How to Stop Overeating at Restaurants

For most of us, there’s something about eating out that’s more exciting than eating at home.  Maybe it’s the ambiance, the scents, the sights, the sounds…or maybe it’s just that someone else is doing the dishes.  Whatever it is, that excitement is important.  It triggers our hunger and makes us reluctant to stop eating when we’re full.

It would be sad to lose that excitement for the sake of not overeating.  At least, it would be for me.  Eating out is one of my absolute most favorite things to do.  But I also don’t want to feel bloated and yucky afterwards.  It’s kind of a kill joy, right?

So why does this happen and what can we do about it?

Problem: You don’t want to “waste” food.

Solution:  Let’s remember what food is for: Nourishment and pleasure.  So let’s say you’ve been eating, and you find yourself full, satisfied, and there’s still food leftover.  The food has accomplished its purpose.  Eating more of it will not fix the political systems that keep others from getting the food they deserve.  It will only get you uncomfortably full.  Consider taking home leftovers, giving away leftovers, and next time maybe sharing a dish or ordering less.

Problem: You arrived desperately hungry.

Solution:  Maybe you did it on purpose.  You knew you’d be eating out later, so you didn’t eat much beforehand, to try to make up for the overeating you’d do later.  Or maybe it was accidental.  You didn’t plan your day such that you’d get adequately fed.  In either case, when you arrive at a restaurant (or any meal) extremely hungry, you’ve triggered a series of chemical reactions in your body that will now drive you to overeat.  Your poor body was afraid you might starve and is doing its best to stop that from happening.  Of course, the solution is to make sure you feed your hungers consistently and compassionately, but while you’re working on that, you might still find yourself in this position.  If you have a chance to eat a small snack before going to the restaurant, take it.  If you’re already at the restaurant, consider starting with an appetizer, soup, salad, and plenty of water (if they appeal to you.)  Once you get your main course, breathe, and stay mindful.  Eat at a moderate pace, and check in with your body for fullness signals.  Don’t be surprised if you eat more than usual, or need another snack before bed.  Your body wants to make up for your earlier undereating, and you should (mindfully) let it.

Problem: Everyone else is doing it.

Solution:  Eating is often a social event, so it’s no surprise that we’re influenced by those around us.  You might be mindlessly matching another’s pace, or you might be doing it on purpose in order to fit in.  Or maybe you’re eating with a food pusher who wants you to eat more or eat differently.  Regardless of the cause, the solution is the same: Boundaries.  Ask yourself, “What do I want to eat right now?  What would feel best for me?”  If your dining companions truly care about you, they’ll understand that you need to eat to meet your needs, not theirs.

Problem: Its just tastes so good!

Solution: It’s easy not to overeat something that doesn’t taste good, or that you’re bored with.  It’s much harder with something delicious, especially if you fear you won’t get to have it again soon.  To begin, fully embrace the pleasure of eating your meal, let yourself enjoy it freely, and let go of any guilt or “shoulding” that comes up.  Tune into your physical, mental, and emotional responses.  If you are paying attention you will notice that satisfaction has a peak.  After you reach that peak, the amount of pleasure you receive from continuing to eat begins to go down.  Watch carefully for the point at which the displeasure of overfullness becomes greater than the pleasure of tasting your food.

This is really tricky for those of us who fear the ending of good times.  We can become like drug addicts, craving the next hit once we notice that we are beginning to come down.  But the next hit (or next bite) never gives us the same pleasure we had at the peak of satisfaction.  By chasing that unreachable peak, we end up causing ourselves more misery than the gentle let down we might have felt if we had let ourselves experience the natural ending of a wonderful experience.

Every meal has an ending.  We can choose to end it feeling comfortably full, or we can choose to end it feeling overstuffed.  Sometimes feeling a little stuffed might be worth the pleasure of tasting the food a little longer, but often, if we’re really present with ourselves and our experience, it isn’t.  Stay curious about your experiences dining out, rather than being judgmental, and you’ll get a solid grasp on what works best for you.  With that information, you’ll be empowered to make choices that leave you feeling good long after your meal.

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