-made foods (except when I bake cookies!), partly because it’s so much work to cook enough so that I *can* overeat. It’s much easier and cheaper for me to make slightly less food than I need instead.

  3. Greg

    You brought up some good points in this article, but I always found eating less to be a route to failure. Fruit and Vegetables is the easiest way to lose weight and keep it off.

    Instead of skipping meals or snacks, I follow the advice of Dr. Fuhrman (“eat to live”), and instead of trying to constantly eat less, and skip snacks, I load up on the snacks, and I eat much larger meals. I aim for 4 cups of vegetables per day and unlimited amounts of fruit.

    I am constantly full, I’m never faced with a choice between not eating, or gaining weight, and I’m constantly stuffing myself with great food… and I have stopped gaining weight even though I’m going into my 30’s.

    If your never hungry, your never tempted. Always fill up on as many vegetables and fruits as you want. You simply can’t gain weight on beans, broccoli, and apples.

  4. Rachel Shulman

    Greg, I agree with you that you should never let yourself get too hungry. By “eating less,” I don’t mean “go hungry.” Instead, these strategies are ways to cut back on compulsive eating – the type of eating that can happen when you’re tired, bored, or sad.

  5. Stephanie - Green SAHM

    My own favorite tactic has been to keep unhealthy snacks that I like out of the house. If I feel the urge, the snack is too inconvenient and I either won’t snack or I’ll pick something that I do have, which is probably healthier.

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