How to Stop Overeating in Seconds

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paleo, paleo diet, self control, lizard brain, success strategy

The end of your delicious meal is nigh…

You get to the final bite and are suddenly overwhelmed with a feeling of loss. You don’t want the meal to end, you don’t want to restrict yourself, you don’t want the good feeling to be over.

So you react. And in an instant.

Pow!

You get up and go for seconds. You’re overeating but can’t stop yourself even though you have a small voice telling you this isn’t a good idea. You add more food to your plate and, in for a penny, in for a pound, most likely too much.

And you go back to eating food you don’t really need, food you don’t now really want, food that doesn’t taste as good as you thought, especially when served with sauce of guilt.
 
Does this sound familiar?

Do you ever find your brain sliced in two by a sudden thought that spears it, takes it over, and leaves all your good intentions in crumbs around your plate?

What is going on?

What is happening here is that your lizard brain is taking over. Your lizard brain is the part that keeps you alive.

Its job is to react to threats. To jump into action whenever it perceives you’re in danger.

Whenever you have negative thoughts and feelings, it goes on high alert. It has been honed over millions of years of evolution and your being here, reading this right now, is testimony to its power and strength.

If you’re a fan of Seth Godin, you’ll be familiar with the lizard brain. He talks a lot about it. He says,

“The lizard brain only wants to eat and be safe…The lizard brain is not merely a concept. It’s real, and it’s living on the top of your spine, fighting for your survival. But, of course, survival and success are not the same thing.

The lizard brain is the reason you’re afraid, the reason you don’t do all the art you can, the reason you don’t ship when you can. The lizard brain is the source of the resistance.”

The balancing arm

But in addition to our reactive lizard brain, we have a rational “professor” brain, too. One that is proactive – thinks ahead, makes plans, builds in contingencies, and follows through. 

This is the one that lets us assess things, see situations for what they really are, allowing us to delay gratification and persist at difficult tasks.

A huge body of research has amounted showing that successful people consistently use the pre-frontal cortex that houses these brain functions more than those who are less successful.

But whenever the reactive and rational parts of the brain conflict, the reactive brain nearly always wins out because it is so powerful. Like I said, its role is  to protect us and ensure our survival.

And we find ourselves reaching for the third and fourth cookie…

Wonky perception

The problem is that we perceive non-emergencies wrongly.  We are directed to eat more because our brain believes our next meal is uncertain. Our lizard brain jumps in to direct us to behave in ways that are inappropriate in context. 

A trip down the bargain chocolate aisle the day after Halloween is sheer delight to the lizard brain: it represents the opportunity to hoard energy-sustaining emotional emollients while they are freely available and with little resource expenditure. No wonder you feel so high!

Lack of willpower is not the problem

You will not die, or even go hungry, if you refuse seconds. Your survival is not under threat if you experience some discomfort, loss, or grief. 

You are unlikely to lose the support of the tribe (so essential to survival in the past) and even if you do there are plenty of other tribes who will accept you. It is not a zero sum game. 

You are likely, however, to miss your goals and feel bad about your lack of willpower. But your willpower isn’t the problem; your ancient brain hasn’t caught up-to-date with the modern world and sadly, it will win out over willpower every time.

Simple, but effective

This is a gross simplification of the workings of the brain but it serves to make my point – we want to be using our “professor” brain for the most part, leaving our reactive brain for those times we are genuinely under threat. Times which are, in fact, very few and far between.

Sounds hopeless, right?

We possess an ancient part of our brain that is doing its best to keep us eating, even when we don’t want to, sabotaging our good intentions, and achievement of our goals. We are hosed, surely.

Are we doomed to overeat? Remain overweight?

Well, we might, if we live in a state of high stress, or have a mode of living where we mostly use the reactive part of our brain, responding to situations as they arise, fighting fires and being impulsive.

But we all have the ability to engage the pre-frontal cortex where the other skills such as planning, decision making, risk analysis, goal achievement, and impulse control reside. We must possess these abilities because our survival has also been dependent on the development these skills.

You wouldn’t be here today if your ancestors didn’t have these skills. Which means you have them, too. And calling this part of our brain into action is what we need to manage ourselves, our eating habits and our overall success in life.

So we have the ability to control what we eat, but how do we access the part of the brain that does that especially when we are in the habit of engaging “Gordon The Gecko” on a whim?

Here is one simple strategy.

It’s a technique so simple but so effective and universal, it can change everything for you.

One that will help you stop clicking over to Facebook every time you hit a spot in your work that is a little difficult; that will stop you from watching another episode of “Duck Dynasty” when you could be going to the gym, that stops you going up for seconds instead of sitting, replete, waiting for others to finish their meal….

Write your thought down.

That’s it. Simple, huh?

Writing is a higher thought activity. And by simply writing your thought down, you are switching over and accessing the part of the brain that controls your behavior. Like changing gear.

Just write down on a piece of paper next to you:

“I want seconds.” Or, “I want chocolate.” Or, “I want a cup of coffee.”

Do it every time such a thought pops into your head. You literally become smarter when you do this. :-)

Just completing that simple action will cause you to defer putting your thought into action. Because you’ve switched to accessing a different part of the brain, you’ll start working out if you want to follow this course. Often times you won’t.

You will anticipate, evaluate different options and outcomes, make plans and decisions. And you will realize that, what a moment ago felt like a life-threat, or at least serious danger, is far from it.

It’s all about putting a pause between thought and action. Thinking, planning, evaluating, deciding, following through.

Cheating

You may still decide to follow through with your thought at some point but you will now have made a rational, controlled decision rather than an impulsive one, the type more suited to a life-threatening emergency than lunch with Aunt Alice on a Sunday.

It is the difference between a “cheat” and a planned “cheat”.  One is filled with guilt because we know we are sabotaging our goals while not being in control of our behavior, the other is a meal filled with pleasure and ending with satisfaction.

So next time you are tempted to pile more on your plate, press the pause button by writing your thought down.

But won’t I look weird?

If you are in public, I would still choose to whip out a pen and paper there and then; my eating goals are more important than anyone’s opinion of me.

But if you feel it is inappropriate to do that, imagine yourself writing it down in your head – see the pen, the paper, the letters, your hand as you write it out. 

One final thought…

So many of us use our phones for everything these days and it might be tempting to use them for this. I would urge you to use good old pen and paper for the simple reason that our devices are so successful because there is so much about them that satisfies our reactive brain. A piece of paper doesn’t wield the same power.

So go to it! Gain control over your life with a simple sentence! It is tremendously easy when you know how. :-)

Do you have any tips for controlling overeating? Please share in the comments because, with the holidays coming up, many of us would benefit from them!

Share this tip with your friends because I guarantee many of them face the same problems.

Written by 

Alison Golden writes on the topic of paleo over at Paleo/NonPaleo. She aims to share ideas, inspire and motivate readers by teaching them how to live paleo in a non-paleo world. She is also the author of the bestselling book, The Modern, No-Nonsense Guide to Paleo, a unique tool that gives the reader hundreds of strategies to navigate the learning process to successful paleo living.

{ 26 comments… read them below or add one }

Rina October 22, 2013 at 9:48 am

Really good post. Doesn’t sound like it will stop me but I will give it a try.

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Alison Golden October 23, 2013 at 10:59 am

Keep at it, Rina. It’s like changing gears in a car, if we keep driving in the wrong gear, horrible things happen. Make a shift and this one’s easy, and life becomes a smooth ride.
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D @ The Kosher Cave Girl October 22, 2013 at 9:54 am

You bring up some great points with wonderful tips. Even on the Paleo diet, it’s easy to overeat when you aren’t hungry anymore. I’m going to write down my thoughts now! Maybe it’ll help with my occasional mindless eating!
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Alison Golden October 23, 2013 at 11:00 am

I’m sure it will, D. And you’re right, we can still overeat even if we’re eating healthy.
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Kevin October 22, 2013 at 10:30 am

I enjoyed your article. I think the biggest benefit of writing these thoughts down is that it builds awareness. And awareness – judgement + time = change. I like to tell people that awareness/mindfulness is a snowball, and the more they exercise it, the bigger it gets. At some point, it reaches a tipping point and inspires the change the person has wanted all along.
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Alison Golden October 23, 2013 at 11:05 am

Thanks, Kevin. When I first started working on this (wrote on a pad by my computer where I work all day) it was amazing to see how often I had the same thought over and over. It also helps to notice what prompts those thoughts. As I am a writer, when I would get stuck, often mid-sentence, my mind would seek escape by thinking of doing a bit of food/Facebook/mindless surfing. Writing those thoughts down enabled me to keep going without becoming distracted.
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Lisa February 1, 2014 at 4:22 am

Thanks, Kevin. Love the equation.

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Elinor October 22, 2013 at 11:24 am

I loooooooooooooooooooooove this post. This is so much more than how to stop overeating. So much more. Thank you.

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Alison Golden October 23, 2013 at 11:06 am

Well spotted, Elinor. You are absolutely right. :-)
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Beth@WeightMaven October 22, 2013 at 2:05 pm

Mad props for this post! Like Rina, I’m somewhat skeptical, but I love the idea of tactics to fake out the lizard brain. Maybe it’s one of those “practice makes perfect” kind of things. I also wonder if carrying some kind of game (e.g. on iPod or phone etc) would work in a similar way … basically shift from one focus to another.
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Alison Golden October 23, 2013 at 11:10 am

It’s definitely a good habit to get into, Beth, and that’s where the benefits will really be seen. And as a commenter mentioned above, you can do this for any kind of negative or distracting behavior. Anything that interrupts the reactive brain will work, although as a writer, I like writing. :-)
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justin October 23, 2013 at 8:12 am

Maybe it’s a confidence thing but the whole “won’t I look weird” piece never in came into my head. I’m a writer, a blogger and podcaster. I have to write stuff down all the time so I don’t lose it. If someone asks “what are you writing down?” I say “your bank account #.”

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Alison Golden October 23, 2013 at 11:13 am

As fellow writers it clearly doesn’t bother us to write it in public but for some it would just feel weird. I wanted to give those people another option. I like your response. :-)
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antoinette jackson October 23, 2013 at 8:20 am

I use the same process to focus. I was always multi-tasking and thinking about all of the other things I had to do, simultaneously. To increase my mindfulness, I chose to do one thing at a time, whilst having a pen and paper next to me at all times. When i had thoughts about something else I had to do, I just wrote it down and kept going. Not only do I stay more focussed, but I have a great to-do-list at the end of the first task.
I think that reading your notes at the end of the day, if you use this technique for food, could be useful too. Great article!
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Alison Golden October 23, 2013 at 11:14 am

Yes, I do this all the time too, Antoinette, not just for managing my eating. Re-reading notes is a great idea and probably eye-opening.
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Holly October 23, 2013 at 8:33 am

I do a number of things. Firstly I don’t take seconds at all. I make my plate the first time with my correct portions, and seconds is just not an option. Secondly, if I want seconds and feel compelled to have them anyway, I force myself to rinse and put away my plate in the dishwasher, along with my utensils as routine. Thirdly, I either go brush my teeth or pop a breath strip. A clean mouth is less likely to prompt you to eat more.

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Alison Golden October 23, 2013 at 11:14 am

All great ideas, Holly.
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Zahra October 23, 2013 at 12:02 pm

I don’t get seconds. I just pick at everything while cooking and while cleaning up. I’ll Try writing this down.

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Alison Golden October 24, 2013 at 5:32 pm

Hi Zahra, as I said to another commenter, I keep index cards and sticky notes on my fridge because I do this. I also use the cards to write down success strategies – things that occur to me while I’m prepping food that help me strengthen my eating habits. I discovered that I can bake sweet food in the morning without eating half the batch, yet after noon, it’s another story. Having those cards available helped me write all these insights down as they occurred to me. Small idea but big results. :-)
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Christina October 23, 2013 at 7:19 pm

I really enjoyed this post, but I also feel that it’s going to be hard, if not impossible… I make a LARGE amount of food, mostly for leftovers the next day (lunch is rapidly becoming my favorite meal because of this!) and I have to make starchy food for my boyfriend, who is not Paleo and can eat anything he wants and stays fit. So it’s hard for me to make amazing mac n cheese and not eat any. But I will start writing down when I want that mac n cheese, or the pasta, or the potatoes au gratin and see how it goes :-) Thanks!

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Alison Golden October 24, 2013 at 4:53 pm

Perhaps you can make him food that you can eat too, Christina? Having to cook twice is a lot of work. Keep a stack of sticky notes or index cards on top of your fridge (or in a container stuck on with a magnet on the front of the fridge) and a pen. Pull one out, putting it next to you, as you prepare the food. Write down every time you get the urge to eat it if you have to make non-paleo food. You could also ask him to make his own mac ‘n’ cheese, etc. so you are not tempted. That’s what I did with my husband until he jumped over to paleo.
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Irina October 24, 2013 at 6:07 am

This is great advice but I have another problem that I noticed. When I prepare lunch for the next day I sometimes put too much food in my lunch-box and when I am at work and start eating I don’t stop until I eat it all. In part this is because I don’t want to throw away food but also because I realize too late that I am overeating.

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Yong October 29, 2013 at 9:40 am

I am in the same situation as you are too. And I tend to feel guilty afterwards.

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Alison Golden October 30, 2013 at 8:40 pm

For both of you, I suggest focusing on becoming aware that you are putting too much food into your lunchbox, not on controlling what you eat when you get to work – that is a system designed to fail for many reasons.

If it is a pattern for you, filling your lunchbox every day to your usual level and then simply taking something out will make it a more appropriate portion.

I have “eyes that are too big for my belly” too and I simply cannot throw away food, but I’ve learned that I over-provide for myself and so compensate by consciously removing one or two items each time I pack food for myself or put food on my plate.
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Victoria November 3, 2013 at 3:43 pm

I like this IDEA!!! I was told to use this idea to help with my overactive emotions so that I can look at the situation and think about what the real reason I am feeling a certain way. One thing that I noticed that helps me from over-eating is writing down all my meals for the day or at least writing it down before I eat it. I don’t know why it works for me, but it does. So for breakfast I might right down, egg protein shake, almond milk, and frozen mixed berries, then I make my breakfast. Then I am not tempted to grab my husbands chocolate protein bar. lol

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Alison Golden November 4, 2013 at 5:25 pm

That’s a great idea, Victoria. Thanks for sharing! :-)
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