How to Stop Overeating

Try these tips for getting more satisfaction from fewer calories.

By Elaine Magee, MPH, RD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed by Ann Edmundson, MD

Babies are born knowing to eat when they are hungry, and stop when they are comfortable. But as we grow up and are exposed to fad diets, advertising, food used as a reward, etc., many of us unlearn this beautifully balanced way of eating.

Yet eating when you are hungry and stopping when you are comfortable is one of the keys to healthy eating and living, says Linda Bacon, PhD, nutrition professor at the City College of San Francisco.

Much has been written on the "eating when you're hungry" side of this equation. But how do you learn to stop when you're comfortable if you've lost touch with this over the years?

Overcoming Overeating

Experts say there are things you can do to make yourself more likely to stop eating when you are comfortable. They include:

  • Eat slowly. This isn't a new concept; remember all those familiar dieting tips like "sip water between bites" and "chew thoroughly before swallowing"? These were all aimed at slowing us down when we eat. Research led by Mark Gold, MD, at the University of Florida at Gainesville has shown it takes 12 or more minutes for food satisfaction signals to reach the brain of a thin person, but 20 or more minutes for an obese person. Eating slowly ensures that these important messages have time to reach the brain.
  • Be aware. "Be more attentive about the whole eating experience; don't eat when you are driving or at the computer," advises Bacon. When we're distracted or hurried the food (and calories) we eat tend not to register well in our brains. Jean Kristeller, PhD, a psychologist and Indiana State University researcher, suggests a brief premeal meditation to get centered before eating so you can more easily derive pleasure from your food, give the meal your full attention, and notice when you've had enough.
  • Make the first bites count. Bacon believes that maximum food enjoyment comes in the initial bites. "After a few bites, taste buds start to lose their sensitivity to the chemicals in food that make it taste good," she explains. Satisfying your taste buds by really savoring those first few bites may help you stop eating when you're physically comfortable.
  • Keep up appearances. Using a smaller plate and paying attention to the presentation of a meal can increase your awareness of the food in front of you and help you stop eating when you are comfortable. "The brain looks at the plate and decides if the portion is adequate," says Gold. "It takes some time, but the smaller the plate, the smaller the portion."
  • Choose satisfying foods. Steer away from foods that give you a lot of calories for very little volume, such as milk shakes, cheese, and chocolate, Gold recommends. The higher the fiber, protein, and/or water content of a food or meal, the more likely it is to be satisfying in your stomach without going overboard on calories. (More on this below.)

What Makes a Food Satisfying?

Research during the past decade suggests there are three factors that help make a meal more satisfying: the weight of the food, the amount of protein, and the amount of fiber.

A revolutionary study done by researchers at the University of Sydney in 1995 noted that of the 38 foods tested, certain foods scored higher in satiety. Top-scoring foods included whole-meal bread, grainy bread, cheese, eggs, brown pasta, popcorn, all-bran cereal, grapes, porridge, baked beans, apples, beefsteak, ling fish (a type of cod), and oranges. All of these foods are high in fiber, water, or protein.

And which foods tend to have low satiety scores (making them much easier to overeat)? These would be foods with large amounts of fat, sugar, and/or refined carbohydrates, like potato chips, candy bars, and white bread.

'Satisfaction Score' for 20 Common Dishes

So is there a way you can determine how satisfying your favorite foods are likely to be? A mathematical formula calculates a satisfaction score for a food. First we give a serving of a particular food points for its weight divided by calories (multiplied by 4 to give it significant point value). Secondly we, add the number of grams of protein it contains. Finally we add the number of grams of fiber. Using this point system, this is how 20 popular American dishes would rate:

FoodWeight divided by calories
and multiplied by 4
Protein gramsFiber grams Satisfaction Score
--------------------------------------------------------------------Very satisfying--------------------------------------------------------------------
Turkey sandwich
on wheat bread
3.2 25 6 34
Oatmeal made with 3/4 cup
oats + 1 1/2 cups 1% milk
4.4 22 6 33
Bean burrito 2 14 12 28
Grilled cheese on whole-
wheat with 1.5 oz
reduced-fat cheese
0.4 19 5 26
Veggie omelet with 1 egg,
1/4 cup egg substitute,
1/2 cup broccoli
+ 1 oz cheese
3.6 21 1.5 26
Minestrone soup, 2 cups 8 10.3 4 22
2 whole-wheat pancakes with
2 strips turkey bacon +
1 tablespoon lite syrup
4 13 3.5 21
1 cup whole-wheat blend
pasta with 2/3 cup marinara
+ 2 tbsp Parmesan
4 12 5.2 21
----------------------------------------------------------------Moderately satisfying----------------------------------------------------------------
Lite nonfat yogurt, 1 cup 8 11 1.3 20
Raisin Bran, 1 cup with
1/2 cup 1% milk
3.2 10 6 19
Sour cream & chive
potato, 1
4 8 7 19
Fresh fruit salad,
1 1/2 cups
8.8 2 4 15
Caesar side salad with
reduced-fat ranch
dressing
3.6 7 3 14
Cheese pizza, 1/12
of large pie
1.6 11 1 14
Chocolate shake, 12 oz 3.2 10 1 13
-------------------------------------------------------------------Not so satisfying-------------------------------------------------------------------
Snickers, 2-ounce bar 0.8 5.5 1.7 8
Potato chips, 2 oz 0.8 4 2 7
French fries, small order from fast-food chain 1.2 3 3 7
Cheese puffs, 2 oz 0.8 4 0.6 5
Twinkie, 1 1.2 1 0.5 3

Published April 27, 2006.


SOURCES: Journal of Addictive Diseases, vol23, No. 3. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, September 1995 49 (9): 675-690. Eating Disorders, Overeating, and Pathological Attachment to Food, Haworth Press Inc., 2004, pp 23-34. Jean Kristeller, PhD, psychologist, researcher, Indiana State University, Terre Haute. Linda Bacon, PhD, professor of nutrition, City College of San Francisco. Mark S. Gold, MD, distinguished professor; chief, McKnight Brain Institute, department of psychiatry and neuroscience, division of addiction medicine, University of Florida, Gainesville.



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