There’s eating, and then there’s overeating. We are all familiar with the seemingly uncontrollable urge to grab an extra bag of chips while idling on the couch over the weekend. While even the biggest names in fitness will tell you that cheat days are allowed, you do have to be concerned if you are habitually munching on chocolate bars for an evening snack, or piling your plate with too much food. So how much food is too much food, you ask?
The plain and simple rule is that you eat until you are satisfied, not full. The problem is, most of us have paid so little attention to what we put into our bodies over the years that the lines between satisfied and full have simply blurred. If you can relate to this, you are not entirely at fault. Today we are exposed to unprecedented amounts of food imagery and stimulation from every direction, right from ads for those sneaky fast food restaurants, to Instagram food accounts that seem to almost magically make you hungry, and even just the ease of having options aplenty on your fingertips through food delivery apps. The good news is, you can always train your body to know and tell you the right amount of food it needs.
What not to eat
Before we delve into the specifics of what you should be eating and doing, let us get these three major don’ts out of the way.
Stop eating empty calories
Empty calories come from foods that don’t offer enough nutrients to balance out the calories. Your body needs more than just energy gained by burning calories to function. You need a whole spectrum of nutrients for sustenance, and these foods are the opposite of that. We’re talking sugary desserts, cookies, canned drinks, white bread, french fries, chocolates… you get the drift. The overtly simplistic weight-loss approach of “consume fewer calories than you burn in a day” might not be particularly wholesome in practice, but is entirely true in theory. You need to choose your calories wisely, and empty calories not only offer little to no benefits, but they also don’t keep you full for as long as nutrient-rich foods do, which means you’ll be reaching to that snack cabinet again in no time. It is a vicious cycle that you need to break out of.
Food does not equal reward
We are just hardwired to treat certain foods as rewarding. Somewhere between birthday cakes and holiday sweets, sugar got a major grip on all of us. Simply reminding yourself that you should not be looking at food as a reward can help you break free. This means, don’t say “I deserve this” as you order a second donut with your coffee just because you had a long day at work, and don’t claim it’s “comfort food” when you gorge into your third helping of ice cream after you have a fight with your man. Sure, you do deserve to have sweet treats from time to time, and there isn’t a heartbreak that an appropriate amount of ice cream cannot cure, but moderation is key.
Repeat after us. Crash diets do not work.
Crash dieting is the real-life equivalent of Photoshopping your fat. Sure it gets quick results, but is it real? No. Dieticians and fitness experts will tell you that keeping weight off is just as hard, if not harder, than losing weight in the first place. If you are on a crash diet right now to fit into your bridesmaid ensemble for your BFF’s wedding next week, we can assure you that you will lose the weight in time, but gain it back even faster when you step back into reality. What is worse is that you are almost guaranteed to eat more than you normally would to overcompensate for all the food you deprived your body of while dieting. But it was worth it to get those wedding pictures, right? Wrong. It is unhealthy, unsustainable, and can do more damage than good.
What to eat
Now that we have established the don’ts, here is what you should be eating instead.
Over time, we’ve learnt t0 run in fear at the sound of the word fats, but there are plenty of natural sources of good fats that can do wonders for your diet. Avocados, nuts, nut butters, olives and flax seeds are all great sources of essential fats that not only help you feel full for longer, but also stabilize blood sugar levels. Unlike carbohydrate-based foods, regular consumption of healthy fats will teach your body to burn the energy stored in your body fat. You can easily introduce more healthy fats into your diet by using olive or coconut oil in your cooking, switching your regular eggs to omega-3 enriched eggs, trading your bread spread for avocado on toast, carrying a pack of nuts to munch on when you are in the mood for a snack, and doing away with sugar-rich chocolates for 70-90% dark chocolate for a sweet fix.
Protein-rich foods are known to release appetite suppressing hormones in your body, making you feel full and satiated. Snacking on cheese might sound like an offer that is too good to be true, but the protein and calcium you will gain will tell you otherwise. Make the switch from regular to Greek yoghurt, as they contain twice as much protein. Beware of flavoured Greek yoghurts though, as the added sugar can do you more harm than good. Pick plain yoghurt and make sure there is no added sugar, and add chopped fruits to it to give it some flavour.
Don’t forget fibre
Simply put, fibre takes longer to break down and to enter your bloodstream. This means you feel full for much longer after a fibre rich meal. Dietary fibre can be soluble or insoluble – and you need some quantity of both to keep things going smoothly. Soluble fibre can be digested and absorbed by your body, while insoluble fibre passes right through your system. That may seem like it serves no purpose, but insoluble fibres are healthy ways to add bulk to your meals so you feel fuller, and they also ensure that your digestive system is doing its job well. Oats, brown rice, flaxseed, kidney beans, and pretty much all vegetables and fruits are rich in soluble fibre. Good sources of insoluble fibre include beans and lentils, bitter gourd, wheat bran, barley and millet. Be wary of processed foods, though. If you are patting yourself on the back for making healthy choices as you pick brown bread instead of white, you are falling for a marketing scam. Labels that read “brown” are often just refined wheat flour. Make sure you buy labels that read “whole wheat” instead.
Your habits matter too
Even if you are cutting out the wrong foods and including the right, if you don’t pay attention to these ten factors, they might sneakily sabotage your efforts.
Don’t eat too fast
There are a lot of practical advantages to being able to eat quickly. Keeping tabs on how much you’re eating is not one of them. You are more likely to overeat when you’re rushing through your meal because your body simply doesn’t get enough time to send you signals that you’re full. Eating slowly not only allows you to listen to your signals from your body, but it also helps you savour your food better, which means you feel satisfied faster.
Stop eating simply because you’re bored
Binge-watching and binge-eating might feel like a match made in heaven, but in reality it’s a recipe for disaster. Eating while passively watching television or when you simply don’t have anything better to do is not only harmful because you’re consuming calories your body doesn’t actually need, but it is also all too easy to make a habit of it. Meaning that if your first response to boredom is to munch on something, your body will soon start to expect food (read: you’ll feel hungry) when you’re bored. The next time you feel like a snack, ask yourself if you’re really hungry or are just plain bored. You’ll be surprised at how often it’s the latter.
Keep stress levels under check
This is advice that you should be following in general. But more specifically, the link between stress and overeating has been proven time and again. The urge to eat more for no other reason than that you’re stressed is a real response your body may form over time. Eating is a release for several people, which is why the term “stress eating” is so common. Similar to treating food as a reward, using food as a form of escapism in your mind can have a real physiological impact over time to the point where your body truly believes that food helps when you’re stressed. It will be a lot harder to turn down that piece of cake when your stomach is growling, so keep this tendency under check when it’s still only psychological. Make it a point to follow stress-busting techniques like meditation, sleeping well, and getting enough physical activity.
Just like eating quickly, if you’re too preoccupied doing something else, whether it’s watching TV or typing an email, you are more likely to overeat because you’re not focussing on what you’re eating and not listening to your body when it tells you it’s had enough. Training yourself to listen to your body’s cues is a process that takes time, but is very doable.
Use a smaller plate
Mind over body. When you fill up a smaller plate and eat it all, you’re more likely to feel satisfied than when you take the same amount of food on a larger plate, because your mind perceives the empty spaces on the plate to mean “not enough food”. Similarly using smaller spoons and forks will mean you take more bites to finish your food, and that tricks your brain into believing that you are eating more.
Water is the elixir that keeps your body running smoothly and that includes digestion. Staying sufficiently hydrated is key to improving metabolism, and better metabolism equals easier weight loss. Also, water helps you feel full, even if it’s just temporarily. This can significantly help you if you’re part of the “eat when you’re bored” club.
Get enough rest
Ghrelin is a hormone that stimulates appetite, and leptin suppresses appetite. Your body is pretty good at turning these on and off when you need it; except when you don’t get enough sleep. A disturbed production of these two hormones are amongst the many side effects of not having a regular sleep cycle, causing you to crave foods when you don’t actually need it.
Eat smaller, more frequent meals
This technique is as popular as it is amongst experts because it truly works. When you follow this method, your blood sugar level stays stable without any sudden crashes. These crashes are a major cause for sudden hunger at odd times. By spacing out your meals, you’ll also be eating often enough to prevent any unnecessary in-between snacking. It also keeps your energy levels stable, which means you won’t be as lethargic after lunch anymore.
Never skip meals
As a rule of thumb, don’t go longer than 5-6 hours without food. When you do, your blood sugar level drops and your body starts getting hankerings, which increases the likelihood of you overindulging in more food than you need. So if lunchtime seems like a distant dream on a particularly busy workday, at the very least munch on an apple or some nuts at your desk, if you can’t step away for a meal.
Somehow it always comes down to this. It should come as no surprise that there is no substitute to getting a minimum amount of physical activity every day. Exercise doesn’t just burn excess calories and fat, but it also actively keeps appetite in check by suppressing ghrelin levels. So get moving!