7 strategies to stop overeating, backed by science

In the short term, going crazy at the buffet or office party can make you feel uncomfortably full. But if you're constantly going back for seconds – or even thirds – you can pack on some serious pounds over time, not to mention a slew of health risks, including high blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

What's more, overeating can go to your head even more than your stomach. When we overdo it, we tend to beat ourselves up, spiraling into periods of guilt and negative self-talk. "Emotionally, it takes a toll on us," says Ohio-based registered dietitian nutritionist Tori Schmitt, founder of Yes! Nutrition. As a result, a cycle of emotional eating and guilt can take a toll on both your mental and physical health.

The good news is that there's always a way to stop. Case in point: these seven expert- and science-backed strategies to break your overeating habit for good.

[See: 7 Surprising Things That Make You Overeat.]

1. Ask yourself this question. One of the simplest things you can do when you feel like eating is to ask yourself, "Am I hungry?" says Dr. Michelle May, a Phoenix-based family medicine physician and founder of (the aptly named) "Am I Hungry?" mindful-eating programs. According to May, most people aren't accustomed to tuning into their body's hunger signals. Often, what people assume is hunger is actually boredom or stress.

If you're hungry, your stomach will rumble or growl, and you'll feel the symptoms of low blood sugar such as low energy, difficulty concentrating and even shakiness. "If you don't have physical symptoms, it's unlikely that you're hungry," May says. If it turns out you're just bored, figure out what will divert your attention (think: social plans, home projects, taking up a new sport). When the cause is emotion-based – whether rooted in stress, loneliness or guilt – addressing the problem head-on is your best bet for success, she says.

Schmitt has clients use a hunger and fullness scale to help determine when to eat – and when to stop. On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being "ravenous" and 10 being "stuffed," you want to eat when you're in between a 3 and a 4, according to Schmitt. If you wait much longer, you'll start to feel faint. Stop eating when you reach a 6 or a 7, or when you feel satisfied but not full or uncomfortable. Chances are, you'll need to eat every few hours if you follow this approach.

A 2017 review of 68 studies shows that such mindful and intuitive eating tactics are effective approaches for alleviating overeating tendencies.

2. Get more shut-eye. "Many people don't recognize that short sleep has such a strong impact on hunger signals," says Canada-based registered dietitian Georgie Fear, author of "Lean Habits for Lifelong Weight Loss." In fact, a recent study published in SLEEP found that adults who slept only 4.5 hours for four nights in a row ate approximately 300 more calories in snacks in one sitting than those who had gotten 8.5 hours of sleep per night. Researchers suggest that sleep restriction increases the activation of the body's self-produced version of THC, the active ingredient in marijuana. The result: a greater desire for foods high in sugar, fat and empty calories.

According to Denver weight-loss coach and eating disorder counselor Dorie McCubbrey, the average adult needs about seven hours of quality sleep per night to keep hunger signals in check. She emphasizes the "quality" aspect, since tossing and turning for seven-plus hours won't do your hunger signals any favors. McCubbrey recommends creating a nighttime routine that dials down your body's "fight or flight" sympathetic nervous system and turns up your "rest and digest" parasympathetic nervous system. Try taking a warm bath or drinking a cup of chamomile tea.

[See: High-Protein Breakfast Ideas.]

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27 horrible things that happen if you don't get enough sleep
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27 horrible things that happen if you don't get enough sleep

1. Short term memory and learning problems

Sleepiness has long been a problem for students. One study of middle school kids found that "delaying school start times by one hour, from roughly 7:30 to 8:30, increases standardized test scores by at least 2 percentile points in math and 1 percentile point in reading." Sleep researchers say that teens, who naturally tend to become night owls, suffer even more from early start times. But it's not just kids. Sleep deprivation also wrecks adults' short-term memory, according to one study that found cutting sleep short significantly impaired the ability of adult volunteers to remember words they'd been shown the day before. In another study, researchers found that while people tend to improve on a task when they do it more than once, this isn't true if they are kept awake after they try it the first time — even if they sleep again before doing it again.

Source: Nature, 1999; Nature Neuroscience, 2000; Education Next, 2012

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2. Irritability

"Complaints of irritability and [emotional] volatility following sleepless nights" are common, a team of Israeli researchers observed. They put those complaints to the test by following a group of sleep-deprived medical residents. The study found that the negative emotional effects of disruptive events — things like being interrupted while in the middle of doing something — were amplified by sleep loss.

Source: Sleep, 2005

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3. Skin aging

Poor sleep quality is strongly correlated to chronic skin problems, according to some research out of the University of Wisconsin. Other research has shown that people who don't sleep well or sleep five hours a night or less have a harder time recovering from skin damage caused by ultraviolet light exposure and by having tape taken off of their skin. When researchers compared those participants to people who slept well, they found more signs of skin aging in poor sleepers.

Source: Clinical and Experimental Dermatology, 2015; Cutis, 2008

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4. Weight gain and impulse control problems

People who don't get enough sleep have a harder time resisting high-calorie foods, more cravings for unhealthy meals, and a hard time controlling their impulses. Researchers think going without sleep causes hormonal imbalances that are responsible for this, imbalances they link to a high body mass index and obesity.

Source: Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, 2012; PLOS Medicine, 2004; Nature Communications, 2013; PNAS, 2013

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5. Alzheimer's-linked toxin build-up in the brain

One 2015 study found that sleep helps cleanse the brain of the beta-amyloid protein that can build up while you are awake. That protein is strongly associated with Alzheimer's disease, and researchers say that this process can lead to a vicious cycle, since the more beta-amyloid there is in the brain, the harder it is to get to a cleansing deep sleep state.

Source: Nature Neuroscience, 2015

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6. Vision problems

Sleep deprivation is associated with tunnel vision, double vision, and dimness. The longer you are awake, the more visual errors you'll encounter, and the more likely you are to experience outright hallucinations.

Source: International Journal of Occupational Medicine and Environmental Health, 2010

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7. Heart disease risk

When researchers kept people awake for 88 hours, their blood pressure went up — no big surprise there. But even subjects who were allowed to sleep for 4 hours a night had an elevated heart rate when compared to those getting 8 hours. Concentrations of C-reactive protein, a marker of heart disease risk, increased in those fully and partially deprived of sleep.

Source: Journal of the American College of Cardiology, 2004; PLOS ONE, 2009; Sleep Medicine Reviews, 2012

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8. Slowed reactions

Your reaction time is severely impeded when you don't get enough sleep. When researchers gave West Point cadets two tests that require quick decision-making, some were allowed to sleep between the tests, while others were not. Those who had slept did better the second time — those who had not did worse, and their reactions slowed down. A study in college athletes found similar results.

Source: Sleep, 2009; Asian Journal of Sports Medicine, 2012

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9. Immune system issues

You know that great thing your immune system does, where when you get an open wound of some kind it doesn't always get infected immediately? Prolonged sleep deprivation and even one night of sleeplessness can impede your body's natural defenses against infection.

In another small study that showed sleep deprivation can make vaccines less effective, 19 people were vaccinated against Hepatitis A. Ten of them got 8 hours of sleep the following night, while the rest pulled an all-nighter. Four weeks later, those who had slept normally had levels of Hepatitis A antibodies almost twice as high as those who'd been kept awake.

Source: American Journal of Physiology, 1993; The FASEB Journal, 1996; Journal of Immunology, 2011

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10. Bad decision-making in ways that put lives and finances in danger

Planning to make some changes to your portfolio? You might want to make sure you're well-rested. "A single night of sleep deprivation evoked a strategy shift during risky decision making such that healthy human volunteers moved from defending against losses to seeking increased gains," researchers concluded.

Other researchers have found that severe sleep deprivation impairs people's ability to follow pre-established procedures for making a "go" or "no-go" decision, something that researchers say contributed to the space shuttle Challenger explosion, the Chernobyl meltdown, and the Exxon Valdez disaster.

Source: The Journal of Neuroscience, 2011; Sleep, 2015

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11. Overproduction of urine

When people sleep, the body slows down its normal urine production. This is why most people don't have to pee in the night as much as they do during the day. But when someone is sleep deprived, this normal slowdown doesn't happen, leading to what researchers call "excess nocturnal urine production." This condition may be linked to bed wetting in children and, in adults, it's tied to what's called nocturia — the need to use the bathroom many times during the night.

Source: American Journal of Physiology, 2010; American Journal of Physiology, 2012

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12. Distractedness

Having trouble paying attention to what you're reading or listening to? Struggling with anything that requires you to truly focus? "Attention tasks appear to be particularly sensitive to sleep loss," researchers have noted. If you want to stay alert and attentive, sleep is a requirement. Otherwise, you enter "an unstable state that fluctuates within seconds and that cannot be characterized as either fully awake or asleep," and your ability to pay attention is variable at best.

Source: Archives of Italian Biology, 2001; Seminars in Neurology, 2009

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13. Trouble speaking normally

Severe sleep deprivation seems to affect your ability to carry on a conversation — much like having way too much to drink. "Volunteers kept awake for 36 hours showed a tendency to use word repetitions and clichés; they spoke monotonously, slowly, [and] indistinctly," one study noted. "They were not able to properly express and verbalize their thoughts."

Source: Sleep, 1997; International Journal of Occupational Medicine and Environmental Health, 2010

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14. Colds

If you're wondering why you're sick all the time and seem to pick up every bug that travels around the office, it's probably because you're not getting enough sleep. When a group of 153 people were exposed to a common cold, those who had gotten less than 7 hours of sleep in the two weeks prior were almost 3 times more likely to get sick than those who'd had 8 or more hours of sleep. How well you sleep is also a factor – those who had spent 92% of their time in bed actually asleep were 5.5 times more likely to catch a cold than those who had been peacefully slumbering 98-100% of the time they were in bed.

Source: Archives of Internal Medicine, 2009

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15. Muscle atrophy

Lack of sleep causes hormonal changes that make it harder for your body to build muscle and heal. This makes it harder to recover from the muscle damage caused by exercise and worsens conditions related to muscle atrophy. Other research has also shown the reverse — your body releases growth hormone and heals damage during sleep, which is why fitness advocates will always point out that sleep is an essential for getting into shape.

Source: Medical Hypotheses, 2011; International Journal of Endocrinology, 2010

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16. Car accidents

Drowsy driving is often compared to drunk driving: You really shouldn't do either. "Motor vehicle accidents related to fatigue, drowsy driving, and falling asleep at the wheel are particularly common, but often underestimated," one review concluded. Pilots, truck drivers, medical residents, and others required to stay awake for long periods of time "show an increased risk of crashes or near misses due to sleep deprivation."

Source: Seminars in Neurology, 2009

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17. Depleted sex drive and function

Testosterone is an important component of sexual drive and desire in both women and men. Sleeping increases testosterone levels, while being awake decreases them. Sleep deprivation and disturbed sleep, consequently, are associated with reduced libido and sexual dysfunction, and people suffering from sleep apnea are at particular risk.

Source: American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, 2007; Behavioral Brain Research, 2009; Journal of Sexual Medicine, 2009; Sleep Medicine, 2010; Brain Research, 2011

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18. Pain

People in pain — especially those suffering from chronic pain — tend not to get enough sleep. This makes sense: Pain can wake you up in the night and make it hard to fall asleep in the first place. But recently, researchers have begun to suspect that sleep deprivation may actually cause pain or at least increase people's sensitivity to pain. One study found that after research subjects were kept awake all night, their pain threshold — the amount of painful stimulus they were able to endure — was lower.

Source: Journal of Sleep Research, 2001; Sleep Medicine Reviews, 2006

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19. Type-2 diabetes risk — even for non-overweight people

Being awake when your body wants you to be asleep messes with your metabolism, which in turn increases your risk for insulin resistance (often called "pre-diabetes") and type 2 diabetes. "Interventions to extend sleep duration may reduce diabetes risk," one study in adolescents concluded. And four large studies in adults found a strong association — though not a cause-effect relationship — between regular sleep loss and the risk of developing diabetes, even after controlling for other habits that might be relevant.

Source: Journal of Applied Physiology, 2005; Sleep, 2012; Annals of Internal Medicine, 2012

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20. Clumsiness

Most people notice that when they're sleepy, they're not at the top of their game. One study found that one sleepless night contributed to a 20-32% increase in the number of errors made by surgeons. People playing sports that require precision — shooting, sailing, cycling, etc. — also make more mistakes when they've been awake for extended periods of time.

Source: The Lancet, 1998; Physiology & Behavior, 2007

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21. Cancer risk

Scientists are just beginning to investigate the relationship between sleep and cancer, and different kinds of cancer behave differently. But since disrupted circadian rhythm and reduced immunity are direct results of sleep deprivation, it's no surprise that preliminary research seems to indicate that people who don't get enough sleep are at increased risk for developing certain kinds of cancer, most notably colon and breast cancers.

Source: Journal of the National Cancer Institute, 2003; Pathologie-biologie, 2003; Cancer, 2011; AAOHN Journal, 2011

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22. Memory problems

Sleep disruptions in the elderly can lead to structural changes in the brain that are associated with impaired long-term memory — and sleep-related memory deficits have been observed in the general adult population as well. As early as 1924, researchers noticed that people who slept more forgot less.

Source: Cell Signal, 2012; Nature Neuroscience, 2013; JAMA Neurology, 2013

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23. Genetic disruption

A 2013 study shed some light on why sleep is tied to so many different aspects of our health and wellness. Poor sleep actually disrupts normal genetic activity. After one week of sleeping less than 6 hours per night, researchers found that more than 700 genes were not behaving normally, including some that help govern immune and stress responses.

Some genes that typically cycle according to a daily (circadian) pattern stopped doing so, while others that don't normally follow a daily pattern began doing so. What does this mean? Just one week of less-than-ideal sleep is enough to make some of your genetic activity go haywire.

Source: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2013

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24. Unhappiness and depression

In a classic study led by Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman, a group of 909 working women kept detailed logs of their moods and day-to-day activities. While differences in income up to $60,000 had little effect on happiness, a poor night's sleep was one of two factors that could ruin the following day's mood. (The other was tight deadlines at work.)

Another study reported higher marital happiness among women with more peaceful sleep, although it's hard to say whether happy people sleep better, better sleep makes people happier, or — most likely — some combination of the two. Insomniacs are also twice as likely to develop depression, and preliminary research suggests that treating sleep problems may successfully treat depressive symptoms.

Source: Science, 2004; Behavioral Sleep Medicine, 2009; Journal of Affective Disorders, 2011

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25. Gastrointestinal Problems

One in 250 Americans suffer from Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD), and sleep deficiencies make its symptoms much worse. Regular sleep loss also makes you more likely to develop both IBD and inflammatory bowel syndrome, which affects an estimated 10-15% of people in the U.S. And patients with Crohn's disease were twice as likely to experience a relapse when they weren't getting enough sleep.

Source: World Journal of Gastroenterology, 2013

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27. Death

Many health problems are associated with sleep deprivation and poor sleep, but here's the big one: People who consistently do not get 7-8 hours of sleep are more likely to die during a given time period. Put more simply: We all die eventually, but sleeping too little — or even too much — is associated with a higher risk of dying sooner than you otherwise might.

Source: Sleep, 2010; Sleep Medicine Reviews, 2010

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3. Slow down. When you spend your day hurrying from one thing to the next, rushing through your meal suddenly becomes the norm. But if you eat too quickly, your brain doesn't get enough time to catch up with your stomach, which means you could end up taking in a surplus of food and not realize you overdid it until 20 minutes after you've finished. According to May, slowing down helps give your brain time to process the chemical signals that indicate you're full.

Moreover, eating on the go has also been linked to overeating. In a study published in the Journal of Health Psychology, researchers found that subjects who ate a cereal bar while walking consumed more calories – five times more chocolate – than those who ate while watching TV or talking. Researchers suggest that because we're distracted, overeating while on the go becomes easier.

There are several strategies you can use to slow your roll, such as taking three super slow bites at the start of every meal. "Sometimes we're rushing from A to B, and then we go to eat and we just carry that fast, efficient mentality," Fear says. But if you start your meal with three slow bites, you'll make it easier to eat the remainder of your meal at a moderate pace.

Other strategies include cutting your food into smaller pieces, savoring the taste and mouth-feel of each bite and taking a five-minute break once you've finished half of your plate.

5. Make post-dinner plans. It's a familiar scenario: No sooner than you've finished your dinner and cleared away the dishes are you rooting around in the fridge or cupboard in search of a snack. Well, research suggests that all of that searching may be in vain. For instance, in one Brain Imaging and Behavior study, women were found to report increased food cravings in the evening, despite the fact that activation of their neurological reward pathways (what allows your food to "hit the spot") at that time actually decreased.

To resist the urge to graze, Fear suggests making after-dinner plans. It could be as simple as walking to your bedroom to watch your favorite TV show or returning a book to the library. The key is it has to be something relatively enjoyable. Otherwise, you'll want to procrastinate – likely with extra eating.

6 PHOTOS
Foods you think are super healthy (but aren't)
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Foods you think are super healthy (but aren't)

If you like yogurt, learn to love plain or natural flavor and avoid fruit flavored ones. More often than not, they're packed with sugar and not actual fruit.

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Granola is another misleading food. Yes, the rolled oat and nuts seem like a healthy option, but the pre-packed ones often come loaded with sugar. You could easily be having 500-plus calories in a single bowl.

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Don’t be fooled by the "gluten free" label. That doesn’t necessarily mean the food is actually healthy. If it’s packaged or processed it can be as bad as anything else.

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Frozen foods can be practical and some people even say good, but they are full of calories. Even the diet versions are low in fat but still heavily processed and high in sodium.

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Margarine has been known as the healthy alternative for butter, but according to Reader’s digest, the trans fats in it can elevate your cholesterol and damage the walls of your blood vessels. The real alternative is olive oil. 

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6. Create some distance. If you find that you can't stop picking at your food – even after you're full – try pushing your plate away, says Fear, explaining that the simple act helps your brain reinforce the fact that you've called it quits. What's more, moving your food farther away means that if you want more, you have to deliberately – as opposed to mindlessly – go for it.

For instance, research published in the International Journal of Obesity shows that office workers eat more chocolate candies when they are within arm's reach, and even more when they are both within arm's reach and visible. Try keeping your office snacks in the break room or in the back of your desk drawer where you'll be less tempted to snack mindlessly.

[See: 5 Healthy – and Tasty – Smoothie Ingredients.]

7. Drink up. Research shows that drinking a glass of water before eating can help keep you from going overboard. One Obesity study found that people who drank water before their meals ate fewer calories during their meals and left them feeling fuller compared to those who didn't drink water as an appetizer. In the end, they also lost significantly more weight.

According to Fear, drinking water just before eating can help prime the receptors in your stomach to start sending fullness signals to your brain even before you take your first bite. Plus, the symptoms of hunger and dehydration are very similar, Schmitt says. If you're thirsty, you may feel sluggish or have a hard time concentrating, or your stomach may feel empty. Hydrate before your meal and you reduce the likelihood of overeating out of thirst.

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