Exactly What to Do When You Overeat, According to Nutritionists
How to move on and get back on track ASAP—no food shame required.
If you've ever had one too many slices of pizza, two too many tacos, or *a few* too many cookies, you know what it feels like to overeat. To make matters worse, that uncomfortable, too-full feeling is often accompanied by less-than-ideal emotions like guilt and sometimes even shame.
The good news? Lots of people overeat, and there are *tons* of ways to deal with it in a healthy way, both directly after it happens and in the following days to prevent it from happening again. Here's what nutrition experts have to say.
Why We Overeat
The reason overeating has become so common makes a lot of sense when you think about it. "Every single day we are faced with opportunities to overeat," says Emily Field, a registered dietitian. "We live in an age where hyper-palatable food is highly available for cheap." Think: cookies, cakes, french fries, pizza, ice cream... and the list goes on. While there's nothing wrong with eating those foods on occasion, the temptation to eat 'em all day every day is real. "We're constantly inundated with images of delicious food from social media feeds to mainstream media that make our brains light up like fireworks," Field points out. "I would argue many of us overeat in some capacity, whether that's overeating our calorie needs or simply overeating our stomach's capacity, a few times each month or more." (Related: How Bad Is Occasional Binge Eating?)
How to Deal If You Overeat
Sound familiar? Luckily, there are lots of actions you can take to feel better ASAP, plus some important things to avoid.
1. Don't: Fast or skip your next meal.
Lots of people are tempted to skip their next meal or even fast for a longer period of time after overeating. "Fasting shouldn't be an option," says Chelsey Amer, a virtual private practice dietitian. "Our bodies require energy from food to survive." Plus, skipping a meal or fasting can actually have the opposite of the intended effect and can even lead to bingeing, a more extreme form of overeating. "When we restrict what we eat, it sets us up to overindulge and possibly binge more," Amer says.
Do: Make your next meal healthy and satisfying.
"Eat normally," Amer recommends. "Eat what you want when you're hungry and stop when you're full. Following your hunger and satiety signals isn't always easy (especially in the beginning), but it's key to maintaining your happy weight." Of course, you don't need to force yourself to eat a meal if you're not hungry yet, but you shouldn't feel like you have to skip out on your next regular mealtime.
2. Don't: Exercise really hard to "make up for it."
"Don't feel you have to burn the calories off immediately by doing a high-impact cardio routine or 100 jumping jacks followed by 50 push-ups," says Lauren O'Connor, a registered dietitian and yoga instructor. "It will just make you feel worse and likely make you sick to your stomach if you aren't already." (See also: What It Feels Like to Have Exercise Bulimia)
Do: Take a walk.
Though intense exercise is a no-go, something lighter is actually a great idea. "In the few hours that follow overeating, it might be beneficial to get out for a walk if you have the chance," Field says. "Not only is being in nature proven to brighten your mood and lower your stress levels, but a 10-minute walk is just enough to get food moving along the digestive tract." (FYI, here's what might happen if you walk 30 minutes a day.)
3. Don't: Try to "detox."
No juice cleanses need apply. Detoxing implies that you've exposed your body to "toxins," Field says. "Unless you've downed a bottle of arsenic, your body is fully capable of handling much of what you throw at it, or rather, in it. Overeating at one meal or even across an entire day does not warrant the need to restrict your food intake in the days that follow." So resist the urge to "punish" yourself or "make up" for what you've done by intentionally undereating or by trying an unsafe "detox."
Do: Drink (a reasonable amount of) water.
"Sipping on water may help flush out some of the sodium you've consumed," says Kristen Smith, a registered dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. But it's important not to overdo it, as it might make you feel even more full. "Stick with four to eight ounces after a large meal," Smith advises. "Then, aim to stay hydrated for the rest of the day."
4. Don't: Say "screw it!"
"The most common mistake I see people make with regard to overeating is developing a throw-your-hands-in-the-air attitude after they indulge," Field says. "I often see cheat meals, for example, turn into cheat days and even cheat weeks. All of a sudden, someone is completely derailed from the healthy, consistent habits they were engaging in."
Do: Think about your next meal.
"It may seem counterintuitive, but you should strategize the healthy and balanced meal you will have next," says Heather Seid, R.D., a registered dietitian and clinical nutrition manager at Lenox Hill Hospital. That way, you can get back on track ASAP. "If you overeat at brunch, think about what your dinner will look like," she says. "Consider pairing a lean protein with a fiber-rich vegetable such as a salad topped with salmon or spaghetti squash with turkey meat sauce."
How to Prevent Overeating
Knowing how to deal with overeating after the fact is great, but knowing how to stop it before it happens is even better. While you might overeat on purpose sometimes (on your birthday, at a party, or at an amazing restaurant), here's how to avoid it when you really don't want to eat more than you need.
1. Don't: Label foods as good vs. bad.
"The most common mistake I see in my clients is that they see eating as black and white," O'Connor says. "There is often guilt when they overeat, and this shame often results in a poor relationship with food. They find themselves on a constant diet roller coaster, losing and regaining weight." When you perceive a food as "bad for you," she says, it can become a restriction, and restrictions can eventually give way to going overboard. (Here's more info on how food labels can be bad for your diet and body image.)
Do: Remember that there's room for indulgences in a healthy diet.
"The more you work to shift your mindset from a dieting mindset to an 'all foods fit' mindset, the easier it will be to break the cycle of overeating and restricting," Amer says. Instead of labeling something indulgent as "bad," try to just focus on enjoying it. Then, the temptation to eat more than you really need becomes less intense.
2. Don't: Undereat during the day.
"Undereating throughout the day, whether done intentionally or not, sets you up to be ravenously hungry by the end of the day," Field explains. This is a recipe for overeating at night, which is when many people tend to overeat.
Do: Spread your food intake out.
"I recommend eating enough real, whole foods with balanced macronutrients (protein, fat, and carbohydrates) at each meal, which keeps you full and satisfied for far longer," Field says. Doing this can help prevent that 'I want to eat everything in sight' feeling. "Let's say you need 1,800 calories for the whole day. Divide that by three meals per day. That's 600 calories per meal. If you're eating mixed-macro meals that total 600 calories, I guarantee you'll prevent that tired, hangry, lack-of-control feeling," Field says. Of course, you also have the option to divvy up some of those calories for snacks if you'd prefer that-as long as you're sticking with the idea of spacing out your food intake throughout the day.
3. Don't: Suffer in silence if you're struggling.
So many people have issues with overeating, and there are lots of ways to get help if you feel like you can't get it under control on your own. "Overeating is common and can simply be a product of your emotions, circumstances, or environment-and that's totally okay," Field says. It can be harder for some than it is for others so if that's you, Field encourages reaching out to a professional to work through those feelings.
Do: Understand your triggers.
Seeing a dietitian or therapist can certainly help you do this, but you can also do a little detective work to figure them out on your own through food journaling, meditation, and mindful eating. (BTW, here's how to make mindful eating a regular part of your diet if you're new to it.) "Using food to mask different emotions is never the answer, so if you're reaching for food out of boredom, loneliness, frustration or stress: explore that," Field suggests. "Work to resolve the uncomfortable root emotion without food."