Ask the Dietitian: How Do I Break a Cycle of Overeating?

Trinh Le, MPH, RD
by Trinh Le, MPH, RD
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Ask the Dietitian: How Do I Break a Cycle of Overeating?

Overeating is a challenge for many people for many reasons, in particular because food tastes good. The problem with overeating is it can prevent people from achieving their weight-loss goals in a timely manner. One of our readers, Chelsea K., reached out on Facebook, to ask how to break the cycle of overeating:

“I have serious problems with self control. I feel in control when I fast, but if something sets me off and I eat, suddenly I can’t stop and I end up eating way more than if I could just eat small portions consistently. I guess my question is:

How do you stop the cycle, how do you eat without overdoing it and how can you eat without feeling shame and feeling out of control?”

These are common hurdles many of us experience. Oftentimes, people write it off as a failure of #selfcontrol, but it’s not.

Let’s be real: If losing weight was as simple as eating less and moving more, the diet industry would be out of business. Too often, we’re sold diet quick-fixes with no emphasis on how to maintain success. Instead, our body is constantly changing as a result of getting older, having a family and dealing with work stress.

The first step toward positive change is recognizing there’s an issue you want to fix, like an unhealthy relationship with food.

Here are some realistic tips to get you headed in the right direction:

Learning to accept your body should be a top priority no matter your weight goals. By doing so, you’re less likely to feel ashamed and guilty after eating. Remember: Negative emotions can actually harm your progress, especially if you’re prone to emotional overeating.

Remember to workout and eat well because you love your body, not because you hate it.


READ MORE > 10 WAYS TO (FINALLY) ACCEPT YOUR BODY


This refers to any food or mood that can lead you to overeat in an out-of-control state. Trigger foods are unique to everyone, but the common ones are generally delicious but not nutritious foods like pizza, ice cream, chips, candy and cookies. It’s good to set boundaries by avoiding these foods until you learn a balanced way to consume them.

Keep in mind that a trigger food is not a “craving” even though they may be used interchangeably. A craving is a food you really want to enjoy, get a lot of satisfaction off said enjoyment and know when to say, “enough.” Anxiety, boredom or distraction can push you to overeat on autopilot. Being aware of your triggers is the first step toward breaking the cycle. (You can use the “Notes” section in your MyFitnessPal food diary to jot down your triggers.)

Plan three snacks and three light meals for a total of six meals daily. Don’t go for more than 2–3 hours without eating. Keep in mind, though, that there are no hard-and-fast rules for how often you should eat. Just do what works for you. Sure, intermittent fasting can be helpful for weight loss, but it doesn’t work for everyone. For some people, being overly restrictive with food can even trigger overeating.

With so many distractions — from social media to Netflix binges — many of us eat mindlessly, polishing off lunch in front of our screens or wolfing down snack bars before an important meeting. Mindful eating teaches you to savor your food and listen to your body’s cues. Mindful eating is how you eat versus what you eat, so it isn’t a diet plan.


READ MORE > HOW MINDFUL EATING TECHNIQUES CAN AMP UP YOUR WEIGHT LOSS


No matter what your problems are, know that other people have similar struggles. You are not alone in this — so don’t be afraid to reach out. Confide in those you trust and in experts who can help coach you through these issues.

Hopefully these tips help you form a better relationship with food and with your own body. None of this happens overnight, so it’s important you remain kind and patient with yourself.

About the Author

Trinh Le, MPH, RD
Trinh Le, MPH, RD
Trinh is a registered dietitian by day, blogger at Fearless Food RD by night. She loves helping folks develop a better relationship with food, which includes lots of cooking, eating and learning about nutrition. When she’s not snapping mouthwatering shots of (mostly) healthy food, you can find Trinh HIIT-ing it at her local gym. For more, connect with her on FacebookInstagram and Pinterest.

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18 responses to “Ask the Dietitian: How Do I Break a Cycle of Overeating?”

  1. Avatar Alison says:

    I always overeat when I’m bored… What can I do ??

    • Avatar Tom says:

      Stop stuffing your mouth with food, you fat pig.

    • Avatar Kenneth says:

      Break out the day planner and schedule activities so there are no boring times.

    • Avatar Krinj says:

      You’re the one I see in my mirror! My only solution now is to get up and must walk and walk and walk. I have found a little pathway in my home that I walk. When I get that obsessive thinking about food kicking in and there’s nothing to do to distract me, I get up and just start walking and counting my steps (along with my Fitbit).

  2. Avatar Andrea says:

    I am on a healthy diet.. Everything was going right until 4 days ago.. I felt disappointed and sad over some stuff that happened and I ate a lot of junk food.. Felt miserable later and ate tons of junk food again.. And I just cant stop.. 🙁

  3. Avatar James Newberry Sr says:

    If you abstain from sugar added or included in your food, your food cravings dissappear

  4. Avatar Lee Ana says:

    I browse through Pinterest when I’m bored and realized being bored + looking at pictures of food sends me right to the refrigerator. Deleted Pinterest app and started walking 6 blocks to Starbucks to get sugar free iced tea when I’m bored. It’s a $8 a day habit, but it works.

  5. Avatar El Herno says:

    There’s a strong link between sugar consumption and overeating and ADHD. Having just been diagnosed at 41 years old with ADHD and started treatment with medication the disappearance of my binge eating and sugar cravings has been an unexpected side effect. Obviously a lot of people over eat for different reasons and have different triggers but for a lot of people it’s the body’s attempt at filling the lacking dopamine in the brain. So yeah, the advice above is nice and all but if you’ve got a neurological disorder like ADHD expecting mindful eating or small plates or whatever to work is a fools errand.

    • Avatar Eric says:

      Out of curiosity what medication were you put on for ADHD?

      • Avatar El Herno says:

        So far adderall has been the most effective. I also tried time released vyvanse and Ritalin but found them to be unpredictable and those two amped up my anxiety in a very unpleasant way. The adderall has done wonders for my sweet tooth and impulse eating which was an unexpected bonus though i do need to make sure I’m not skipping regular meals to make sure I’m not starving late at night.

  6. Avatar Krinj says:

    “Ask for help.”

    That’s the one for me. I joined a weight loss program at my job. I must report and weigh in every week. I hand over my phone and my coach reviews my food diary that includes my exercise. That weekly accountability is exactly what I personally need to succeed. On my own, I am my worst enemy. I cheat and lie to myself. Knowing that I have to step on that scale and account for every calorie I take in and burn has been very motivating. Sometimes, we just can’t do it alone.

  7. Avatar catmann says:

    What about us that can go without eating for hours, but then sit down to dinner and eat till I feel sick and burping can bring up small amounts of said dinner? I know we should be eating small items throughout the day, but most days I cant get away from my desk to got get a snack let alone make something nutritious, so its easier to just go without.. it’s like a merry go round. 🙁

  8. Avatar Merrilyn Tattersall says:

    Wow i really have no idea what my triggers are! Busy life but don’t eat any ‘junk’ take away food or sugar (not a sweet tooth but eat 1 or 2 pieces of fruit most days) but i keep putting on weight in last 1 or 2 yrs (worked same shiftwork job for 17yrs & not much has changed but i eat a lot better than i did 5 or 10yrs ago (maybe i should go back to junk food, seriously!) -or has stress & lack of sleep taken its toll? My weaknesses are Greek Yoghurt (not low fat), cheese (usually tasty or fetta) & sourdough (home style made by friend with only flour, water, levening) & apart from that eat veg &;meat every day & salad (no dressing) or home made veg soup at work & 2 eggs every morn for breaky (cooked various ways-poached, fried in minimal coconut oil or scrambled wit touch of cheese). Oh & i am active at work (12hr shifts & get quite hungry). I walk fast (exercise) & do some yoga 2 or 3 times per week (tho ‘free time’ is scarce) Rarely eat any diff to above examples! Why am i putting on weight?

  9. Avatar Louisa Rose Brooks says:

    YOU ARE NOT overeating because there is something wrong with you. One reason people over-eat is because many of us are eating a diet that is far too rich and is frankly not filling at all, so they are overeating because they are still hungry! A second reason is because humans are designed to eat and to think about eating frequently throughout the day – this is because humans evolved to live through famine and to eat at any opportunity, and crucially, always to find the richest food in the environment (which for many people is the only food in their environment). A third reason people overeat is because most of the foods we eat are highly addictive so without realising we have cravings that our brain is screaming at us to fulfil. A fourth reason people overeat is because many of us eat foods high in salt and sugar and these things literally affect our satiety mechanisms, meaning that we’ll overeat without even realising. You only feel full if your stomach’s stretch & nutrient receptors are triggered (which means you need to be full on GOOD food). You have to understand these things and therefore understand that it’s not your fault that you’re overeating, but it is your responsibility to act around these problems.

    1) Stop starving yourself, and eat to satiety with every meal – an easy way to do this is to eat a large salad/large bowl of steamed vegetables before every meal (but abstain from adding salt/sugar/oil salad dressings, learn how to make a salad delicious on its own). You’ll find that you’ll be half full up before you even get to your ‘real’ food (which should also be healthy, but just a bit denser). After a few days you’ll start to absolutely love veg. Also, eat potatoes (complex cabs WILL NOT MAKE YOU FAT, they will only make you fat if you add dairy or oil to them). Potatoes are are nutrient dense and only 400 calories per pound so you literally can’t overeat on them because you get so stuffed – they’re the most hunger satisfying food to eat. 2) Cut down on highly addictive foods containing sugar, salt, oil and unsaturated fat so your cravings are massively dulled. 3) Stop beating yourself up and feel satisfied when you’re diligently making improvements to cut down on cravings & junk foods and you’ll feel the fat start to melt off.

    • Avatar Jack Brien says:

      Salt isnt addictive, doesnt create hunger and has been wrongly demonised since the sugar lobby realised they needed a scapegoat for the coming obesity and CVD epidemic. It doesnt even cause hypertension, except in a very small portion of the population.

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