To understand how overeating works, take a quick look at the picture above. If you are an avid food lover, you’re probably already imagining yourself at the table, enjoying all those tasty snacks.
But why do we love food so much?
Well…we all know what comfort food is, right!? The kind of food that “feeds your soul” as soon as you consume it. It’s obvious for everyone that food can easily “play” with our mood and become a source of positive emotions.
Take for example a study on emotional eating which concluded that both emotional and non-emotional eaters switched to a positive mood, 5 minutes after they began eating.
To cite the authors,
“Mood increased after eating, and this was related to the amount consumed.”
But if food “pumps up” everyone’s mood, how come some of us end up eating more than we should, while others satisfy their cravings in just a few bites?
As one study on overeating and “bad” emotions concludes, “overeating may serve as a means to (temporary) repair negative mood.”
Long story short, eating turns to overeating when we try to “cover” our bad feelings with delicious food. And that’s why a bad day at the office often translates into an extra-large menu and a tub of ice cream.
Fortunately, there are a few tricks we can use to prevent overeating while still enjoying our favorite food.
Strategy #1: Learn to love healthy food…
Let’s face it, when we want to “pork out” on something delicious, we usually go for junk food.
But eating right is as much about “what,” as it is about “how much.” In other words, if you want to avoid overeating, you need to cut down on your junk food and start eating “cleaner.”
“We eat to live, not live to eat.” – Unknown
Take a moment to grasp the meaning of this popular saying. Normally, food is the fuel on which our body works, nothing less, nothing more. But do we eat just to stay alive or is there another reason behind our everyday eating habits?
For many of us, food is no longer something we need, but something we love; and we tend to love unhealthy food.
So, how can we fall in love with healthy food?
Once again, mindfulness can help us reinterpret eating as something that is neither bad nor good, but necessary. With that in mind, we’ve decided to turn to books on mindful eating and get a clear picture of how food habits can be “hacked”.
A popular and surprisingly practical book was Savor: Mindful Eating, Mindful Life, by a Vietnamese monk named Thich Nhat Hanh. It starts by reshaping the entire perspective we have on food, and it’s packed with simple mindfulness exercises that even a child could follow.
Getting back to mindful eating, here’s one quote from Thich Nhat Hahn’s book that perfectly summarizes how a simple change of perspective can teach us to love healthy food.
“When we eat and our mind is aware of each bite, savoring the taste and the nourishment it gives us, we are already practicing mindfulness.”
To rephrase it, we can train our mind to enjoy a salad just as much as it enjoys a cheeseburger, simply by being aware of and grateful for every bite.
In other words, we learn to love and be grateful for our food not because we like the taste, but because it keeps us alive and in top shape.
Strategy #2: …but treat yourself to “bad” food from time to time
If used in the form of occasional cheat meals, “bad” food “kills” our cravings, allowing us to keep a balanced diet for extended periods of time.
Take actor and bodybuilder Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson for example. He is popular not just for his insane diet & workout routine, but also the ridiculous cheat meals he spoils himself with after long periods of strict eating and exercising.
For instance, he once ate 12 pancakes, 4 double dough pizzas, and 12 brownies, in ONE DAY.
Another good example is ex-president Barak Obama, who kept a regular exercise routine, while still enjoying the occasional pizza or cheeseburger (I guess we’ve all seen the pictures).
Long story short, it’s more than ok to have an occasional cheat meal as long as it’s earned through diet and workouts.
Bonus: Trick yourself into eating clean
As we all know, whenever we face those nasty food cravings, our mind tends to fabricate all sorts of reasons for why we should cheat on our healthy diet, “just this once”.
But what if we were to turn healthy eating into a mind game with rewards, incentives, and easy-to-follow steps?
Studies on dietary behavior change have repeatedly shown that motivation in the form of financial incentives can help us change our eating habits.
There was even a study in which researchers succeeded in getting regular customers of a hospital cafeteria to eat greener. After only 3 months of small financial incentives, many customers switched to healthy green food.
But as the authors pointed out:
“After 3-month washout, there were no longer any differences between groups.”
So even if the positive effect (eating healthy food) didn’t “stick” for too long, we can still turn these findings into something practical.
In fact, here’s a simple way to use money as a reward for eating healthy and keeping overeating in check:
- Think of a big reward. Something that you like and is expensive enough to burn a serious hole in your pocket. That’s your motivation.
- Set up a savings account.
- For every day of clean eating, put a small amount of money in your savings account. This means no overeating and no junk food.
- Use the money to collect (buy) the big prize!
To sum up:
- Start eating cleaner.
- Take regular cheat meals.
- Make it feel like a game.