Why You’re Eating More Than You Think
(And What To Do About It)
“Just a little bit of each”, I tell myself as I reach for a big, steaming, cheesy heap of pasta.
No bread, I’d promised myself earlier, but miraculously find my hand picking up a slice (OK, maybe it was two) along with a hearty portion of butter on the way back to my table.
By the time I finish taking my last bite, my dinner companions ask: “Is that all you’re eating?”
I mean to say “pretty much, yeah”, but blurt out: “of course not.” As I head back into the buffet jungle, I find myself thinking: “Oh what the hell. It’s only one night.” After all, you don’t have dinner at The Four Seasons every night.
This is when all hell breaks loose.
Five plates of food (plus enough bread and butter pudding to feed a small family of three) later, the guilt, self-hatred and disappointment set in. As I struggle with my about-to-burst jeans zipper, I think: “What’s wrong with me? Why do I have zero self-control around food?”
Thankfully, I haven’t felt this way in almost a decade. Plus, now that clarity and I are on reasonably friendly terms, I can see why…
- I have three helpings of peach and apricot crumble when I planned to have one.
- I throw dietary caution to the wind when I step into a beautiful restaurant where I know the food’s going to be AMAZING.
- I can’t stop stuffing my face with salt n’ vinegar chips when my friends are digging in with me.
- The second glass of wine seems to be calling my name when I’ve had a long, stressful day.
- I keep eating even though I know that I’m no longer hungry.
- The cookie container is full at 11PM but empty by 11.30PM.
If all of this is you minus the clarity right now, take a deep breath and then another. I feel your pain and confusion. After all, I’ve been there and done that one too many times.
Now let’s take a deep dive into why you’re eating more than you think and what you can do about it:
YOUR ENVIRONMENT IS MAKING YOU OVEREAT
You make about 200 food-related decisions every single day: Breakfast or brunch? Pop Tart of cereal? Salad or sandwich? Donut or no? Eat out or stay in and cook? Two slices of pizza or three? You brought your lunch to work but your cubicle buddy really wants to have Japanese. What do you do?
And here’s the thing about these decisions you’ll make: Many of them are going to be far from perfect, and some, dietary disasters.
One reason for this? Your surroundings have been designed to tempt you to eat whatever, whenever. Clever marketers and fast food companies are doing everything in their power to put their food products in front of you in the hopes that you’ll take their bait and pick what they’re selling over their competitor’s. Evidently, their tactics are working, if our constantly expanding waistlines are anything to go by.
- Tempting smells of fresh-out-the-kitchen fries, cupcakes, chicken wings and burgers wafting through almost every street corner.
- $1 value meals that can be served up in under a minute.
- Vending machines that sell every kind of food under the sun, and …
- You don’t have to look far to notice larger-than-life billboards plastered with food ads that are designed to make you salivate all day long.
This is the part where I tell you it’s not your fault that you’re constantly overeating and being manipulated by outside forces you can’t control.
Well, yes…and no.
Yes because it is true that you’re being manipulated, but no because all of we’ve gotten pretty good at setting ourselves up to eat more, and eat more often too. We love buying family-sized packs of food…in bulk. We offer our friends and family sweets and cakes to let them know we care. We cook and serve more food than we need to, ‘just in case’. We cajole our loves ones into having ‘just a little bit more’ because well, that’s what you do for the people you love.
And to make things worse…
YOU’RE ON A DIET
If you’ve ever tried to lose weight and failed miserably, you’ll know this scenario very well: You find that, horror of horrors, your jeans won’t zip up they way they used to without you cursing and having to suck in your belly.
You’re not quite sure what’s happening, so you try on a dress you haven’t worn in a while and lo and behold, find that it won’t zip up either. Panic sets in when you realise that you’ve gained weight.
So you do the only logical thing you can think of: You decide to cut out every food item you can think of that brings you joy, and eat as little as you can to lose the weight. You feel hopeful and determined.
Until you break down and give in to pasta, pizza, chocolates and ice-cream two weeks later. You’ve been good, so you deserve a little treat.
But it’s a slippery slope from there…you can’t stop eating. Your body and brain are fighting back to keep you from starving.
The number on your scale starts to creep back up. You struggle to get back on track, but you manage to claw your way back onto your plan of eating nothing but apples, salads and green juice. But a week later, you crack…again.
This time, you find that you’re eating even more than ever.
Demoralized, you consider giving up. And after a couple more failed tries, you finally throw in the towel and go back to finding solace in an ice-cream tub.
WHAT TO DO ABOUT IT
While it can feel like your environment and biology are working against you, leading you to unknowingly eat more than you need to and subsequently, gain weight because of it, the situation isn’t as hopeless as you think.
Not at all.
In fact, these very same overeating triggers can be manipulated or even reversed with a couple of tweaks, putting a stop to your overeating, deprivation and weight gain.
Here’s what’s worked really well for me, and how you can do the same:
1. LISTEN TO YOUR GUT.
Your stomach can’t count calories or portion sizes, but what it can do is tell you when you’re no longer hungry.
For many of us who are used to overeating constantly, putting our fork down once our hunger pangs have subsided can be a challenge. After all, we’re used to eating until we’re stuffed, and by then, we’ve had way too much food.
This is where mindful eating comes in handy — building and strengthening your ability to tell when you’re hungry, no longer hungry, full as well as how your body feels before, during and after your meal will allow you to nip overeating in the bud…all without you having to obsess over calorie counting and portion control.
2. PUT EVERYTHING YOU WANT TO EAT ON A PLATE.
“Out of sight, out of mind”, the saying goes, and when it comes to our eating habits, it’s not far from the truth.
In a study carried out by researchers at Cornell University’s Food And Brand Lab, a group of students were offered free chicken wings on a Super Bowl Sunday. Some of the students were seated at tables that were cleared of their leftover chicken bones as they ate throughout the night while the rest sat at tables that were not bussed.
It was discovered that the students who sat a tables that were bussed ate 28 percent more wings than those who sat at tables where their chicken bones were left to pile up.
Turns out that when we can see what we’re eating, we’re more likely to eat less.
Not surprisingly, buffets are a compulsive over-eater’s worst nightmare and why family-sized bags of chips are never a good idea when you’re trying to quit overeating.
An effective way to eat what you want without going overboard is to put your entire meal or portion on a plate. Then, keep the rest away. This way, you won’t have to think about how much food you took and your chances of overeating are virtually nada.
3. EAT 20 PERCENT LESS.
Most of us feel totally caught off guard — shocked even — when we realize that we’ve gained weight. We swear that our diet hasn’t changed, and that we’ve been ‘good’ with our food.
Well, I’ve got good and bad news.
Let’s deal with the bad news first: To the unobservant eye, adding a piece of gum or handful of chips to your meal every single day may look harmless, but just 10 extra calories a day from that stick of gum or a potato chip add up to a 3,650 calories per year, or just over a pound. And if you’re not training to build muscle, this extra pound of weight is probably going to be fat. To make things worse, most of us tend to underestimate how much food we eat.
The result? That yearly weight creep all of us dread.
The good news is, just like you can gain weight without realizing it, the opposite is also true, and you can do this by making subtle tweaks to your eating habits.
One particular tweak that’s made a huge difference for me is deliberately eating 20 percent less food than I think I need — not a drastic enough reduction to make me feel deprived, but significant enough to help strengthen my ability to control my portions…and lose or maintain my weight over time.
For example, I used to eat enough pasta for two, for lunch every single day. Not surprisingly, this was also a time when I was struggling with my weight. So when I decided that this habit was more destructive than pleasurable, I started reducing my portion by 20 percent (which worked out to be about 3–4 spoonfuls of pasta at a time) every two to four weeks until my portion felt ‘just right’.
How do you apply this move to your own meals? Notice which foods you tend to overeat or eat mindlessly. For me, it was the carbs like pasta, rice and noodles as well as snacks like cookies, chips and ice-cream. Then for however much you usually eat, dish 20 percent away from your plate and put it in the fridge for your next meal.
Make this tweak into a daily habit, and this my friend, is how you’ll be able to eat less and lose weight (instead of the opposite) without even knowing it.
4. ADD 20 PERCENT MORE VEGETABLES AND FRUIT TO YOUR MEAL.
So about the last ‘guideline’ that I introduced you to….
It works really well on its own, but works even better if you combine it with this one: Add a couple more spoonfuls, or 20 percent more vegetables and fruit to your meal. If the thought of loading up your plate with more food to get healthier and lose weight seems counter-intuitive to you, I can assure you that it’s a totally legit (and scientifically-proven) way of filling up on more nutrients without feeling deprived.
Plus, since a serving of fruit and veggies have more fibre and fewer calories than say, a serving of rice or bread, you’ll be unlikely to eat more than you need even though volume-wise, you’re taking in more food than before.
5. USE SMALLER PLATES AND BOWLS.
At exactly five feet tall and 101 pounds, I’m a relatively small person. Tiny, some might say.
Which is why I drive a Michele-sized car and wear Michele-sized clothes. I also have Michele-sized meals. Well, at least now I do, but I didn’t always eat this way. In fact, I used to stuff my face like a not-so-tiny person, which was a big problem.
Once I started down-sizing my portions, I also decided to downsize my plates and bowls, and it worked. After all, if I didn’t see it, I wouldn’t miss it (re-visit point #2). Of course, I’m not implying that you should eat the same amount of food that I do if you’re 5′ 11″ and weigh 170 pounds, but I do recommend that you eat according to your body size and lifestyle, not the size of the meal that’s given to you.
Not sure where to start? Go for dinnerware that’s 20–30 percent smaller than what you usually use. For example, if you’re used to eating off a dinner plate, swap it for a dessert plate (my go-to, especially in all-you-can-eat situations) or soup bowl.
WHAT TO EXPECT
While the five strategies I outlined above won’t give you six-pack abs or help you drop 10 pounds in a week (you shouldn’t anyway), they will change how and what you eat — prerequisites for changing how you look and feel…for life.
It’ll take time for you to get a hang of them and ultimately, make them a part of your life, so don’t freak out or beat yourself up if you slip up.
Making mistakes is part and parcel of the process, so be prepared to get back on your feet when you do fall. And above all, be kind to you.