How do you stop unhealthy eating habits?

You grow progressively more ravenous as mealtimes approach, no matter when you last ate. For you, the solution to the puzzle of obesity may lie in changing how you eat rather than what you eat. You have to learn to recognize what makes you feel hungry when you are really well fed – and to do this you need to keep a logbook.

The Mayo Clinic suggests that you make this private journal as detailed as possible, recording not only what you ate, when you ate it, and how long it took you to eat it, but what sort of mood you were in. You may find you stay faithful to a balanced, low-calorie diet all day, only to spoil things with a 1000-calorie bedtime snack.

Writing it all down will help, but usually small but significant changes in eating habits are needed. Changes might include any of the following recommendations:

1. Shop only from a prepared list

Follow the principles of good nutrition on pages 54 to 56 when you make your list, and stick to it strictly in the shop.

2. Shop only after eating

It is easier to resist the pastries on a full stomach – also the pork chops on “special” and the sausage samples being handed out.

3. Shop first for fruit and vegetables

A full shopping cart, like a full stomach, discourages impulse-buying. As the cart fills and the cost mounts, the desire to add purchases declines.

4. Keep a boring refrigerator

Nothing encourages proper eating – and discourages late-night snacking – like an array of fruits and vegetables, cottage cheese and yogurt, sugar-free soft drinks and unsweetened iced tea. Discourage your gourmand’s eye for the pleasing leftover, by storing all foods in opaque plastic containers. If this is not enough, take the fridge light out.

5. Snack-proof your shelves

If you must buy snack foods like potato crisps – and you ought to ask yourself whether you are really doing it just for guests – then transfer them immediately to any container that will hide them. Store them on the highest shelf, so it takes an effort to get at them. Making the effort will make you feel guilty, and when you feel guilty enough you will stop making the effort.

6. Never skip meals

Most dieters who fast at lunchtime, making a virtue of abstemiousness during office hours, make up for missed calories later in the day. The same applies to skipped breakfasts.

7. Try to do nothing but eat when you eat

If you read, or watch TV or prepare food while you are eating, you will fail to notice how much you are eating.

8. Eat from a small plate, drink from a small glass

Small portions seem even skimpier when they sit in isolation on a large dinner plate. Extra greens – two sprigs of parsley, a lettuce leaf, an additional tablespoon of vegetables – help to fill up a plate, as does a lemon or tomato wedge. A full plate, though small, will make you feel you have plenty to eat.

9. Chew thoroughly

Never gulp your food. The aim is a fuller appreciation of what you are eating. The brain’s glucostat – which tells you when you have eaten enough – lags behind actual consumption, so it may take a full hour to record the impact of a recent meal. Few people spend as much as an hour on a meal any more, so eating often outstrips hunger. Extend a meal when possible.

10. Deliberately set your fork down between every other bite

This is another means of protracting any meal, for the same reason as above.

11. Come to the table last and leave last

If nothing else works, you may find it effective to give the other members of your family a head start. Many over-eaters are also rapid eaters.

12. Don’t carve or serve dishes at the dining table

“Seconds” are much easier to resist if they are not sitting directly in front of you.

13. Make changes slowly

If you are used to a bologna-sausage sandwich on white bread with mayonnaise at lunchtime, you will find it hard to abandon it outright. But it is easy by degrees – first halving the mayonnaise, then using lower-calorie fillings, then wholemeal bread instead of white.

14. Spoil any food that tempts you too strongly

One young man with a passion for instant mashed potatoes cured himself of his self-styled “addiction” by doctoring each batch with blue or green food coloring. It lost its appeal.

15. Drink water when you are angry

No external stimulus is as threatening to the serious dieter as anger. People have very different responses to sadness or elation, ranging from uncontrolled gluttony to refusal to eat, but most of us respond to irritation by overeating. The response that is calorie-free is water.

16. Put even the tiniest snack on a plate before you eat it

Total calories do count, but the ones that seldom get counted are those consumed piecemeal, on the run. The most insidious kind of nibbling is taking any snack food – nuts, potato chips, chocolates – from its packet piece by piece.

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