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Rolf Reber Ph.D.

3 Strategies to Stop Overeating

Critical feeling helps us make smart changes.

Overeating is endemic in the Western world, and with overeating comes overweight. We could do with much less but it seems to be difficult to limit the intake.

The classical route to stop overeating is to blame ourselves. We think that eating is a matter of willpower and self-control. Sometimes, it works and we get into the right eating habits. Often enough, however, we feel defeated when the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.

According to food psychologist Brian Wansink, two things determine whether a person overeats: Food choice – including energy and nutrient composition, fiber and water content – and serving sizes. In the following, I discuss three critical feeling strategies to prevent overeating: planning, stopping rules, and change of environmental stimuli. The first two pertain to food choice while the third one to serving sizes.

1. Make precise plans

The usual start of dieting begins with an intention, such as “from today onwards, I shall eat healthy food”. However, such general intentions do not show much effect. A much better way includes good planning. Instead of just intending, “from tomorrow onward, I shall eat healthy food”, dieters need to make an exact plan what to eat.

In one study, participants were told, “We want you to plan to eat a low-fat diet during the next month. You are free to choose how you will do this, but we want you to formulate your plans in as much detail as possible. Please pay particular attention to the situations in which you will implement these plans.” Blank lines to write down the plan followed this instruction.

Such precise plans helped employees to reduce fat intake and students to eat more healthily, to increase fruit and vegetable intake, or to reduce the intake of snacks by planning to eat them only on particular occasions.

2. Stop when it is enough

Instead of painstakingly abiding by a diet plan, people may monitor their feelings and listen to them. Many obese people seem to neglect feelings of hunger. In an older study, manipulated clocks displayed 12:00 when it was in fact 11:00. Overweight participants in this study went by the clock: 12:00 was lunchtime and they started eating. Participants with normal weight went with their inner clock and started eating when they were hungry, independent of what the clock displayed.

More recent research revealed that Frenchmen eat until they are no longer hungry while Americans eat until their plate is empty or until the TV-show is over. Independent of nationality, however, overweight eaters relied less on internal cues than eaters with normal weight. This means that people can more successfully keep overeating at bay by using a subjective stop rule that terminates eating when they are full instead of an objective stop rule that asks for the plate to be empty.

While eating, people should monitor whether they are sated and stop eating if this is the case. If eaters are able to listen to their feelings and therefore stop eating when no longer hungry, they may, as a second step, influence their feeling of satiation.

It has been observed that high-fat and low-fiber food slow down satiation. As a consequence, people who feed on these nutrients eat more before the feeling of satiation sets in. In contrast, whole grain products which are high on fiber accelerate satiation.

Another means to accelerate satiation is to chew the food slowly. It has been found that Frenchmen chew their food more slowly and consequently eat less than their American counterparts. This observation helps explain the “French paradox”, the fact that Frenchmen eat attractive food known to be unhealthy, but they still have lower obesity rates than Americans.

Couscous with vegetables and chickpeas
Source: Couscous with vegetables and chickpeas

3. Decrease portion sizes

Stop rules seem to be an obvious method to follow in order to prevent overeating. Simply eat until you are full. However, there is a twist. What if the feeling of hunger is influenced by external cues that may result in automatic overeating?

Unfortunately, this is exactly what has been observed to happen. Large packages, plates, and serving bowls increase the amount a person serves by 15 to 45 percent. These influences remain largely unconscious. While people constantly overeat when they get bigger servings, they claim that they do not eat more and that they are not influenced by serving sizes.

It is therefore not optimal to prevent overeating by exclusively following your feeling of hunger because this feeling is influenced by external cues. Instead of setting stopping rules and getting information about your internal states, you may attempt to modify the environ­ment by changing external cues. Wansink developed a database with 173 evidence-based recommendations how to change external cues in order to prevent overeating.

We begin determining serving sizes in the grocery store by exploiting the projection bias, which denotes the tendency to project current states to the future. When shopping for dinner, the amount of food you put in the cart depends on your hunger at the time of shopping. Consumers who shop before dinner and consistently buy too much food may try to go shopping after lunch.

We then can decide to cook less. Cooking less is probably more feasible than eating less even if we have the right intentions. When we cook less, we have again smaller serving sizes that help us prevent overeating.

Finally, the use of a smaller plate results in smaller serving sizes. As the eater is unaware of the effect of plate size on serving size, changing external cues (which is conscious) leads to the right spontaneous behavior, presumably because they change feelings of satiation.

Critical feeling teaches us to apply the knowledge that we buy less food when we are sated and to change the external context in order to exploit the inclination to eat less when serving sizes are small.

This blog entry is adapted from:

Reber, R. (2016). Critical feeling. How to use feelings strategically . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

The book includes references to the research reviewed in this post.