The holiday season may bring food temptations that feel hard to fight — from classic cocktails to festive fried foods. And because this time of year only lasts a short while, why not splurge, right? Not exactly. Many nutritionists say the influx of holiday parties and social commitments can throw people’s eating and exercise regimens off track for more than just the season. In fact, it can set off a year-long trajectory of overeating.
“People make positive associations between certain foods they always have during the holidays — be it their mom’s stuffing, aunt’s cookies or dad’s roasted turkey,” explains Roger E. Adams, PhD, Houston-based dietitian and founder of eatrightfitness.com. “The problem is that these positive associations limit our ability to listen to satiety signals. That means people are more likely to eat past their fullness cues when they’re focused on traditions they associate with positive times and good feelings.”
What’s more, perhaps the easiest reason people overeat during the holidays is the sheer volume of food in front of them. “The longer you are around large volumes of food, the more likely you are to overeat, even if you’re the most diligent calorie-counter or diet fanatic,” Dr. Adams adds. So it’s important to recognize when you might be overdoing it during cocktail hour or at dinner. Here, we asked top nutrition experts to reveal the biggest signs you’re overeating and how to curb it.
RELATED: 10 Healthy Swaps for Your Favorite Holiday Party Foods
7 Signs You’re Overeating and What to Do About It
1. You finish your food faster than everyone around you.
No matter how good your food tastes or how hungry you feel after gobbling down a hefty serving, take a second to really see how you feel. It takes about 15 to 20 minutes for your stomach to signal the brain that you should stop eating. If you’re eating rather quickly, your chances of overeating increase during this 20-minute message delay, according to Dr. Adams. But, good news: If you’re a fast consumer, a few tricks will help you slow down. Dr. Adams suggests setting your fork or spoon down between each bite, drinking some water, and eating more mindfully. “These strategies help you become more aware of eating and not just eating because the food is there,” he says. “Noticing how the food tastes and smells, for example, will slow eating down by simply raising awareness of each bite.”
RELATED: 9 Simple Tricks to Eat More Mindfully — Starting Now
2. You start to feel tightness around your waist.
Many people think we’re supposed to experience feelings of bloat or a “food baby” after a good meal, but this is a classic sign you went a little overboard. “Your stomach will naturally protrude slightly after eating any sort of meal. But if it’s to the point where you have to unbutton your pants, you’re obviously overdoing it,” says Dr. Adams. Skip the sweats and stretch pants, and opt for regularly fitting clothes that aren’t too loose in the waist, he says. “This provides good feedback and signals when you should slow down or stop eating altogether.”
3. You feel like you need a nap, stat.
“Noticing how food tastes and smells will slow eating down.”
What we commonly refer to as a “food coma,” is just a symptom of fatigue from eating too-large servings. “When you eat in large quantities, your body releases large amounts of insulin to continue to help aid with digestion and absorption,” explains Tracy Lockwood, celebrity registered dietitian and founder of the private practice, Tracy Lockwood Nutrition in New York City. “As a result, insulin increases the amount of serotonin and melatonin in our brain, which are chemicals synonymous with sleepiness and drowsiness.” This leads to a sudden lack of energy when all you want to do is excuse yourself from the table and rest.
Instead of letting yourself fall into this tired trap, Lockwood recommends focusing on filling your plate with more protein-rich foods (say, turkey, lentils or chickpeas) than carbohydrates (such as stuffing, mashed potatoes or corn pudding). These swaps will help reduce the total amount of insulin secretion needed to digest your full meal.
RELATED: The Stress Hormone That’s Messing with Your Diet
4. You frequently experience acid reflux.
Also known as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), acid reflux is a medical condition that occurs when the lower esophageal sphincter is unable to effectively block stomach acid from getting into the esophagus. Big meals can also induce acid reflux, though, by placing added pressure on the lower esophageal sphincter, which can cause acid (or even small amounts of food) to come back up. This leaves you with serious discomfort and an unappetizing taste in your mouth. To avoid it, Lockwood suggests eating smaller portions in a slower fashion and avoiding lying down after a meal.
5. Your heart races and your face flushes.
The science is simple: The more food you eat, the more digestion your body has to do. So when you’re piling a huge portion of food down your throat, your body has to go into overdrive to process everything properly. As Lockwood explains, eating large volumes of food requires high volumes of digestion to take place in order to efficiently break down the meal. And with more digestive activity comes more blood flow. This, in turn, causes your heart to work harder and pump more blood to the gut. Again, slowing down each bite will help your digestive system keep up so you don’t need the extra blood flow.
RELATED: The 15-Minute Home Workout to Survive the Holidays
6. You stop enjoying the flavors or mouthfeel of your food.
“Food doesn’t have to be good or bad [for you].”
In theory, we eat to survive. Food sustains us through the level of physical activity we will perform during the day. But culturally, food serves as a comfort and a way to bring people together. While that’s not to say that you shouldn’t enjoy the food you eat, experts say it’s important not to lose sight of the purpose of eating in the first place. Abbey Sharp, RD, founder of Abbey’s Kitchen, suggests thinking of your hunger as a gas gauge. “Aim to start eating when you’re one-fourth full and stop when you’re about three-fourths full to prevent overeating,” she says. “Never let yourself get too hungry or else you may risk another binge.”
7. You feel guilty after finishing a meal.
Even after eating a slice of pumpkin or pecan pie or sipping a glass or two of eggnog, you shouldn’t feel down about it. It’s important to remember that eating should be a satisfying experience — one you can and should enjoy with friends and family — not something you dread because you know you’ll overdo it. Sharp suggests removing the moral element of your meal, snack or dessert. “Food doesn’t have to be good or bad,” she says. “Try your best to make sure you’re eating only until you’re full and limiting your portions so you can enjoy your food without feeling bad about it later.”
8 Low-Calorie Foods That Will Actually Fill You Up
14 Holiday Cookie Recipes Under 100 Calories
Your Guide to Surviving the Holiday Blues