How to Break the Cycle of Overeating

Understanding what triggers overeating, and planning accordingly, gives you a much greater chance of taking control over the process.

October 19, 2016
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Adapted from The End of Overeating

Once cues have conditioned your behavior, you'll typically experience tension when you're around them and only eating brings relief. And so whenever possible, you want to avoid being cued in the first place.

When you're bombarded with stimuli, it is impossible to find the quiet space that will allow you to focus on new learning. If the cues keep coming—if you see candy every time you open your cupboard, if you keep returning to places where you habitually overeat—you'll be relying on sheer willpower, day after day, to resist highly palatable foods.

More: 7 Decision Points That Determine Your Diet Success

Breaking the grip held by these foods begins with eliminating most of them altogether. But remember that total abstinence—that firewall you have been urged you to build—is necessary only until you have learned to manage risk.

For now, here are some guidelines.

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1. Figure out what leads to overeating

Make a list of the foods and the situations you can't control. Knowing what generates an urge and ultimately hijacks your behavior allows you to erect barriers against it. Be especially alert to the power of location as a cue.

More: 12 Easy Hacks to Beat Your Worst Cravings

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2. Refuse everything you can't control

Cut out all the foods on that list, and don't expose yourself to situations that promote the cycle of overeating behavior. Stay away from restaurants that layer and load meals, and at the supermarket don't buy the highly processed foods that are high in sugar, fat, and salt. Avoid meals with friends whose food habits set your eating spiral in motion. If someone puts something you overeat in front of you, push it away.

More: 5 Strategies for Steering Clear of Processed Food

One evening I checked into a hotel room and found a plate of freshly baked chocolate-chip cookies waiting for me. I knew I could easily eat them all, and I knew with equal certainty I didn't want to do that. There was only one way to gain the upper hand, and I had to act quickly. I tossed those cookies into the trash, getting them out of my sight and stopping my conditioned behavior before it even began.

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3. Have an alternate plan

Habit dictates that I stop for those fried dumplings at the San Francisco airport, but awareness reminds me that I don't want to. Now when I land I take steps to protect myself. I've trained myself to take a different route through the airport so I don't walk by them. My alternate plan allows me to resist a cue that would otherwise draw me in.

More: 6 Ways to Master Portion Control

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4. Limit your exposure

If you can't avoid the cue altogether, then limit the amount of time you're exposed to it. The longer you're in a stimulating environment, the more you're likely to consume. That's often the problem in a social situation—you may be able to turn away from a cue initially, but its presence will be a continued temptation until you give in. As soon as you've eaten what you know will sustain you, go somewhere else. Otherwise, the activated brain that characterizes conditioned hypereating will keep fueling your desire.

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5. Remember the stakes

Along with devising a plan, remind yourself of what unfolds if you don't move away from cues. Think through your habitual response. Recall the inevitable chain of behaviors that lead to the first bite and then keep you going until the food is gone. Remember how you feel afterward.

 
 
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6. Direct your attention elsewhere

Keep your working memory engaged with other thoughts in order to crowd out cue-generated responses. When you're bored or distracted, give those thoughts a place to reside.

More: 10 Simple Ways to Stop Emotional Eating

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7. Learn active resistance

When other people are putting you at risk, you have a right to resist. Protect yourself by reframing seemingly well-meaning acts as hostile ones. It's okay to feel angry at the marketing and advertising techniques designed to get you to eat more, at the huge portion sizes served at restaurants, and at the layered and loaded food you encounter everywhere.

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