How to Break Bad Eating Habits
If You’re a Serious Snacker
- The fallout: You may end up overeating. A healthy snack or two between meals is fine. Snacks can keep blood sugar steady as well as allow you to rack up more servings of fruits and vegetables. “It’s when you snack in place of eating real meals that you’re more likely to lose track of how much you’re eating,” says Tara Gidus, R.D., an Orlando, Florida–based spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. Of course, what you eat matters, too. Typical snack foods (chips, cookies, pretzels) aren’t that nutritious or satisfying, so it’s easy to overdo them.
- The fix: To keep your energy up and hunger at bay, allow yourself two snacks a day of 100 to 300 calories each. “Rather than a cookie or a candy bar, opt for something that feels like real food―half of a small sandwich, whole-grain crackers with cheese, a handful of nuts, baby carrots with hummus, or yogurt sprinkled with cereal,” says Gidus. Click here for more low-calorie snacks.
If You’re a Mindless Muncher
The fallout: Television makes people particularly prone to spaced-out eating. In fact, “folks who eat while watching the tube take in 20 to 60 percent more than if they are focused on their food,” according to Brian Wansink, a professor of marketing at Cornell University and the author of Mindless Eating ($15, amazon.com).
The fix: Figure out which situations trigger mindless eating for you, then consciously make an effort to eat only when you’re fully engaged. If you need a few snacks, set limits on what you’ll eat. Dole out a single serving before you sit down on the couch, or delay your snack until you can pay attention. Minimize damage by dipping into low-cal foods, such as cut vegetables, air-popped popcorn, rice crackers, and whole-grain cereal.
If You Eat Your Way Out of a Bad Mood
The fallout: It may be soothing in the moment, but feeding your fears and frustrations, instead of confronting them, can lead to a cycle of more bad moods as well as steady weight gain. Many people turn to carbohydrates, in particular, which produce tryptophan, a type of amino acid that is used by the brain to manufacture serotonin. “When the brain makes more serotonin, your mood improves, but only temporarily,” says Judith Wurtman, Ph.D., a coauthor of The Serotonin Power Diet ($25, amazon.com).
The fix: Stop to think about what’s bothering you before reflexively open the cupboard. Then try a nonfood mood booster, such as taking a walk, seeing a movie, or calling a friend. “If nothing but carbs will do, get the serotonin boost without triggering a binge,” says Gidus. “Opt for a whole-grain treat so at least you get more fiber and less sugar.”
If You Eat Carefully All Week, Then Blow It on the Weekend
The fallout: It is possible to undo five days of good with regular weekend free-for-alls. In 2004, data from the National Weight Control Registry revealed that people who were consistent in their weekly eating habits, even if they weren’t perfect, were 1.5 times more likely to stay within five pounds of their weight over one year than were those who were vigilant on weekdays only.
The fix: Since much socializing around food takes place on weekends, it pays to strategize. “Have a mini meal before you go out to help you have more self-control, and offer to be the designated driver to limit alcohol intake,” says Gidus. (Alcohol has more calories than you probably think.) And don’t restrict yourself so severely Monday through Friday that the weekend feels like your only time for indulgence.
If All Your Meals Come in Cans, Bags, or Boxes
The fallout: Packaged foods, like soups, frozen meals, and rice mixes, can be sneaky sources of unhealthy fats, sugar, salt, and excess calories. Even a can of (otherwise virtuous) low-fat soup can contain more than half a day’s worth of sodium.
The fix: Don’t feel guilty about relying on packaged foods; just be smart about which ones you choose. Frozen entrées―especially lower-calorie, lower-sodium versions―can provide a quick, portion-controlled meal. Compare labels to find the healthiest ones―that is, those that are higher in fiber and lower in salt and that have whole grains and nutrient-rich vegetables at the top of their ingredient lists. Frozen vegetables, cooked chicken, and a whole-grain rice mix can kick off a healthy almost-home-cooked meal, particularly when you serve them with fresh vegetables or a leafy green salad. Finish with a piece of fruit or low-fat yogurt for dessert.
If You Eat on the Run
The fallout: Eating while on the go (driving, walking down the street, shopping) means you’re probably not paying much attention to what’s going into your mouth. Leslie Bonci, R.D., director of sports nutrition at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, says this “grab, gulp, and go mentality” can leave you dissatisfied and unsure of what you ate, and sometimes even give you an upset stomach.
The fix: Build time to eat into your day. “If you have to, schedule it on your BlackBerry, just like you do everything else,” says Krieger. When you have no option but to dine while dashing, be prepared. Stock your purse, glove compartment, or office drawer with a few healthy choices, such as low-fat granola bars, nuts and dried fruit, and single-serving packages of crackers. “Even fast-food restaurants are offering healthier, satisfying choices, like salads and wraps with crunchy vegetables and lean meats,” says Bonci.
If You’re a Speed-Eater
The fallout: Gulping food may set you up for stomach troubles. “You take in excess air, which can lead to bloating,” says Bonci. You also might not be chewing well. “Saliva begins to break food down, and too little time in the mouth leaves more work for the rest of the digestive tract. This may contribute to indigestion,” says Krieger. Finally, speed-eating doesn’t give the brain time to catch up to the stomach; it needs at least 20 minutes to get the message that your stomach is full. A recent study found that women who ate a meal in 30 minutes ate 10 percent fewer calories compared with those who wolfed one down in barely 10.
The fix: Try to slow down. Avoid finger foods, and instead choose items you have to put on a plate and eat with utensils, such as stir-fries and salads. Pause often, and drink water throughout meals.
If You Skip Breakfast
The fallout: You’ll probably have a lousy morning, as well as a higher chance of overeating later on. “Blood sugar usually drops overnight, so your brain is running on empty until you eat in the morning,” says Krieger. Studies have shown that cognitive skills and memory improve once you’ve fueled your foggy morning brain. Recent research shows that breakfast skippers tend to eat more calories during the day than do people who don’t skip. Eating breakfast may actually help you achieve and maintain weight loss.
The fix: Breakfast doesn’t have to be a drawn-out affair, but try to eat about an hour or two after you get up. “Aim for 250 to 400 calories, and include at least one serving of whole grains, a source of protein, and one serving of fruit,” says Gidus. If you’re habitually short on time, stock the kitchen with easy-to-make breakfast foods, keep packets of oatmeal at the office, or place a standing order at a café so you can make a pickup on your way to work.
If You’re a Sugar Fiend
The fallout: A package of candy may give you a burst of energy, but then you’ll be smacked down by a post-sugar slump. What’s more, “a sugary snack is usually empty calories, providing few of the nutrients you need,” says Ellie Krieger, R.D., host of the Food Network’s Healthy Appetite. This, she says, may explain why it’s possible to be both obese and undernourished.
The fix: You don’t have to go off the sweet stuff completely―just find some good substitutions now and then. Unsweetened dried fruit (like tart cherries or mangoes), peanut M&M’s (a little protein mixed with sugar can help fend off the energy dip), and even a handful of lightly sweetened whole-grain cereal are all good swaps for candy or cookies. And since added sugar sneaks its way into many foods―including bread, cereal, and yogurt―read labels and seek out versions of your favorites with less sugar. Buy unsweetened drinks and add your own sugar. (Presweetened iced tea can contain as much as 10 to 12 teaspoons per bottle.) Or opt for sugar-free.