I’ll never forget this guy I had in one of my groups a few years ago.  Let’s call him Tom. Two months into the program he was doing very well, having completely transformed his diet, dumped his junk food habits, no more ice cream every night, embraced exercise, and hit his target weight loss goal every week.  And then came the confession: “I think I have a Cheerios problem.”  At night instead of chips or ice cream, he made the healthy choice and ate Cheerios.  Not 1, not 2, but 3 bowls of Cheerios.  “I can’t stop at one,” he explained.  “They are just soooo good.”   One woman in the group looked over at him horrified, “Who eats 3 bowls of CHEERIOS !?”  (Clearly she was still in the ice cream stage of overeating). Tom had gone from an unhealthy food overeater to a healthy food overeater.  Even though he was losing weight, he still had a problem with appetite and portion control.  If you have been working on your diet for a long time, you kicked your ice cream habit in 1998, you think Doritos are disgusting, you wouldn’t eat a donut if someone put a gun to your head, BUT you might be found scarfing down too many slices of natural peanut butter on high fiber reduced calorie whole wheat bread (who me?!), this might be you.   What to do!?

1.  Congrats for Dumping the Junk!  First of all, congratulate yourself for transforming your diet so much that healthy foods are now your temptation foods!  Overeating unhealthy food is certainly worse than overeating healthy food, however overeating period is still not a good thing and this tendency can eventually derail your progress. Your appetite is still a bit out of control and we need to drill down to figure out why.

2.  Stack The Deck In Your Favor. The key really is to get the foods you overeat off the grocery list (regardless of how healthy they sound) and replace them with foods that you do NOT have a tendency to overeat. This takes some experimentation. For Tom, I might have him try a few other cereals that he likes but doesn’t feel the urge to go beyond one bowl.  I can’t emphasize enough the importance of keeping temptation foods off that grocery list and out of the home.

3.   Volumetrics.  You might feel that you will overeat nearly anything put in front of you and if that is the case then consider the Volumetrics approach.  Developed by a fantastic appetite researcher, Dr. Barbara Rolls, Volumetrics involves consuming foods that are high in volume but low in calories. Fruit and vegetables are great examples.  You can consume a great deal without consuming a great deal of calories.  Dr. Rolls has tons of strategies and recipes in her book for people who like to eat large amounts but don’t want to pay for it in calories.

4.  Be Predictable.  The thing about habits is that they are pretty predictable if you begin to pay attention to the patterns. Find out when you are most likely to do this— what day?  What time of day?  Jot this down in your diet journal and then look at the patterns over a week.  Once you know when it happens you can make a plan to make sure temptations aren’t around and/or interrupt the habit.  For example, Tom does this at night, so maybe he can make a deal with his wife that she help him stick to one portion.

5.  Work It Out.  One time we never snack is while exercising.  Once you figure out when the out-of-control snacking occurs, consider placing a workout in that time slot instead.  This is one way to get a much bigger bang for your buck out of exercise.  For example, I find that by exercising in the afternoon I eliminate a good hour in which I might snack. This is not the case when I exercise first thing in the morning because I never snack in the morning.

6.  Change Up.  The time of the day you overeat might not be a time you can exercise though, in which case it might be helpful to do something different at that time, anything at all.  Eating habits get tied to routines, and then the routine itself may end up prompting the habit, which over time might make it very difficult to do the routine and NOT eat.  For example, if you overeat while watching TV you might find that just by doing something other than TV you will not have the urge to snack as much.

7.  Emotional eating.  When we think about emotional eating we often think of comfort foods, not Cheerios.  However, as your diet gets healthier over time, your tastes change.  You find yourself letting go of old comfort foods and adopting new ones.  Cheerios might be Tom’s new comfort food.  Weight loss is not simply about food choice, it is about understanding why we eat.  If you think this might be a case of emotional eating, check out this post on overcoming emotional eating.

8. Healthy= OK!.  One of the dangers of “healthier” type foods is that we might give ourselves permission to overeat them because they are healthy.  When eating Haagen Dazs ice cream you might be very careful about portion control, but then when the Edy’s Slow Churn Low-Fat ice cream comes out you figure it is safe to have 2-3 bowls because it’s “healthier.”  At the end of the day though, you have consumed more calories.  Be very careful of this trap.  If you have a tendency to do this, you might actually do better off eating the smaller portion of the richer version.

9.  Trying To Get Your Fix.  Research shows that smokers given “light” cigarettes will unknowingly inhale more deeply and end up getting the same amount of nicotine as regular cigarettes.  I wonder if this happens with food too. Maybe it is the case that Tom needed 3 bowls of Cheerios to get that sugar fix he used to get with the cookies and ice cream.  Sugar, salt, and fat may create addictive like patterns where your body yearns for a certain amount and will propel you to get it even from healthy foods.  See this post for more on food addiction.

Have you gone a little overboard on healthy food?  Let’s hear about it!

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  1. Colleen says:

    I can totally relate to Tom.

    I find myself doing the same exact thing. I over eat when stressed and I think its ok because it is healthy food but it is still not ok. I am still working on over coming that obstacle, and it is an every day battle but it is still better than the alternatives, being unhealthy completely.

    I like the tips you put in here. You are right finding ways to avoid the over eating and changing routines is helpful. I found I was snacking at night while trying to stay up late and finish homework. So I moved my homework upstairs to my room where I am far enough away from the kitchen and the temptation to snack. It helps.

  2. Vada says:

    I am definitely a healthy food overeater – eating waaaay too much fruit for my own good!

    • Sammie says:

      I hear you!!! We’re currently in a blizzard and I’m soo happy I don’t keep junk in the house because I’ve been stuffing my face!!! I can’t get enough of fruits and veggies, but my guilty pleasure is almond butter! Ugh why is a serving only 2 tbsp but 190cal! Lol

  3. B says:

    Id love more on this topic. Battling with over eating for years, I’ve now got it down to only over eating vegetables, but the behavior is sti there and my obsession with pumpkin and carrot is turning me orange!! Its time for me to stop. However thee is little on the subject of healthy overeating, and I also have diet restrictions, so not focussing on what I eat and practicing intuitive eating is not really an option for me. Would love to learn more about this.

  4. nay says:

    Holy crap! This is me! People are always shocked that I know so much about nutrition and exercise as I am still overweight (due to hormone imbalances and healthy overeating) been looking for help! Glad to know I’m not alone

    • Marian says:

      @Nay – totally understand. My older sister could consist on one small rather unhealthy meal a day. Being a healthy over eater can cause extra weight. Unfortunately society automatically associates a slimmer figure with health/attractiveness. Regardless of weight, I’d rather over eat on healthy and have 10 extra lbs on weight than eating junk and staying skinny. Junk will catch up with you in the long run!!! Our organs at least are processing a bunch of extra vitamins/minerals with our healthy eating.

  5. John Pagoto says:

    Remember an elephant got that big on a vegan diet.

    • Lucy says:

      I think genetics play quite a large role in that too! Although I’m vegan and a strict wholefood eater, don’t eat anything containing processed ingredients but have gained the most weight I ever have as I over eat on mostly fruit and legumes….

  6. Having healthy foods to eat is always a god practice. This article is great! May you inspire more people to eat healthy foods.

  7. gothchiq says:

    Yeah. I’m female and five three and I have the appetite of a thoroughbred horse. I’ve been trying to fill up on low calorie vegetables before I begin to eat the starches or meat part of the meal. Otherwise I can plow through half a chicken and barely notice. SO FRUSTRATING.

  8. I can relate to this. I hate junk food and could quite happily munch fruit and veg all day. I even scoff uncooked brocoli and asparagus. I scare myself how much i eat and how i can loose control. I stuff myself to the point where i am uncomfortably full. I acknowledge that im uncomfortably full but will then do it all again at the next meal.
    I have found trying to cut down on fruit, having it in the morning, drinking lots of water, miso soup, tea and coffee are the only things that have sort of helped.
    I hope that i can develop more portion control!

  9. richard says:

    I eat nuts & apples & grapes & grapefruits when I get hungry between meals. It works for me.

    I never eat after dinner. I lost 55 pounds in 2 years this way while eating quite a bit. But I almost completely eliminated junk. My only weakness is some white flour, maybe a bagel a day. I’m trying to cut my consumption in half this year.

    I can only speak for myself but my experience is that what you eat is what counts–not how much you eat. As long as you go to sleep a little hungry.

  10. Marian says:

    I do not consider anything on this list when mentioned as “healthy” (Edy’s low fat ice cream?? please!). I overeat on actual healthy food…which usually isnt processed carbs like cheerios, but more like kidney beans over quinoa, or too many sweet potatoes. I know my body cannot handle an average amount of food either. So eatting “average” is over eating for me. My BMI is rather high, due to muscle and a stocky frame. I am short, and so I technically need less food than the “average” person. Ugh, my struggles with controlling my healthy food addiction 🙁 I can just ramble on about this.

  11. Dick Grayson says:

    I dont like eating but love healthy stuff and some unhealthy stuff but definantly not candy (except chocolate) and I hate fat but I always over diet and every year I get skinnier the reason is I got more fun and important stuff to do which are to play clash of clans, boom beach, pokemon, go on the internet, and read DC Comics I think these are more important I know they arent but I am always rushing when eating sometimes I even play clash of clans, boom beach, pokemon, go on the internet, and read DC Comics while I eat causing me too eat less so gotta understand why I always over diet so I can be quicker

  12. hei says:

    I can easily eat 3 cups of cheerios. When I was in my younger years, six bowls down the drain for dinner, and I’d be ready for bed.

  13. Chair says:

    Holy Smokes. This is me! I’ve been doing myfitnesspal for a good year now…it works, but I have major problems controlling my eating when it comes to fruit!! I buy berries from Costco and can sit and down a 1kg container of blueberries in one sitting no problem. Ugh! I had to stop buying cereal like Cheerios because I started sitting there eating them like chips. Ridiculous!! I’m so scared of gaining the weight back, but have such a strong appetite…especially at night after supper. ????

  14. Vince says:

    Completely, 100% relate to this! I work out all the time and am almost always eating very clean foods. However, I presently struggle with eating too much of the clean foods that I view as “OK,” such as peanut butter (sometimes I’ll go through half a jar in a sitting!). I’m young and at a healthy weight, and am in the best shape of my life, but still have a bit more belly fat than I’d like given how healthy the foods I eat are and how often/hard I work out. It seems like I just can’t lose the belly fat that I’ve been working so hard to get rid of no matter how hard I am trying because I can’t kick the habit of overeating these healthy foods! It’s frustrating, but it’s encouraging knowing other people are working through the same problem as I am 🙂 I know I will eventually move past this obstacle!

  15. Andrew says:

    I overeat every fruit and veg you name. I just eat really clean and can’t stand junk food. If I eliminate all my healthy food, I would basically just have water everyday. It’s so hard to stop especially when you are hungry.

    Thanks for the post anyway

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