The occasional oversized meal or snack will not cause too much harm, but, over time, overeating can lead to serious health conditions. These include type 2 diabetes, heart and blood vessel conditions, and obesity, which can lead to metabolic syndrome.
Between 2015 and 2016, approximately 39.8% of adults in the United States had obesity, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
In this article, we discuss some of the best strategies to help people stop overeating.
Tips to prevent overeating
People overeat for many different reasons. Some people eat too much when they feel stressed, while others overeat due to a lack of planning or because they use food as a pick-me-up.
While overeating has many different causes, there are as many ways to avoid or prevent it. Science-backed tips to prevent overeating include:
People often do other things while they eat. However, by not paying enough attention to what they are eating, many people overeat.
A 2013 review of 24 studies concluded that distracted eating could cause a moderate increase in immediate food intake and a more significant increase in the amount that people eat later in the day.
Limiting distractions as much as possible during mealtimes will allow the body to focus on the task at hand, which is eating. To do this, people should turn off computers, tablets, phones, and televisions when eating.
Researchers are not entirely sure why, but it appears that people who eat slowly have a lower body mass index (BMI) and eat smaller meals.
Eating slowly might give the brain more time to realize that the stomach is full and send the cue to stop eating. Taking more time to eat may promote a greater sense of fullness and make people feel as though they ate more than they did.
In a 2015 study, adults who slowly ate 400 milliliters of tomato soup reported feeling fuller after the meal than people who ate the same portion quickly. After a 3-hour interval, those who ate slowly also remembered the portion as being more substantial than those in the second group did.
To practice eating slowly, try putting the utensils down or taking a few deep breaths between bites. Some people also find it helpful to set a timer so that they are more aware of how quickly they are eating.
Eating healthful portion sizes
It is useful to know what meal sizes are healthful and how to portion out food. According to the CDC, people who have large portions on their plate often unintentionally eat more calories than they need.
To practice good portion control, try:
- splitting entrees or main meals with someone else when dining out
- asking for a to-go box and boxing up half of the meal immediately
- placing food on individual plates instead of leaving the serving dish on the table
- avoiding eating straight out of the packet
- putting small portions of snacks in bowls or other containers, especially when doing other activities while eating
- storing bulk purchases in a place that is hard to reach
- using smaller plates, bowls, or containers
It is hard to stick to a meal plan when the cupboards, fridge, or freezer contain unhealthful foods. According to the CDC, opening up a cabinet and seeing a favorite snack food is a common trigger of overeating.
Parting with favorite snacks or treats is a vital step toward adopting a more healthful diet. Try clearing the cupboards of tempting snack goods, and donate unopened items to charity where possible.
Eating fiber-filled foods
According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), eating both soluble and insoluble fiber can help people feel full for longer, which generally helps prevent overeating.
A small 2015 study found that participants who ate oatmeal for breakfast felt fuller for longer and ate less at lunchtime than those who had eaten cornflakes or just had water.
Fiber is a type of plant carbohydrate that occurs in many foods, including:
- whole grains
- beans, peas, and lentils
- many vegetables, including leafy greens and sweet potatoes
- most nuts and seeds
- oats and oat bran
- many whole fruits, especially berries and fruits with peels
Most people who are eating 2,000 calories daily should aim to get 25 grams (g) of fiber each day. Most people in the U.S. do not eat this much fiber.
Learn more about dietary fiber here.
Eating protein-rich foods
Nuts and seeds are protein-rich food.
Protein-rich foods tend to create a longer lasting sense of fullness and satisfaction than other foods. Eating protein-rich foods, especially at breakfast, also appears to reduce the levels of the hunger-regulating hormone ghrelin.
A 2012 study examined 193 sedentary men and women who had obesity but not diabetes. The authors found that eating a high protein, high carbohydrate breakfast reduced ghrelin levels more than a low carbohydrate breakfast.
The high protein, high carbohydrate breakfast also seemed to improve fullness and reduce hunger and cravings more than the low carbohydrate breakfast.
In 2014, a small-scale study that involved 20 young women found that eating high protein snacks that were less energy dense, such as high protein yogurt, improved satiety and appetite control compared with snacks high in fat. The high protein foods also helped reduce food intake later in the day.
There are many healthful protein-rich snacks and meals. Some examples include:
- high protein yogurts and yogurt drinks, such as kefir
- most nuts and seeds
- most types of milk
- most beans, peas, and lentils
- fish, poultry, or lean beef
- protein powders, which people can add to smoothies, shakes, or healthful baked goods
Learn more about healthful high protein snacks here.
Many people skip meals in the belief that it will help them lose weight.
However, according to the CDC, skipping meals can cause overeating at other times, leading to weight gain. Research also suggests that eating breakfast can help control appetite and reduce overeating later in the day.
Many experts recommend eating smaller, more frequent meals. However, the American Society for Nutrition note that most research now supports the idea of eating three structured, nutritious meals at regular times each day.
According to a 2014 review, stress appears to contribute to overeating and the development of obesity.
After a stressful event, raised hormone levels promote hunger to encourage the body to replace lost energy. As a result, chronic stress could lead to persistent hunger, overeating, and excessive weight gain.
There are many things that people can do to limit or reduce stress, such as:
- exercising regularly
- trying relaxing activities, such as yoga or meditation
- staying connected and asking for help from friends and family
- focusing on what needs doing straight away rather than on jobs that can wait
- noting accomplishments at the end of the day
Learn more about chronic stress and how to manage it here.
Tracking the diet
Food diaries, journals, and diet tracking apps can often help minimize overeating and allow people to identify poor eating habits or patterns.
According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, food tracking helps make people more aware of what they eat. This awareness may help people stick to their dietary plans and either lose weight or maintain a healthy weight.
People can start using food tracking tools by recording what they eat and when they eat it. Once this has become routine, they can also track other factors, such as how much they eat and the calorie content of meals and snacks.
Plenty of free resources exist to help people keep a record of what and when they eat. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) offer a daily food and activity diary that people can use.
People who practice mindfulness aim to focus on their moment-to-moment experiences, emotions, and thoughts in a nonjudgmental way.
More conclusive evidence is necessary, but it seems that mindful eating may help prevent overeating. A 2014 review of 21 studies found that 18 reported that mindful eating habits led to an improvement in targeted eating behaviors, such as binge eating and emotional eating.
To practice mindful eating, focus on the sensations that food produces on the tongue, how it smells, its texture, and whatever other qualities it may possess. While doing so, observe the thoughts and emotions that eating causes.
Limiting alcohol intake
People have used alcohol to increase the appetite for centuries, and many studies show that alcohol intake often correlates with obesity.
Researchers do not know exactly why alcohol provokes hunger and eating. However, a 2017 study using preserved brain matter found that exposure to ethanol, the active ingredient in alcohol, can cause hyperactivity in the brain cells that starvation typically activates.
To avoid accidentally overeating, try cutting back on or limiting alcohol intake. Alcohol is also full of empty calories, meaning that it may cause weight gain without providing any nutrition.
Avoiding last-minute food choices
Making last-minute meal and snack choices is a common trigger for overeating. When people make impulsive food decisions, it can be easy to pick nutritionally poor, calorie-dense foods.
To avoid overeating, prepare or plan meals for the week or days ahead. At the same time, prepare healthful snacks, such as chopped vegetables in containers.
Staying hydrated with water
A person can help prevent overeating by staying hydrated.
Staying hydrated is an important way to prevent overeating. A 2016 study found that there was a significant relationship between being dehydrated and having an elevated BMI or obesity.
Researchers are still trying to work out the link between dehydration and overeating. One possibility is that people might sometimes eat when they are actually thirsty.
Choosing water over other drinks is also likely to help prevent overeating because water is free of calories. People may be unaware of the calories, carbohydrates, and fat in other drink choices, such as sodas, juices, smoothies, and coffees.
Working out what causes overeating and addressing it
Many people eat for reasons other than hunger, such as being stressed, tired, or sad. A lot of people also overeat because of certain habits, such as eating while distracted or eating too quickly.
Try making a list of things that trigger overeating and then coming up with ways to avoid or address them. For example, this might mean calling a friend to talk when feeling overwhelmed or not keeping snacks close to the TV.
Many people find it easiest to focus on changing one habit at a time instead of trying to break several patterns all at once. It is also usually best to try dealing with minor issues first before tackling more significant ones.
Food habits can take a while to break. People should be gentle with themselves while making dietary changes and focus on taking things a day at a time.
Eating with people who have similar food goals
It seems that the amount that people eat and the food choices that they make tend to be similar to those of the people they eat alongside. As a result, the social context of eating is likely to influence the risk of overeating.
To avoid overeating, try to dine with people who have similar eating goals. Eating around people who are also keeping track of their portion sizes may help reduce some of the temptation to overindulge.
When to see a doctor or dietitian
People with concerns about their diet, eating habits, or ability to control their appetite should talk to a doctor or dietitian. For some people, overeating could be part of a health condition.
Binge eating disorder (BED) is the most common type of eating disorder in the U.S. People with BED engage in eating behaviors that can lead to serious health consequences, such as obesity, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease.
People with BED typically feel out of control and overeat at least once a week for a minimum of 3 months. Binges due to BED also tend to cause people to:
- eat faster than usual
- eat when they are not physically hungry
- eat until they feel uncomfortable
- feel disgusted, embarrassed, or depressed after eating
- be overweight or have obesity
A doctor will often suggest that people with BED seek individualized nutritional counseling from a registered dietitian. People with BED may also benefit from psychotherapy.
In some cases, a doctor may prescribe medication, such as antidepressants or appetite suppressants, to help control BED.
Overeating is a common problem that can pose health risks in the long term.
There are many tips and tricks to help limit overeating and curb appetite. These include being more aware of food choices, controlling portion sizes, and identifying eating patterns.
Always talk with a doctor about any concerns over diet, appetite, and eating patterns. Some people need help to manage their unhealthful eating habits or appetite.
People who frequently overeat may have BED, a condition that requires medical attention to prevent potential health risks. Dietitians or psychotherapists can provide advice or care to a person with concerns or questions.