9 realistic strategies that will have you eating right for life―and saying good-bye to diet guilt.

By Sara Reistad-Long
Updated February 05, 2009
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Credit: Nato Welton

1. Give Yourself Ample Time to Eat

Why: People who say they eat quickly right up until they feel full are three times more likely to be overweight than those with slower dining habits, according to a 2008 study published in The British Medical Journal. In an irritating tribute to something your mother probably told you, researchers suspect that fast eaters don’t give the brain’s fullness signals time to kick in, which can take as long as 20 minutes after the first bite, according to research.

How to do it: Check the clock before you start eating, even if you’re having a meal on the go or while working at your desk (never an ideal way to eat, but often a necessary evil). Then stretch that meal out for at least 20 minutes. If you’re still hungry after finishing, take a 20-minute time-out (sip tea; relax; take your mind off eating). At the end of the time-out, check your hunger signals. Go back for seconds only if the signals are still strong. Other smart ideas: Be sure to sit down for meals―don’t stand or walk around―and take small bites, chewing each thoroughly. Researchers at Cornell University found that people who chew their food approximately 15 times, versus 12, tend to be thinner. That’s how much impact these subtle changes can have.

2. “Legalize” All Foods

Why: Be it cabbage soup or Atkins, a diet isn’t a diet if you aren’t cutting out certain foods. But research indicates that making your favorite flavors taboo only sets you up for trouble. “When you label a particular food as ‘bad,’ you’re automatically implying that it’s desirable,” says Geneen Roth, author of When Food Is Love: Exploring the Relationship Between Eating and Intimacy ($15, amazon.com). “You’ll instantly want it more, making it easy to break down and overindulge.” Also, new evidence shows that eating foods you like in moderation will give you an edge in maintaining, even losing, weight. Scientists at the University of Oregon monitored the activity of the pleasure centers in subjects’ brains as they dined. The researchers found that the less enjoyable the meal was, the more people overate to compensate. “We strongly associate food with pleasure and comfort, so when it’s not providing either, we often try to solve the problem by eating more,” says Denise Lamothe, Ph.D., a psychologist and the author of The Taming of the Chew: A Holistic Guide to Stopping Compulsive Eating ($15, amazon.com).

How to do it: Instead of focusing on do’s and don’ts, make all foods permissible. Incorporate flavors you love into each meal. Sure, it’s always best to seek out the healthiest version of dishes, but when absolutely nothing except, say, Grandma’s lasagna will do, don’t forbid yourself. Cut a reasonable portion (about the size of a deck of cards) and relish it.

3. Ditch Derailing Diet Habits

Why: Most weight-loss tricks―ranging from ways to blunt hunger signals (sipping on coffee or diet soda in lieu of eating) to satisfying cravings (with low-calorie or artificially sweetened foods)―backfire in the long run. Drinking coffee, for one, will temporarily stave off stomach rumblings, but you may feel jittery later on and then overeat. When it comes to downing diet soda regularly, study after study links this to weight gain. Why? “People know they are drinking something virtually calorie-free, so then they tend to indulge in food,” says Lawrence Cheskin, an internist and the director of the Johns Hopkins Weight Management Center, in Baltimore. Your body is also receiving a mixed message: It’s tasting sweetness but not getting full. “So your cravings intensify and you find yourself eating more food than ever,” says Cheskin.

Similarly, small-size versions of indulgences, like mini candy bars and single-serving snack packs, can also lead to overeating. Studies show that people lose track of how many minis they eat and wind up consuming more than a regular-size portion. Then there are the healthy-seeming packaged foods, like organic granola, that have an aura of health about them, so people consume more of them. But a wholesome-looking label does not mean you’re eating health food. Many granola varieties, for instance, contain a fair amount of sugar, fat, and calories.

How to do it: Sip on seltzer with lime or herbal tea in between meals―especially if you tend to eat out of boredom. This will keep your hands busy and your stomach satiated until your body is truly hungry. When noshing on mini-size snacks, first remove the amount you want to eat from the bag, then put the bag away. Or simply eat the regular-size portion, like one Snickers bar instead of six minis. And don’t let a product’s perceived health quality give you a license to eat more. When in doubt, study the nutrition label for sugar and fat content.

4. Understand Hunger

Why: A craving represents the body’s need for fuel or a specific nutrient. Evolutionarily speaking, you’re especially susceptible to―surprise!―foods with salt, sugar, or fat, because these substances helped people pack on needed pounds to survive food shortages. However, “there’s also the modern- day mental component to contend with,” says Elizabeth Somer, a nutritionist and the author of Food & Mood: The Complete Guide to Eating Well and Feeling Your Best ($19, amazon.com). “Just seeing a food you like can pull up positive associations and make you want it.” Additionally, if you’re used to eating something every day, you’ll want to keep doing so―not because your body needs the food, but because your mind has made a habit of it.

How to do it: Listen carefully to your body before digging in. True hunger manifests itself in stomach grumbling or feelings of sluggishness, often within three to four hours of your last meal. Consider when you ate last. Has a reasonable amount of time passed for hunger to return? Try drinking something first. Hunger and thirst are sometimes indistinguishable; a tall glass of water might be all it takes to satisfy you for a while.

5. Recognize Fullness

Why: Technically, you’re full when you’ve eaten enough to fill your stomach and given your body adequate fuel to run on for the next several hours. At that point, your stomach tells your brain it’s done, and your brain starts producing fullness hormones that make you intuitively know this. But fullness is a subtle concept. Mostly it involves a physical heaviness and a vague sense that you don’t want to eat any more. And it can be easy to ignore accidentally. In a Cornell University experiment, people eating soup from bowls being secretly refilled consumed 73 percent more than those eating from regular bowls. A good way to avoid overindulging is to get reacquainted with your hunger signs.

How to do it: Midway through your next meal, with half your food left on your plate, pause and place your hands on your belly. Close your eyes and ask yourself how full you feel on a scale of 1 to 10, with “just right” being six or seven on that scale, says Lamothe. Three should mean “Eat a little more,” and nine should signal “Have more and you’ll be uncomfortably full!” Over time, you’ll train yourself to stop automatically, no matter how much of a favorite the food is. Remember: You can always have more of something later, when you’re hungry again.

6. Plate Your Food Differently

Why: Sure, your body can trick itself into thinking it’s hungry when it’s not, but how you serve your food can influence how much you’ll eat. “If you switch from a 12½-inch plate to a 10½-inch one, you’ll eat 22 percent less―without feeling any hungrier or less satisfied,” says Brian Wansink, Ph.D., author of Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think ($25, amazon.com). Also be aware of how easy it is to space out during a meal: A 2007 Cornell University study found that restaurant customers eating chicken wings consumed significantly more if the bones were bused away as they piled up, essentially removing the evidence of how much the people had already polished off.

How to do it: Use the half-plate rule: Fill 50 percent of your dish with salad, vegetables, and fruit. These foods all have a lot of mass but little fat and calories. That way, you cut down on the amount of room left for more caloric foods, such as meats, pastas, or sweets.

7. Choose the Best Fuel

Why: Our bodies weren’t designed to eat something made in a lab,” says Somer. Whole and unprocessed foods are packed with vitamins and nutrients and are often lower in sugar and fat than packaged ones. What’s more, foods high in protein, fiber, or water can help satiate you faster and for longer. “The more time it takes your body to break a food down, the longer you’ll stay full,” says Cheskin. Meals high in protein make you feel up to 25 percent fuller and are more filling calorie for calorie. On the flip side, sugar and simple carbohydrates take practically no time to be absorbed.

How to do it: Make simple, whole foods your first picks when you have a craving. Go with dried fruit when you have a yen for something super-sweet, for example, or nuts for something savory. Choose protein-rich foods, like nonfat yogurt and lean meats, and load up on fiber-dense legumes and vegetables.

8. Check Your Mood

Why: Anyone who has ever soothed a broken heart with a pint―or two―of Ben & Jerry’s can probably attest to the fact that hunger isn’t the only thing that can make you hungry. Data from the University of North Carolina indicate that stress, loneliness, anxiety, anger, boredom, guilt, and sadness can all make people crave food when their bodies don’t physically need it. Research also shows that people eat more when they’re experiencing joy, excitement, or anticipation. The key to breaking these habits is how you deal with the eating slipups while they happen or right afterward, says Marsha Hudnall, a registered dietitian and the director of Green Mountain at Fox Run, a women’s health retreat in Ludlow, Vermont. Indeed, a 2007 study found that most people can stop an episode in its tracks by being aware of it and not beating themselves up for the slip.

How to do it: Create a list of coping mechanisms that don’t involve food―taking a walk, calling a friend, reading a book. Each time you’re tempted, act on the list. And if you’ve already leapt into a pizza binge before you looked, remind yourself that it happens to everyone, then turn to the list. And plan ahead: If you know you snack because of stress or nerves (staring down a deadline, say) or out of habit (watching a favorite show while crunching chips), make your need to nosh less damaging by having something healthier on hand. In time, you’ll wean yourself away from mindless munching when you realize you have no desire to devour crudités with the same abandon.

9. Eat a Little, Often

Why: It bears repeating: People who skip breakfast are 4½ times more likely to be obese than others. In fact, studies overwhelmingly link any kind of meal skipping or irregular eating patterns to obesity.

How to do it: Eat something small and healthy every few hours, suggests Cheskin. Then you’ll never be so famished that you lose control at the sight of food, and mealtimes won’t feel like the last supper. Rest assured―you’ll eat again.