A staggering 63 percent of Americans are overweight. The most common cause? We eat more food than we need—and we're all guilty of doing it: mindlessly munching on a bag of pretzels during a reality TV marathon or treating ourselves to a second helping when the first was plenty. But boredom and indulgence aside, why else are we reaching for a snack when we should feel full? Some of it can be blamed on habit, while other triggers have more to do with our body's hunger signals. Check out the list below to find out the most common overeating pitfalls and simple solutions for avoiding these traps.
1. You didn't get enough sleep last night.
Lack of rest stimulates two faux hunger triggers: energy deficiency, to which our natural reaction is to nourish our bodies, and appetite hormone confusion. "When our bodies are drained, levels of leptin—a hormone produced by our fat cells that controls our appetite—decrease, while levels of gherlin—a hormone produced by our stomach that stimulates our appetite—increase," explains American Dietetic Association spokeswoman Karen Ansel, RD. That's two hormones working against you. "Getting eight hours of sleep a night is the easiest thing you can do to prevent overeating." If you do fall short on zzz's, be sure to load up on nourishing, naturally energizing foods—such as fresh fruit, complex carbohydrates and lean proteins—throughout the day to help your body feel satisfied.
2. You're taking medication that causes hunger as a side effect.
If you felt ravenous the last time you were taking an antibiotic to tame an allergic reaction, joint inflammation, acne or a bad cold, the medicine may be to blame. "Medication that contains mild steroids, like prednisone, a corticosteroid, ramp up hunger big time," says Milton Stokes, RD, owner of One Source Nutrition, LLC. "If you've already eaten a normal-size meal, ignore the drug-inflated hunger," says Stokes. Instead, try an oral fix like chewing gum, sipping warm coffee or brushing your teeth, he suggests. If you're on long-term steroid therapy, consult a dietitian to devise an eating plan that will help you feel more satisfied throughout the treatment.
3. You're thirsty or dehydrated.
The symptoms of dehydration (sleepiness, low energy) closely mimic those of being overly hungry, which may lead you to think you need food to increase your energy level, explains Sandon. When you're thirsty, your mouth becomes dry, a symptom that eating will temporarily relieve, notes Sandon. She suggests drinking a tall glass of water or cup of herbal tea before eating and waiting for your body's hunger signals to adjust (about 10 minutes). "Doing so could save hundreds of calories."
4. It's "mealtime."
As creatures of habit, we tend to eat on autopilot. While some regularity is encouraged so that you don't become overly hungry, which could lead to bingeing, it's also important to listen to hunger signals, says Ansel. "Next time you sit down to eat, ask yourself: 'Am I really hungry?' If the answer is 'no,' either eat a smaller portion or put off the meal for an hour—though no longer than that," suggests Ansel. This also applies to situations you associate with eating, like flying. "We've been conditioned to associate an airplane ride with eating," Ansel says. The solution: "Pay attention to timing," recommends Lona Sandon, MEd, RD, assistant professor of nutrition at University of Texas Southwestern. "Know how long the flight is and plan satisfying meals around it." Also, take advantage of the free (hydrating) beverages, she adds, as the enclosed space leads to hunger-causing dehydration.
5. You just worked out.
We are conditioned to feed ourselves after exercising. And, after a particularly strenuous exercise session like a spinning class or interval-training workout, we tend to feel ravenous. But that doesn't mean your body needs extra calories. "It means your body needs a specific kind of nourishment," says Marissa Lippert, RD, a nutrition consultant and dietitian in New York City. Opt for roasted chicken or other lean meats (protein will replenish your muscles) and brown rice or other whole grains (complex carbohydrates take a while to break down) to help your body recover faster and fend off hunger longer.
6. Not enough time has passed since you finished your meal.
You've just eaten lunch only to wonder: "Why am I still hungry?" Before you assume you didn't eat enough, consider that maybe you ate too quickly. "Appetite hormones need time to tell your brain you're full," explains Sandon. To prevent post-meal hunger pangs, keep these pointers in mind: Eat slowly, putting down your fork between bites; choose flavorful and satisfying foods; and include a combination of fat, protein and carbohydrates in every meal. If you're still hungry, try sucking on a mint to ward off your cravings.
7. The women around you are eating.
A joint study out of Duke University and Arizona State University found that women tend to mirror other women's eating habits. "When one overdoes it, the rest often follow along," Ansel confirms. To avoid this copycat effect, Lippert suggests taking a quick minute to reassess your own eating habits—or, if all else fails, grabbing a pal and evacuating the scene of the food. A more permanent fix? Be the one who sets a healthy example for your girlfriends to follow. Their waistlines will thank you! "Just as obesity is contagious, so are healthy habits," says Dawn Jackson Blatner, author of The Flexitarian Diet.
8. You've been drinking alcohol.
It's long been suspected that alcohol contributes to an increased appetite. Though the underlying mechanisms are unknown, a common hypothesis is that it makes food more palatable. What we do know is that alcohol decreases our defenses, which is detrimental to those who restrict their eating, explains Jackson Blatner. Furthermore, "People expect that alcohol will make them eat more, which leads them to unabashedly do so," Sandon adds. The solution? Eat before you order that glass of wine, beer or cocktail. To prevent overeating the next day, especially after a night of heavy drinking, be sure to drink plenty of water to replenish your dehydrated body.
9. You smell or see food.
"We tend to eat with our senses more than our stomachs," says Ansel. When we smell or see food—even if it's in a photo, advertisement or TV show—our mouths water, which stimulates our appetite. Onset factors can include smelling a batch of cupcakes baking, seeing snack food laid out on the counter or watching a cooking show. The clear-cut solution: "Out of sight, out of mind." Leave the room, hide the candy jar, turn off the TV—and the craving to eat will likely subside, says Ansel.
10. You're stressed out.
"Studies show that when people recognize they're stressed, they are more likely to turn to high-fat, salty or sugary foods," says Sandon. "These foods both are comforting and feel good in the mouth," she adds. But it's not all about emotional eating. Sandon notes that your body's chemical reaction to stress could also cause hunger pangs. "Increased levels of the stress hormones cortisol and insulin may be associated with triggering appetite." Either way, appetite control boils down to decision-making.