Six reasons you overeat

bar of Dairy Milk - overeating

Some food triggers can sabotage even the most carefully laid diet plans. Learn to recognise them and you'll regain control and break the overeating cycle - before the food even reaches your mouth...

You're missing out on sleep

Lack of sleep makes it harder to stay in control of your weight. When you're tired, according to the Stanford University Centre for Human Sleep Research in the USA, your body has lower levels of leptin, the protein that regulates appetite and weight. This means you feel hungrier and burn calories more slowly. Levels of the hormone cortisol also rise, helping to trigger carbohydrate cravings. And your body is less efficient at clearing sugar from the blood, so food is more likely to be stored as fat.

Your food isn't filling enough

Most women need about 3lb of food a day to feel full. Eating less than that leaves you wanting more, so you binge later. To feel satisfied without gaining weight, get your three pounds from food that's high in fibre and water but low in calories, such as many vegetables and types of fruit. The average grapefruit is 90% water, with just 39 calories per half fruit. High-fibre food not only provides bulk, but also takes longer to digest, making you feel full for longer and reducing hunger pains.

You serve food on large plates

The larger the plate, the more food we put on it. And the more food we have in front of us, the more we tend to eat. Research by Professor Brian Wansink at the University of Illinois, USA, showed that people who are given larger portions eat more even if they don't like the food. Unless you take portion size seriously, you'll struggle to control your weight, however healthy your diet, so don't be tempted to load up your plate. Eat as slowly as you can and take small mouthfuls to give your body more time to signal satisfaction to your brain, and for your brain to tell you to stop eating.

You've adopted the low-carb approach

Research suggests that cutting too many carbohydrates out of your diet can actually push you to overeat. A study from Ohio State University found that people who skimp on carbohydrates at lunchtime tend to compensate by eating more of them later on. Ideally, carbs should make up about half of your daily calorie intake. If you eat them throughout the day, it can help to maintain an optimum level of the brain chemical serotonin, which is involved in appetite control. Lack of carbohydrates can cause low levels of serotonin, leading to increased appetite. Low-carb doesn't always mean low-calorie, either, particularly as many low-carb products have added fat. There are also ‘good' carbs (fruit, vegetables and whole grains) and ‘bad' carbs (biscuits and cakes) just as there are good fats and bad fats, so try to include a balance of both in your diet.

You eat chocolate at the wrong time

A recent study from University College London found that people who ate chocolate on an empty stomach were more likely to develop a psychological craving for it (hunger makes any high-calorie food taste extra good, so you'll want more). But that doesn't mean you have to cut out chocolate altogether - just save it for dessert. The study showed people who ate it 15 to 30 minutes after a meal weren't as likely to snack on it later.

You eat in front of the television

If you usually eat your meals while watching TV, you run two risks: first, your brain links television with eating so you'll reach for food whenever you watch it, whether you're hungry or not; second, because you're not focusing on eating, you don't stop when you're full. And associations build up quickly. In a test at University College London food scents were wafted under people's noses while they were shown random computer images. It took just minutes to create the link between looking at a computer and thinking about food. ‘Eat in one place without any distractions,' advises Amanda Wynne of The British Dietetic Association. ‘If you're focused on something else, eating becomes a subconscious habit.'

Originally published September 2004. The answers to specific problems may not apply to everyone and are not substitutes for professional medical advice. If you're worried, see your GP.

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