There are a number of reasons you might find yourself reaching for food. A 2013 survey reveals that 38 percent of American adults overeat due to stress. Of them, half say they overeat at least once a week.

Identifying your personal triggers for overeating is the first step toward changing your habits.

How can you modify your eating habits?

Again, you may eat for emotional reasons. Boredom could be another factor. Others overeat because they’re hungry and not filling up on the right foods. Once you identify why you’re eating, you may move on to following more mindful eating practices.

1. Don’t skip meals

You should be hungry when you go to eat a meal. If you’re starving, you may be more apt to overeat.

You’ve probably heard that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. People who eat morning meals tend to eat less fat and cholesterol throughout the day. Research also suggests that eating breakfast can help with weight loss.

Anatomy of a healthy breakfast:

Whole grainsWhole grain toast, bagels, cereals, waffles, English muffins
ProteinEggs, lean meats, legumes, nuts
DairyLow-fat milk or cheeses, plain or low-sugar yogurts
Fruits and vegetablesFresh or frozen whole fruits and veggies, pure fruit juices, whole fruit smoothies
 

2. Pause before eating

If you’re eating at regular intervals throughout the day and still find yourself eating, ask yourself if you’re truly hungry. Is there another need that could be met? A glass of water or a change in scenery may help.

Signs of true hunger may include anything from headache to low energy levels, stomach growling to irritability. If you do still feel like you need a snack, start with small portions, and repeat the checking-in process once more before reaching for seconds.

3. Banish distractions

Change your location for meals, especially if you tend to chow down in front of the television, computer, or in another distracting environment, like in your car.

While work or school may not permit you time to have all your meals at the table, trying to sit and focus on your food can help with overeating.

Start by eating just one meal without distractions each day. Sit at the table. Focus on the food and your feeling of fullness. If you can, increase this habit to two meals or more each day. You may eventually get better at recognizing your body’s signals that you’re full and stop overeating.

4. Chew more bites

Experts recommend chewing each piece of food about 30 times. Chewing allows you to pace yourself. Your brain is able to catch up to your stomach. Not only that, but you may also better enjoy the flavors and textures of what you’re eating.

Try choosing a smaller plate to control the size of your portions. And if you start to feel full, resist the urge to clean your plate. Stop where you feel comfortable and wait 10 minutes before continuing. You may realize you’re too full to try to eat any more.

5. Keep track

You may have emotional or environmental triggers for overeating. Certain foods may also be triggers. Consider keeping a food diary to see what you eat, how much you’re eating, and when and where you tend to eat.

You can keep a simple diary with paper and pen or use an app, like MyFitnessPal, if you’re typically on the go.

Keeping track of your food may help you notice patterns in your habits. For example, you may find you prefer eating chips or chocolate, so you can try keeping those items out of the house. Or maybe you tend to consume most of your calories in the evening while watching television.

6. Address stress

Identify your emotions before you eat, especially if it’s not at a regularly scheduled meal time. Again, it may be helpful to keep a food diary and record this information so you can look for trends in time of day or activity. Consider if you’re feeling:

  • worried or stressed
  • sad or upset
  • angry or isolated

There’s no “right” or “wrong” way to feel, but checking in with your emotions may help you discover if they are at the root of your hunger.

Take a deep breath and try engaging in another type of activity before eating, like taking a walk, doing some yoga, or any other self-care measure.

7. Eat at home

Restaurant portions are large. If you eat out frequently, you may be overeating and not realizing it. Over time, large portions of calorie-laden foods may feel like the norm, making overeating struggles worse. At least one study has linked restaurant eating to obesity in the United States.

Consider having half your meal packed up before you even start eating. Better yet, skip restaurant meals altogether or save them for special occasions.

Research shows that cooking meals at home contributes to healthier food choices overall. You can find a number of healthy and affordable recipes on websites like the United States Department of Agriculture’s What’s Cooking.

8. Choose wholesome foods

Empty calories from added fats and sugars pack a caloric punch, but foods high in these ingredients don’t necessarily quell hunger. You may eat more to fill your stomach as a result.

Instead, bulk up on whole foods, like fresh fruits and vegetables. They’re rich in vitamins and minerals, as well as stomach-filling fiber.

Consider these “smart swaps”:

Sodas and sugary drinksWater, herbal tea, coffee
Sweetened cerealsWhole grain cereals with fruit
Ice cream Low-fat yogurt with fruit
Cookies and packaged dessertsPopcorn, fruit kebabs, homemade low-sugar granola
ChipsFresh veggie sticks with hummus
 

9. Drink more water

Hunger may mask dehydration. Other signs of mild dehydration include feeling thirsty and having concentrated urine.

The Mayo Clinic suggests men need 15.5 cups of fluids per day. Women, on the other hand, need around 11.5 cups to stay hydrated. You may need more than this basic amount depending on your activity level and other factors, like breastfeeding.

You don’t have to always drink water either. Sip milk, pure fruit juice, and herbal teas. Foods with high water weights are also good choices, like watermelon and spinach.

10. Find support

Reach out to a friend, especially if you tend to overeat when you’re alone. Chatting with a friend or family member on the phone or just hanging out can lift your mood and keep you from eating for comfort or out of boredom.

You may also consider attending your local Overeaters Anonymous (OA) group, which offers support specific to compulsive overeating. At OA you discuss your struggles and work to find solutions through a 12-step program.

When to see a doctor

Lifestyle changes may help you get a control over your overeating before it becomes a bigger issue.

While overeating from time to time may be nothing to worry about, frequently filling up when you’re not hungry or eating to the point of being uncomfortably full may be a sign of binge-eating disorder (BED).

Ask yourself:

  • Do I eat large amounts of food over a certain period of time, like an hour?
  • Do I feel my eating is out of control?
  • Do I eat in secret or feel shame or other negative emotions about my eating?
  • Do I diet often but not lose weight?

If you answer yes to these questions, you may want to make an appointment with your doctor. Left untreated, BED can last for months or years and is associated with other issues, like depression.

Compulsive eating can also lead to obesity. People who are obese are at increased risk of a whole range of health issues, including high blood pressure, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, degenerative arthritis, and stroke.

Again, talking to your doctor about your overeating is a great first step in making healthy, lasting changes to your lifestyle.