“Why Do I Eat So Much?”

Woman with vegetarian food

This would be even better if she grew her own vegetables.

Scientific research suggests that perception and portion size are key reasons why people eat too much. Don’t fret. You can eat less with a few strategic tweaks. First, let’s look at the science of overeating…

Studies Link Oversized Portions To Overeating

In 2006, Geier, Rozin, and Doros placed bowls of snacks with m&ms, pretzels, and tootsie rolls on a table for public consumption. But they alternated the amount of snacks available in the bowl. The results were surprising.

Result: When more food was present, more food was consumed by a significant degree.

Another study had two snack jars – one clear and one nearly opaque – out in the open for free consumption. They contained the same type and amount of food.

Result: The snacks in the clear jar were eaten 46% faster than the snacks in the opaque jar (Wansink, 2004).

“This again illustrates that when a portion appears greater, greater consumption will occur. Environmental factors, like the perceptual characteristics of food, may increase appetite, food intake and consumption (Wansink 2006).”

These studies are from the Journal of Nutrition, Dietetics and Food Science (Volume 1, issue 1, 2009). Opaquely Clearly, there’s more to this equation than hunger.

Nearly 70% Of America Is Overweight

I’m an American, and we’re taught the consumption lifestyle from an early age. Here are the fruits of our labor overconsumption:

“The researchers in the adult study found that overall, 33.8 percent of Americans were obese in 2007-2008, while 68 percent were considered either overweight or obese.” (source – emphasis added)

Seven out of every ten people are overweight in America. And yet, the dieting industry is booming. So as dieting gets more popular, America continues to gain weight and overeat. It’s because being healthy is a lifelong pursuit and lifestyle, not a temporary 30 day diet, and those who intend to stay healthy are the ones you see continuing the lifestyle even after they’ve made it.

If you currently overeat or are overweight, you don’t need to feel bad about it. Guilt about anything tends to make problems worse. Put the past aside, use the following techniques to change your habits and lifestyle, and you’ll eat less.

How To Eat Less

From the studies, you could conceivably put small portions of food in opaque containers to eat less. But to make real progress, the change has to come from within. By default, you eat based on instinct, portion size, and perception (as seen in the studies). This won’t work if you want to eat less, so you’ll have to outwit these forces to win.

Here are some no-nonsense tips to eat less (and eat better):

    • The battle begins at the grocery store. Don’t buy food you know you shouldn’t eat. This first filter is the difference between a pantry full of vegetables or candy. If you overeat vegetables, it isn’t so bad. They’re generally low in calories and nutrient dense.
    • Choose portion sizes wisely – knowing that humans have a tendency to “eat what is in front of them,” take less than you think you’ll want.  If you’re hungry, take even less than that, because hunger makes us take more food than we need.
    • If you must buy snacks, keep these impulse foods out of sight (and in opaque containers).
    • Who hasn’t mindlessly eaten an entire bag of chips? 🙂 Don’t take the entire box or bag when you eat a snack – remove your portion from the container so you know exactly what you’ll be eating.
    • Think about every eating decision you make. A step further, think about every bite you take. Being conscious of eating can make a big difference by cutting back on mindless snacking. It takes little effort and will make a huge difference in your quality of life over time.
    • Making healthy foods a habit. Why reach for the cookie instead of an apple? The latter has fewer calories and better nutrition.
Man eating cookie

Cookie Man: “B…but Stephen, it has cranberries in it!”

  • Be conscious of the social pressure for you to “finish your plate.”  This is a horrible tradition passed down in so many families that it is a part of American culture.  It wouldn’t be such a problem if the portion sizes served weren’t enormous. This is especially important at restaurants where your portion size is chosen for you. A good idea is to separate your plate before you start eating to decide how much you want to eat. Take the rest to go. Two meals are better than one!
  • If you want your kids to eat vegetables, have them eat them first.  This way, you’re not training your kids to overeat as you force them to stuff themselves with broccoli after they filled up on mac and cheese.
  • The Japanese popularized the “eat to 80% full” rule.  This is tremendous advice and I remember feeling pretty awesome in the past after following this rule (I’m going to do it with my next meal).

Understand Your Body

It is very helpful to understand why your body reacts in the way it does. Your body knows it needs food to survive.  Even if you’re well off, your body doesn’t know that you have plenty of food to eat.  This causes you to eat “for rainy days” and store up unnecessary fat.

Our body is incredible with directing us to take necessary actions.

  • We get tired when we need to sleep
  • We get hungry when we need essential energy and nutrients
  • We get thirsty when we need to hydrate
  • We get painful notifications when we injure ourselves and need to pay attention

For these reasons, we naturally trust our bodies to know when to stop eating. But instincts aren’t good enough. Horses can die of grain overload from one session of overeating (if untreated). Fun fact: horses are unable to vomit, hence the danger of overeating. We know that humans can outpace their fullness meter by eating fast, which most of us do with busy lives. We have to rise above the complete reliance on instincts that other animals use.

The excess food you consume harms you. Give your body enough food, but not too much.

How To Live Longer – Eat Less

Not all the research I did was about the negative aspects of food consumptionI wondered, “what role does food intake play in lifespan?”

“Calorie restriction is pretty much the only thing out there that we know will not just prevent disease but also extend maximal life span.” ~ Dr. Marc Hellerstein

Would you believe that the key to living longer is eating less?  The research suggests that eating less even to the point of being hungry actually gives a person greater health and a longer life.  Even more surprising to me, the data suggests it is more effective than eating a “normal amount” and exercising. Don’t go and starve yourself, because the results will not be desirable if you’re not getting essential nutrients.

This data is ironic considering that our instincts are to eat as much food as we can stuff ourselves with. 

“Why Do I Eat So Much?”

You’re letting instinct dictate your eating habits, eating out of clear containers, choosing large portion sizes, buying the wrong food, or perhaps you’re feeling pressured to “clear your plate.” There are other emotional or psychological issues that can affect eating habits, such as stress, and for those you might need professional help. But for the reasons most of us struggle with, the solution is simple…

Think about every bite of food you take. Ask questions. What food is it? Is it necessary? Am I eating it because I’m bored? Am I hungry?

You can eat less, starting today.

As an aside, don’t use the USDA Food Pyramid as a healthy eating guide. Harvard Medical School (and the New England Journal Of Medicine) both agree the food pyramid is outdated and biased towards subsidized food (according to Eat, Drink, And Be Healthy: The Harvard Medical School Guide to Healthy Eating).

Recommended action: Today, tomorrow, and for the next 62 years, eat to 80% fullness. You’ll gain more energy. And if weight loss is your goal, it certainly helps to eat less.

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