Do you shovel snacks into your mouth while at the computer, barely noticing the taste—or amount—of the food you're eating? Do you still believe it's a crime not to finish everything on your plate? Habits that make it impossible to take off those extra pounds may be so ingrained you aren't even conscious of them. The good news: Experts say you can teach an old dog new tricks—and that learning to break these old patterns and substitute better ones is a key ingredient to a successful diet. Even better news: In time, these healthy routines will become such a part of your life, they will be second nature. That means not only that you can lose the weight but that you can keep it off, too. Below, nine psychologists' tips for training yourself to avoid overindulging.
1) Less is more.
"If you eat less often, it will become a smaller issue in your life," says James Rosen, Ph.D., professor of psychology and director of University of Vermont's Weight Control Program. "Contrary to popular belief, 'grazing,' or eating several small meals and snacks throughout the day, isn't a good way to lose weight for people with self-control issues. The more often you eat, the more you expect food is going to be available and the more you think that it's okay to eat whenever and wherever you feel like it. So, decide on your eating times—not more than three or four times a day—and don't eat in between, no matter the size of the snack."
2) Declare a No-Food Zone.
"Decide on the eating places in your house—just your dining room table, for example—and declare other places No Food Zones," says Rosen. If you have a habit of eating in your car, in front of the television, or while you're at the computer, make those No Food Zones—even for healthy snacks. If you train yourself to eat only in very specific situations, you will learn to control food cravings outside of normal meal times."
3) Remember: Location, Location, Location.
"Make sure that you eat your meals in one certain place," recommends Robert Jamison, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and an associate professor in anesthesia and psychiatry at Harvard Medical school. "When you have a craving, tell yourself you can have whatever you want, but you have to eat it in an unusual place—like the bathroom or garage—that doesn't have familiar environmental cues like the couch in the TV room." So, if you really want that hot fudge sundae go ahead and eat it, but eat it in the garage," says Jamison. It won't be as much fun, so you might stop and think about whether you're eating it because you're hungry, because of a craving, because you had a long day and you think you deserve it, or because you're watching your favorite show. The more conscious you are of what you are doing, the more chance that you'll make changes."
4) Make rules and stick to them.
"To avoid calories, you can simply establish a rule for yourself: Never eat anything unless you bought it or asked for it," explains Jamison. "That way, you won't have to torture yourself every time someone brings cupcakes to work." Not to mention birthday parties, goodbye parties, Valentine's Day, Girl Scout cookie season, Halloween...
5) Eat dessert first.
Do you always vow to skip dessert but end up ordering it anyway once the waiter brings the dessert menu? Judith S. Stern, Sc.D., professor of nutrition and internal medicine at University of California and vice president of the American Obesity Association, says, "If you are going to eat dessert, eat it first." Why? "Because of what is called the Thanksgiving Dinner Effect. You're stuffed and can't eat another bite—certainly not of turkey—but then dessert comes, and of course you can find room for a piece of pumpkin pie. So don't try to avoid the inevitable. Eat dessert and order less for the rest of your meal. You might get some stares, but so what?"
6) Exercise before dinner.
"Exercising temporarily decreases your appetite, so if you want to avoid overeating, work out before a meal," says James O. Prochaska, Ph.D., a clinical and health psychologist, author of Changing for Good, and the director of the Cancer Prevention Research Center at the University of Rhode Island. "One of the reasons weight loss is so tough is that it's not dependent on a single behavior, it's about how much we eat and how many calories we burn up. The most common mistake people make is trying to simply reduce calories without exercising."
7) You've got your whole meal in your hand.
"If you want to lose weight, the most important element is not what you eat—it's how much you eat," says George L. Blackburn, M.D., Ph.D., associate director of the Division of Nutrition at Harvard Medical School. "People don't realize the volume of food they're eating and the speed at which they're eating it. To figure out how much you should be eating, put your hand over your plate and see how many palm- or fistfuls of food you have on it. A serving size of meat, fish, or poultry is about the size of the palm of your hand; your closed fist is the volume of one cup of pasta or rice. Don't forget that you have your measuring device with you everywhere you go. Also make sure at least twenty minutes passes between the start and end of a meal—even if you have to get up and leave the table somewhere in between first and last bite."
8) Eat mindfully.
"Another source of people overeating is the hectic pace of life that afflicts virtually everyone," says Michael Lowe, Ph.D., professor of clinical and health psychology at MCP Hahnemann University in Philadelphia. "We get geared up, and eating becomes an afterthought; we simply grab things to eat along the way. So set aside half an hour of calm, relaxed, focused eating for each meal. Mindful eating—when you're aware of what you're choosing to eat and how much you are eating and when you are starting to feel full—is difficult when you're grabbing what you can find and gobbling it in front of the television before running out the door to a meeting."
9) Stay positive.
"Analyze how you're eating and exercising, but take a benevolent and accepting attitude," says Dan Kirschenbaum, Ph.D., director of the Center for Behavioral Medicine in Chicago and a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern University. "Don't be moralistic. When you eat a piece of chocolate cake, don't think of it as 'cheating.' Instead, focus on staying positive, and see your overeating as a problem to be solved, not as a moral transgression. Eating is your normal response to stimuli; it is tough to break established patterns and keep resisting it all the time. Keep fighting the good fight, don't give up, be proud of any progress you've made."