Everyone knows you need to watch what you eat while trying to lose weight, but that's easier said than done. Even if you're eating the right foods, there's also the risk that you could be eating too much, which can be a huge obstacle in your quest to slim down. Here's twelve habits you should be aware of before your next meal.
Falling short on shut-eye can make you consume more food throughout the day. In a 2012 Mayo Clinic study, individuals who cut their sleep time by an hour and 20 minutes a night consumed an average of 549 more calories the next day than those who caught their usual amount of Z’s. The results might have to do with the effect sleep has on our levels of ghrelin and leptin, two hormones that work together to stimulate and suppress appetite. What's more, feeling sluggish may cause you to turn to a snack for a quick pick-me-up. “An exhausted person will look for energy in food, and then it becomes a habit,” says Keri Gans, RD, author of The Small Change Diet.
Ditching breakfast or lunch can cause you to eat more at dinner, thanks to the hunger-stimulating hormone ghrelin. “There’s nothing to stop the ghrelin from telling the brain you’re hungry other than eating. So if you miss breakfast, that hormone is already running high in your bloodstream and it’s hard to shut off at that point,” explains Marjorie Nolan, RD, author of Overcoming Binge Eating for Dummies.
Not to sound like Captain Obvious, but if you’re going hard in the gym every day, your body is going to need more calories. And it’s possible you’re burning more than you think—even if you’re doing strength training without any cardio. When you add mass, that muscle forces your body to burn more calories—even while you’re not actively working out, explains Nolan.
Downing a whey shake after a workout or as a midday snack can help repair and build muscle, but if you’re relying on them as actual meals, you might begin to feel like a bottomless pit. “Our bodies want to be able to chew on something,” Nolan says. “You may be getting enough calories, but the way you’re getting them can leave you hungry.” Case in point: A 2012 study from the Netherlands found that longer chewing times were associated with lower calorie intake.
"Thirst and hunger are easily confused because the side effects—fatigue, light headedness, an empty stomach—are similar," says Nolan. Even if you don’t feel thirsty, gulping water before breakfast, lunch, or dinner can help control how much you eat. A study by the American Chemical Society found that subjects who swigged two cups of water right before eating a meal ate 75 to 90 calories less during that meal.
Turns out, you really can eat your feelings. “If you’re a stress eater, you might not be able to tell the difference between real hunger and stress hunger. It’s just a response, it’s not hunger that makes you want to eat,” Nolan says. In fact, a recent study published in Psychological Science found that NFL fans eat more fatty foods the day after a loss than a win. “It goes back to when we were young. Food is often used to soothe us as children and then that idea’s engrained,” Gans adds.
A recent research review from the University of Birmingham in the UK suggests that distracted eating makes you consume more food during a meal as well as later on. A smarter alternative to eating screen side: “Carve out time, disconnect, and actually sit down and put food on a plate,” advises Gans. “Make it an actual meal instead of a grab and go.”
“When people go out to eat with others, they find they eat more in that social environment,” Gans says. Grabbing a handful of fries as you watch a game gives you something to do. Plus, if others are overindulging, it becomes easy to follow suit, she says.
Who hasn’t experienced the inhibition-lowering effects of alcohol? And, though sometimes liquid courage might be just what you need, it’s a saboteur when it comes to controlling your appetite. “Once you start downing beers, your inhibitions go out the window, and you may not stop eating something you don’t normally allow yourself,” Gans explains.
Eating out of a multiple-serving package can result in a binge—even if you aren’t enjoying what you’re eating. Research from Cornell University found that moviegoers who were served stale popcorn out of large buckets ate 34% more than those who ate from medium-sized containers. Subjects who were given fresh popcorn ate 45% more from large tubs. “Whether it’s eating ice cream from the gallon, chips from the bag, or nuts from the jar, when you eat directly from the package, you lose all sense of portion control,” says Gans. “When they don’t portion your food out you will find it hard to stop after one serving.”
Nutrient-rich foods that contain fiber, protein, or water are going to make you feel more satisfied than simple carbohydrates and sugars (think chips, candy, cookies). Meaning, you could go to town on the latter, without ever feeling full.
Once you catch a whiff of something tasty, your olfactory system signals your gut to release ghrelin, which can lead to false hunger, Nolan says. “You may know you ate, but that doesn’t mean your stomach isn’t going to growl,” she says. Likewise, seeing food can spur psychological hunger, even if you’re not physiologically hungry.