How To Stop Overeating For Weight Loss

If you eat more than you need to regularly, you will gain weight and keep it on. Fact. Learning how to stop eating when you’re just full is one of the most important parts of appetite retraining because eating just enough of a meal is the only way you can get definitely hungry by the next meal.

And, remember, it’s when you start to feel hungry between meals that your body actually burns stored fat.

To stop eating when you’re just full, you need to tune in to the immediate signals from your stomach to your brain registering how much volume of food has entered your stomach. 

With appetite retraining, you keep the amount of food consistent across meals. The same volume of porridge stretches your stomach to the same degree as that volume of green beans or ice cream or sausages. And it’s the amount that gets you to feel just full that you learn to see as your new normal meal size.

You choose what types of foods to eat based on how long it will be until the next meal – for example, porridge or sausages will keep you going for longer than green beans or ice cream. People often tell me that they try to avoid feeling hungry by piling their plate up with “healthy” foods by which they usually mean vegetables. 

That is an alternative way to eat and may help you lose weight, but it’s not helpful for appetite retraining because a pile of vegetables will keep you in a pattern of getting overly full and still fearful of mild hunger.

Having a small meal of just vegetables is likely to mean you’ll be hungry again quite soon. As you’ll see later in the book, there are times when that’s exactly what you need.

This article deals with the three Unhelpful Eating Habits which involve eating beyond the point of being just full.

1. You regularly eat meals that are too large

Many of us eat too much either because we’re enjoying the food and don’t want to stop, or we’re eating mindlessly and not paying attention. Either way, if your portion sizes are too big, regularly, you’re constantly putting more food into your body than it can use. Whatever that food is, healthy or not, excess food will be converted into fat. And your body will store it in your fat cells. 

To lose weight, your body needs to be able to start releasing those fat stores. It will do that whenever you’ve run out of energy from the last meal you ate, so a hugely important part of appetite retraining is altering the size of each meal, so that you’ll have most of the energy you need for a few hours in that meal, but not quite enough so that your body will switch to burning a bit of stored fat before your next meal.

2. You eat dessert even though you’re already full

If you have a sweet tooth, perhaps desserts are your downfall – but they don’t need to be. You can still have your favourite puddings and sweets once you learn how to judge how much to eat and to gauge when you really want that sweet food. In this article, I’ll explain how eating desserts or sweets fit into appetite retraining

3. You binge eat

Overeating to the extent that you feel out of control is more common than you might think. It is thought that about 12 million people in the UK suffer from compulsive overeating to some extent. 

This includes people who feel they binge occasionally through to people who suffer from an eating disorder such as Binge Eating Disorder.

Know when to stop eating: The Appetite Pendulum

Using my appetite pendulum is the key to appetite retraining. With practice, you will learn to stop eating a meal when you get to +3 (just full).

The plus numbers on the appetite pendulum are the ones you tune in to as you are eating.

  • +1 feels less like fullness and more like no longer feeling hungry – you’ve taken the edge off your hunger.
  • + 2 is when you are starting to feel slightly satisfied by your food.
  • +3 is a feeling of definite satisfaction, but not what you’re probably used to thinking of as ‘full’, even though you now need to mentally re-label this state as ‘just full’.
  • + 4 tends to feel slightly uncomfortable in your belly while you are eating, but it can be easily overlooked and only registered after a short while – 10–20 minutes later you think ‘I didn’t need that pudding/second helping.’
  • +5 is a feeling of being stuffed, where you are having to think about undoing your trousers. The immediate feeling from your stomach is uncomfortable, but the unpleasant feelings of nausea or of feeling drugged only hit you later. Once you are using appetite retraining correctly, you’ll never hit +5 because you’ll be in tune with your appetite.

The more mindfully you eat, the easier it is to notice what’s happening. With each mouthful, you monitor the subtle changing sensations in your stomach. The Japanese principle of eating only until you’re 80 per cent full is similar to stopping at +3 on the Appetite Pendulum. 

According to the Japanese proverb: ‘Eight parts of a full stomach sustain the man; the other two sustain the doctor.’

If you haven’t been taking much notice of fullness sensations, this will take a bit of practice. Eating slowly will help you to keep tuned in to your fullness signals. Don’t expect to get this right immediately if you’ve been out of practice for years. If you think you’re at +3 but you’re not sure, you might want to put your knife and fork down and wait a minute then continue for a few more mouthfuls if you’re not quite full. 

If you overshoot and realize you’re at +4 before you’ve stopped eating, use the opportunity to learn what was too much. Notice the size of what you just ate, and make a mental note that this amount was a bit too much. 

This can help you adjust better to stopping at +3 at your next meal. If you’ve been overeating at mealtimes for years, and doubt whether you can gauge your hunger/fullness level. 

I suggest reducing the size of your meal by a quarter at the start, and monitoring how your stomach feels at the end of that meal – ‘+3 (just full)’.

Whether you’re going to monitor your stomach sensations as you eat or reduce the size of your meal by a quarter before you start, you’ll be doing this day-in, day-out, so you’ll gradually get used to it. 

It’s a process of learning what works – if the new amount is too much or too little, leaving you too hungry or too full, keep playing with the amount until you get it right. Now you know what point you’re aiming to stop eating, let’s look at how to put this into practice.

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How to reduce your meal size for weight loss

1. Work out what to do after you stop eating

When a mouse eats that is all it is doing. Its movement involves putting food into its mouth repeatedly. Once it has had enough, the behaviour switches to grooming and now it just wipes its nose with its paws for a while. 

The mouse is a valuable role model for us. When you stop eating, you will need to switch to doing something else. Plan what you are going to do as soon as you finish eating and make sure that it is something you can just go and do. 

It is preferable to do something that occupies your mind and your hands at the same time, such as housework or a hobby. Be aware that watching TV is a very passive activity and it will be easy for your mind to wander to food, particularly because there is so much shown and advertised on TV. 

It is fine to watch TV as long as you’re doing something else at the same time, such as doing a puzzle or a household task. Note that the activity needs to take you away from eating. 

For example, if you would normally start the washing-up after eating but that means you are in the kitchen being tempted by food, it may be important to leave it until later and do something else in the meantime.

This concrete planning really pays dividends. It’s used in elite sports psychology. Soccer player Ronaldinho doesn’t just improve his goal-scoring by getting out there on the pitch and practising shots at goal from every conceivable angle. 

Though of course, he does do that. He super-charges this real-life practice by mentally rehearsing the goal-scoring sequence. Here it is in his own words, from an interview with the journalist John Carlin for The New York Times:

‘When I train, one of the things I concentrate on is creating a mental picture of how best to deliver the ball to a teammate, preferably leaving him alone in front of the rival goalkeeper. So what I do, always before a game – always, every night and every day – is try and think up things, imagine plays, which no one else will have thought of, and to do so always bearing in mind the particular strength of each teammate to whom I am passing the ball. When I construct those plays in my mind I take into account whether one teammate likes to receive the ball at his feet or ahead of him, if he’s good with his head and how he prefers to head the ball, if he’s stronger on his right or his left foot. That’s my job. That is what I do. I imagine the game.’

This is your Ronaldinho moment. You need to get your plan clear in your mind and mentally practise it in advance by visualizing what you’ll do once you’ve finished your meal.

2. Remember what you ate for your last meal

Research shows that you tend to eat less for your evening meal when you first think about what you had for lunch. So try pausing to think about what you had for your last meal.

3. Use a smaller plate

How full you feel after eating is influenced by how much you think you’re eating, not just the amount you actually had. Our perception of the quantity of food on our plate is altered by what proportion of the plate is covered in food. This ‘Delboeuf Illusion’ means that eating the same quantity of food off a smaller plate feels like more than if that amount is eaten off a larger plate.

4. Swap your cutlery

You’ll be more likely to eat more slowly and therefore eat less if you use just a fork, or use chopsticks instead of the usual knife and fork. Or you could try getting cutlery set with smaller spoon and fork sizes to help you take smaller mouthfuls.

5. Eat mindfully and maximize pleasure

By paying full attention to what you are eating – eating mindfully – you will notice your changing level of fullness. So sit down to eat rather than standing up or eating on the go and treat the food as important rather than as an after-thought. Eating mindfully means putting your mental focus on the food rather than eating at the same time as doing something else. 

So turn off the TV and just pay attention. Focus on this mouthful, not the next one. Notice the sight and smell of the food, and as you put the food into your mouth, notice all the textures and flavours. 

Remember that when you eat food, you get the calories whatever, but you only get all the pleasure that’s in that food if you focus on it and eat it mindfully. It is easier to stop eating when your appetite is satisfied. If you really enjoy what you are eating, you get more satisfaction from the same amount of food.

6. Chew your food well

As you continue chewing, you’re likely to notice other flavours coming through. At the start of the 20th century, Horace Fletcher created a craze for chewing food, which had the celebrities of the day hooked on ‘Fletcherism’ for its impressive health and weight-reducing results.

Horace Fletcher became a celebrity of his time, advising American Presidents, British Prime Ministers and some of the big movers and shakers of his age including J. H. Kellogg of the famous cereal company.

Even King Edward VII reportedly took up Fletcherizing. Fletcher argued that we should:

  • Chew food until it tastes of nothing, however long that takes.
  • Swallow only liquid whilst chewing your food – do not swallow anything solid.
  • Whatever solid residue is left in your mouth when there is no taste left should be spat out, never swallowed.

Nowadays that last instruction would get short shrift from dieticians because that’s where we get some of the fibre. Although Fletcherism disappeared from view, it may be useful to you in that the more you chew, the slower you eat, and that may give you time to register some of the slower hormonal fullness signals. 

In fact, recent studies have found that prolonged chewing reduces feelings of hunger and leads to reduced food intake in some people (either in the meal being chewed or at a later meal). 

These studies suggest that increasing the number of chews per mouthful of food increases the gut hormones that are involved in registering fullness. Don’t worry if you don’t want to keep chewing as long as Horace Fletcher did (reportedly upwards of 32 chews per mouthful!); just experiment with chewing longer as a way of helping you to eat less.

7. Monitor your Appetite Pendulum number

While you’re eating your meal, keep an eye on your Appetite Pendulum number. Notice the sensations in your stomach changing from hunger to fullness and when you notice that you are just full (+3), STOP EATING and leave the rest. You won’t feel physically hungry now, nor will you feel too full. 

It will probably feel odd to stop eating at this point, especially if you don’t like wasting food (see below), but that’s okay. It may help to think at this point, ‘How will I feel half an hour from now? Will I regret not finishing this food or feel pleased that I stopped?’

8. Notice what you’ve eaten

When you get to +3, notice the size of what you’ve eaten to train your eye. This may well come as a shock at first if it’s a lot less than you usually eat, and may make you feel uneasy or anxious. If you are +3 on the scale, any discomfort you feel is not physical hunger; it is an emotional reaction to eating less. 

Dealing with the emotional reactions that eating less produces in you is a crucial part of changing your eating patterns to allow weight loss. In time these feelings will happen less and the new meal size will become your normal meal size.

Noticing the size of your meal is what helps to train your eye to judge the amount your body needs to get to +3 on the Appetite Pendulum. As you learn this, you can cook/serve/order the right amount of food to start with, so you truly stop wasting food.

9. Move away from the food

Go and do your pre-planned activity. You are likely to find that after about 30 minutes, other fullness-related signals have now registered in your brain and the urge to eat more will have lessened. If not, continue with keeping your mind and hands occupied.

10. If it’s difficult, use the two-hand interweave

If you’re finding it difficult to get away from the food and turn your attention to the activity you planned, the two-hand interweave may help you to resolve this moment of inner conflict. Put ‘stop eating now’ into one hand, and “go back for more” in the other and alternately open and close your hands and notice what happens.

11. Remember that your next meal will taste fabulous if you stop now

When you stop eating, remind yourself that stopping now means that you’ll be able to get hungry by your next meal, so that your taste buds will be sensitized again and the next meal will taste fantastic! 

If you overeat now and aren’t hungry by the next meal, your taste buds won’t be sensitive and you’ll lose out on the pleasure you could have from that meal. The fear of missing out (FOMO) on the pleasure of this meal is balanced by the greater pleasure of the next. for more on this. 

Also, eating more now would mean eating with desensitized taste buds, so any more of this meal won’t taste as good.

12. Menthol mouthwash

Recent studies show that if you wash your mouth out with menthol mouthwash after you’ve eaten you are less likely to eat again soon. You can use this to your advantage by including it as part of your after-meal routine.

How to enjoy eating desserts without weight gain

Note: If you are diabetic or pre-diabetic, this section is not advisable for you.

This section may take some swallowing because it is likely to be at odds with everything you have ever heard about weight loss. With appetite retraining, you can include your favourite desserts and still lose weight. 

You do this by using the appetite pendulum, developing a sharper awareness of when you really have an appetite for something sweet, and by thinking and planning dessert- and sweet-eating. Here are three alternative ways of enjoying desserts:

1. Adjust the size of your main course

Adjust the size of your main course so that you stop eating at +2 on the appetite pendulum and then eat just enough dessert to take you to +3. This may be difficult to do because both courses would then be very small indeed. If you can deal with this and still stop at +3, all well and good.

2. Eat one meal over two mealtimes

The second way to eat in tune with your body but still have your favourite dessert occasionally is to have only the main course at this meal and only the dessert at the next meal (several hours later when you are -3 on the appetite pendulum). This can be useful for celebratory meals at home where the dessert will still be available several hours later.

If you’re eating out and are faced with a large two-course lunch, because of the way your internal clock works you are still likely to want to eat again a few hours later even if you’re nowhere near -3 on the Appetite Pendulum. 

In this case, the wasted food is whatever you eat in the evening. Spreading the one large lunch over two meals will mean that the -3 to +3 range on the Appetite Pendulum can be kept to

and excess eating avoided. To do this, ask for a takeaway box for your dessert, or take along your own takeaway box.

3. Have a dessert-only meal

The other possibility is to only eat dessert at this meal. The idea of the dessert-only meal may horrify you but think about it for a moment. If you really want to eat a dessert but instead have a savoury meal, the craving for the sweet food may still be there. 

Many people eat substantial amounts of savoury food in order to feel ‘allowed’ to have the dessert. In this case, the wasted calories are in the savoury food eaten to ‘earn’ the dessert. 

Something I find fascinating about helping people to retrain their appetite is that when they really, really let themselves have the cake or whatever it is, they lose the obsession with it. They no longer hanker for it and it becomes something they occasionally fancy.

For any of these options, where you end up with a dessert-only meal, it’s crucial to keep aware of your hunger and fullness levels, so that you stop eating the dessert at +3. Given the portion sizes of shop-bought and restaurant portions, this is likely to be half a cake or half the dessert rather than the full portion. 

So, go prepared with your takeaway box so that you can have the other half another day. 

Appetite retraining does not advocate eating an unbalanced diet or eating lots of sweet foods. The dessert-only meal will only be a very occasional event. If it is not, you may have developed sugar cravings.

The strength of incorporating desserts as part of appetite retraining is that when you have reached your goal weight, eating dessert has become established as part of your new eating patterns, in tune with your hunger and appetite and does not need to be re-introduced after a period of abstinence.

Each time you stop eating at +3, notice what that tells you about yourself. You may not believe it at first, but when you repeatedly succeed at stopping eating at this point of being just full, your brain will form a new belief that you are capable of being in control of eating. You’ll notice a shift in how you see yourself, not only in the mirror but in terms of self-confidence and self-control.

When you stop eating at +3 there may still be food on your plate. Your next task is to store the leftover meal or throw it in the bin. If you are confident that when it is back in the fridge or larder you can forget about it until your next mealtime, it is fine to put it back. 

If you suspect that you will be tempted to go and finish it off before you are next hungry, then you will lose weight more quickly if you put it in the bin.

Just about everyone I have worked with using appetite retraining has initially gasped in horror at the suggestion of throwing food away. What I explain is this:

  • Your body digests the food you eat at each meal and uses the energy produced to get you through the next few hours. If there is any extra energy left by the time of your next meal, it converts it into fat. So all the extra (unnecessary) food you ate at your last meal becomes fat.
  • Food is certainly no less wasted if it goes through your body and is converted into fat than if it goes straight into the bin. Putting it in the bin does not make you fat and does not have the adverse side-effects of cardiovascular strain and diabetes.
  • If you keep eating up the food you don’t need, you keep wasting it. And you gain extra weight.

You won’t need to throw much food in the bin before you get the hang of how much your body needs at a particular mealtime to get you to +3. Thus, the net result of appetite retraining is that you will waste less food than you have in the past. In particular, you will waste less food by putting it through your body to be stored as extra fat.

How to deal with the Fear of Missing Out

One of the reasons for eating meals that are much bigger than we need is that we are eating for pleasure, or at least trying to. Eating for pleasure is a good thing and we are biologically programmed to find food pleasurable. 

When you are enjoying a meal or snack, you tend to want to keep eating more of it. This means that when you get to +3 on the Appetite Pendulum, you will have to give up some pleasure by stopping eating.

However, as you eat any particular dish, your taste buds become gradually less sensitive to that food. This is one of the ways our appetite is regulated. When you eat beyond +3 on the appetite pendulum, the law of diminishing returns kicks in: you will get less pleasure from each successive bite as your taste sensitivity decreases. Most of the pleasure is in the first half of the meal.

Here, it helps to remember that when you stop at +3 you are helping your next meal to taste delicious because you will be hungry by your next mealtime. As Mireille Guiliano in French Women Don’t Get Fat says.

‘One thing French women know is that the pleasure of most foods is in the first few bites; we rarely have seconds.’

So, the pleasure you give up by stopping at +3, you gain back in effect at the next meal because that meal will be more enjoyable if you are hungry when you start eating. Overall with appetite retraining you are likely to get more pleasure from food rather than less because you will be eating foods you love when your taste buds are at their most sensitive.

How to stop binge eating

Bingeing refers to eating a large amount of food in a way that feels out of control. It tends to happen to people who engage in very restrictive diets, because restricting what and how much you eat, puts your body under increasingly strong physiological pressure to eat. 

It is also more common in people who place a high value on weight and shape and in people who are prone to emotional eating.

Binges tend to be triggered by:

  • Breaking a dietary rule
  • Alcohol or drugs
  • An external event
  • A negative mood state

To reduce bingeing, make sure that you don’t wait to eat until you are excessively hungry. Space your meals and choose what to eat so that you get to -3 (definitely hungry) by the next meal. 

Don’t wait to eat until you are -4 or -5 on the Appetite PendulumTM, because that would make binge eating more likely to happen. 

If you find that your binge eating nevertheless continues, I recommend reading Overcoming Binge Eating by Dr Christopher Fairburn, an international authority on binge eating. Dr Fairburn’s book is a guided self-help programme using up-to-date cognitive behavioural techniques, which helps you to overcome binge eating step by step. 

If your binge eating is out of control, you may be suffering from Binge-Eating Disorder. The diagnostic criteria for the condition are given here. This recognized mental health condition is likely to need professional intervention and you should in the first instance talk to your GP about how to get help.

Bulimia Nervosa

Binge-Eating Disorder is different from Bulimia Nervosa as it does not involve purging. If you are struggling with bingeing and purging, you may be suffering from Bulimia Nervosa and again this is something that may require professional help and you should discuss this with your GP.

If you are bingeing and purging, the purging is likely to be a reaction to the bingeing, so anything that helps reduce the binges is likely also to help reduce the urge to purge.

Learning how to stop eating when you’re just full is a cornerstone of appetite retraining, because eating beyond that point is, for many of us, exactly what keeps us heavier than we want to be. 

Whether that’s because your meal sizes are too big or you can’t resist desserts or you tend to binge eat, discovering how to adjust the amount you eat is key to losing weight and keeping it off.

Don’t expect overnight success if you’ve been in the habit of overeating for a long time. Take one step at a time, using any of the techniques I’ve given on here. Bring your best benefit to mind every time you feel your motivation flagging. If stopping eating at ‘just full’ is making you feel anxious, find an anxiety reduction technique from those that works for you.

Give yourself credit each time you manage to stop eating at +3 and over a few weeks, you will discover that you can learn to eat differently and feel more in control around food and eating.

As you stop eating when you’re just full, your meals will be the size your body needs to keep you going for a few hours while you get on with your day. Next, we’re going to look at how to establish an eating routine for those meals that fit into your lifestyle, with snacks to tide you over where needed.

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