1. Ditch Derailing Diet Habits
Why: Most weight-loss tricks―ranging from ways to blunt hunger signals (sipping on coffee or diet soda in lieu of eating) to satisfying cravings (with low-calorie or artificially sweetened foods) ―backfire in the long run. Drinking coffee, for one, will temporarily stave off stomach rumblings, but you may feel jittery later on and then overeat. When it comes to downing diet soda regularly, study after study links this to weight gain. Why? “People know they are drinking something virtually calorie-free, so then they tend to indulge in food,” says Lawrence Cheskin, an internist and the director of the Johns Hopkins Weight Management Center, in Baltimore. Your body is also receiving a mixed message: It’s tasting sweetness but not getting full. “So your cravings intensify and you find yourself eating more food than ever,” says Cheskin.
Similarly, small-size versions of indulgences, like mini candy bars and single-serving snack packs, can also lead to overeating. Studies show that people lose track of how many minis they eat and wind up consuming more than a regular-size portion. Then there are the healthy-seeming packaged foods, like organic granola, that have an aura of health about them, so people consume more of them. But a wholesome-looking label does not mean you’re eating health food. Many granola varieties, for instance, contain a fair amount of sugar, fat, and calories.
How to do it: Sip on seltzer with lime or herbal tea in between meals―especially if you tend to eat out of boredom. This will keep your hands busy and your stomach satiated until your body is truly hungry. When noshing on mini-size snacks, first remove the amount you want to eat from the bag and then put the bag away. Or simply eat the regular-size portion, like one Snickers bar instead of six minis. And don’t let a product’s perceived health quality give you a license to eat more. When in doubt, study the nutrition label for sugar and fat content.
2. Plate Your Food Differently
Why: Sure, your body can trick itself into thinking it’s hungry when it’s not, but how you serve your food can influence how much you’ll eat. “If you switch from a 12½-inch plate to a 10½-inch one, you’ll eat 22 percent less―without feeling any hungrier or less satisfied,” says Brian Wansink, Ph.D., author of Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think ($25, amazon.com). Also be aware of how easy it is to space out during a meal: A 2007 Cornell University study found that restaurant customers eating chicken wings consumed significantly more if the bones were bused away as they piled up, essentially removing the evidence of how much the people had already polished off.
How to do it: Use the half-plate rule: Fill 50 percent of your dish with salad, vegetables, and fruit. These foods all have a lot of mass but little fat and calories. That way, you cut down on the amount of room left for more caloric foods, such as meats, pastas, or sweets.
3. Check Your Mood
Why: Anyone who has ever soothed a broken heart with a pint―or two―of Ben & Jerry’s can probably attest to the fact that hunger isn’t the only thing that can make you hungry. Data from the University of North Carolina indicate that stress, loneliness, anxiety, anger, boredom, guilt, and sadness can all make people crave food when their bodies don’t physically need it. Research also shows that people eat more when they’re experiencing joy, excitement, or anticipation. The key to breaking these habits is how you deal with the eating slipups while they happen or right afterward, says Marsha Hudnall, a registered dietitian and the director of Green Mountain at Fox Run, a women’s health retreat in Ludlow, Vermont. Indeed, a 2007 study found that most people can stop an episode in its tracks by being aware of it and not beating themselves up for the slip.
How to do it: Create a list of coping mechanisms that don’t involve food―taking a walk, calling a friend, reading a book. Each time you’re tempted, act on the list. And if you’ve already leapt into a pizza binge before you looked, remind yourself that it happens to everyone, and then turn to the list. And plan ahead: If you know you snack because of stress or nerves (staring down a deadline, say) or out of habit (watching a favorite show while crunching chips), make your need to nosh less damaging by having something healthier on hand. In time, you’ll wean yourself away from mindless munching when you realize you have no desire to devour crudité with the same abandon.