5 Tips to Avoid Overeating

09/15/2010 11:57 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

There are many reasons why you may overeat. You may be a classic emotional eater -- someone who finds comfort in food and eats when happy, sad, angry, anytime you feel emotional, or you may overeat when under stress. If your boss yells at you or you are working under a deadline, having a doughnut, milkshake or bag of chips makes the stress go away -- at least temporarily.

No matter what your reason for overeating, you are using food as a coping mechanism. This may be a habit you learned early in life when you didn't have knowledge or experience in using other methods of coping. Just like Pavlov's dog, now your body and mind are trained to grab a loaf of bread or a bag of cookies when you feel tense, anxious or stressed. So part of the secret to avoiding overeating is to recognize the benefit of using food to cope.

The brain produces feel good chemicals such as serotonin and dopamine in response to eating certain types of foods. Studies show that sugar, for example, works on the same part of the brain that certain drugs, such as opiates (heroin, oxycontin, etc.) do. Every time you use food to cope, you are reinforcing the reward your brain gives you much in the same way the drugs of abuse are reinforced for repetitive use. Therefore, you have to change what your brain expects, not just what goes in your mouth.

Here are five tips that will help you put a stop to overeating:

1. Eat breakfast.
Research shows that you are more likely to have success in reaching your healthy weight if you eat three meals and one snack most days of the week. Skipping breakfast is a common way people try to lose weight, but the reverse is true. You're more likely to lose weight when you eat breakfast most days of the week. Skipping any meal sets you up to be ravenous when you do finally eat a meal. Eating every three to four hours during the day is what your body needs.

2. Stop demonizing food.
When you set up in your mind that certain foods are good and others are bad it only sets you up for craving the bad foods. Instead of trying to be good all the time, which inevitably leads to some big, bad times, just try to be a little bad sometimes. What I mean is, eat healthy foods and if you are craving something sweet or another favorite food, eat the smallest amount that will satisfy you.

3. Learn to love your body.
Have you heard of studies on how plants react to negative messages -- either verbal or just thoughts? Well, if plants wilt and die when you think negatively towards them, how do you think your body reacts when you constantly send negative messages to it? When you send your body positive messages and when you nourish it with the foods it needs, you are sending a message that directly nourishes not just your body but your spirit. Eating consciously is a way of tapping into and honoring your body's immense natural wisdom which, if you listen will guide you to eat the foods that are best for your body. Try turning off the television and really tasting and enjoying your food.

4. Identify trigger foods and take a holiday from them.
Trigger foods are foods you can't stop eating once you get started. For some, it's bread while for others, sweets. Studies show that trigger foods may actually be foods you are allergic to. Make a list of trigger foods and take a two week holiday from them. Clean them out of your cupboards, avoid their aisle in the grocery store. Make a plan to stay away from them for a short period of time. After the two week period, take a small amount of the trigger food and notice if it tastes differently. If you find you still are triggered by them, you should get tested for food allergies.

5. Incorporate a protein-rich snack into your day.
Studies show that if you eat a protein-rich snack between meals, you will feel more satiated and will eat less at your meals. Examples of protein-rich snacks would be:
• Boiled egg
• Cheese and an apple
• Nuts and berries
• Hummus with carrot or celery sticks

If you are getting up at night to eat in secret, eating unconsciously at your desk under stress or just eating more at every meal, try these five steps to break the compulsion to overeat. In the long process of reaching your healthy weight, taking smaller steps rather than going for the drastic, fast weight loss is most effective. Only 20 percent of people who lose weight are able to keep it off for even one year. Even losing 10 percent of your body weight can dramatically improve your health. So, plan to take small steps and learn what you need to do to maintain these steps. Remember, focus on health first and then weight!

Carolyn Coker Ross, MD, MPH is a physician, author, and national speaker who lives in Denver, CO. She is the author of The Binge Eating and Compulsive Overeating Workbook: An Integrated Approach to Overcoming Disordered Eating.