3 Tactics to Prevent Overeating

What's the best way to keep from binging?

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on September 14, 2007
7 min read

When it comes to our favorite treat foods, is it out of sight, out of mind -- or does absence make the stomach grow fonder? Some diet experts recommend removing favorite high-calorie foods from your house to lessen temptation and prevent overeating. Others believe that banishing favorite foods only makes you want them more – so you're more likely to binge once you do get your hands on them.

As many things in life, the truth probably rests somewhere in the middle. I personally promote the idea of eating when you're hungry, in a mindful and relaxed state. And I discourage anything related to obsession and deprivation. Yet we all come to the table with our own psychological and physical issues, which can complicate things a bit.

Here’s an example of the "absence makes the heart grow fonder" way of approaching favorite foods. About 10 years ago, I met a woman who told me that every time she bought a box of Sees chocolates, she ended up eating the entire box in a day. She asked me what she could do to stop this. I asked her if Sees chocolate was really special to her, and she answered, "Yes, it’s one of my favorite things." I asked her if this was something she let herself have only on rare occasions, and she said yes.

I suggested she try buying a box of Sees chocolates and putting it in her refrigerator or freezer. Then, every time she truly wanted a chocolate, she could sit quietly and really savor one piece. Two weeks later, she happily told me she still had a partially full box of chocolates in her refrigerator. She had enjoyed a handful of pieces and was looking forward to having a few more in the weeks to come. Just knowing she could have one when she truly wanted one gave her comfort and helped prevent her from overeating.

This technique may not work well for everyone, but it seems to be the ticket for others, myself included. I am not a compulsive eater and I credit this to my "no-deprivation" philosophy. If there's something I really want, and the craving doesn’t go away easily, I let myself have it. I do, however, make light and healthful choices within those cravings when possible (often because of my irritable bowel syndrome). For example, maybe once a year I strongly desire a donut. So I go to a local donut store that sells delicious whole-wheat donuts and, bite by bite, I enjoy eating one.

Ice cream: If you have it, they will come -- and eat it until it's gone! Does this describe your house?

Some experts suggest that if there is a certain food you can’t stop eating -- even when you start by carefully portioning out a reasonable serving -- don’t keep it in the house. Every now and then, when you really want some ice cream, order a scoop at an ice cream shop. This way you won’t be tempted to go back for more.

There is always a half-gallon of great-tasting light ice cream in my freezer, by the way. Whoever chooses to enjoy ice cream that day serves themselves some in our very small ice cream dishes. This seems to work for my family.

So what do the experts say? As I see it, most subscribe to one of three camps:

  • The "out of sight -- out of mind" group.
  • The "absence makes the heart grow fonder" believers.
  • Those who fall somewhere in the middle.

Here are comments from some of those who believe in the "out of sight, out of mind: philosophy:

  • "One of the most powerful factors that determine the amount you eat is how much food is placed in front of you," David Levitsky, PhD, a professor of nutrition and psychology at Cornell, tells WebMD. He points to published data that showed that if you eat while blindfolded, you consume significantly less than when you can see your food.
  • Kelly Brownell, PhD, director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University, says that most programs – including Yale's -- recommend that people limit exposure to favorite foods as much as possible to minimize temptation.
  • Susan Roberts, PhD, director of the Energy Metabolism Laboratory at Tufts University says studies at Tufts suggest that "out of sight" is helpful for some people. "Having things around you just keeps temptations more firmly in your mind," she tells WebMD.
  • While "out of sight, out of mind" is the best policy, there's a difference between keeping a food out of the house and making it forbidden, notes Marlene Schwartz, PhD, research director for the Yale's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity. "The key is that you aren’t saying that ice cream is evil, but rather that it is best enjoyed under certain circumstances, and those circumstances make it easy to control portion sizes and frequency," she tells WebMD. In other words, it's OK to go to that ice cream shop every week or so.

Here's what some of the "absence makes the heart grow fonder" believers had to say:

  • Her experiences during 13 years of working with severely overweight people have convinced her that forbidding favorite foods increases cravings for them, says Chantal Gariepy, RD, CDE, a dietitian and diabetes educator with the Sansum Clinic in Santa Barbara, Calif. Avoiding favorite foods as opposed to simply tasty or pleasurable foods – is in a way, avoiding responsibility. "It is a juvenile (vs. mature) approach to eating." She says the mature approach to eating requires developing food skills such as mindful eating, hunger and fullness recognition, portion size evaluation, and the ability to calm yourself.
  • The Center for Mindful Eating (TCME) acknowledges that favorite foods can be the most challenging foods to eat mindfully because these foods "call" to us whether they're in front of us or not. According to TCME, learning to eat mindfully, to fully savor each bite without eating past a comfortable level of fullness, provides a deeper sense of control. "A mindful eater would also be aware, in a neutral way, of the frequency and craving for a 'favorite' food, as well as reflect on the health consequences of that particular food, and in doing so, would balance their choice of these foods with their nutritional needs," TCME says in a statement. The center does affirm, however, that the chronic availability of high-calorie foods has contributed to weight gain -- and says that's something we need to take into consideration as well.
  • Ellyn Satter, MS, RD, LCSW, says that the answer to how to approach favorite foods is more complicated in adults because we carry within us both the "child" who wants to eat them and the restrictive "parent." "To allow the two to come together, we have to give ourselves permission to have regular access to foods we enjoy and to eat as much as we want," explains Satter, a national lecturer and author of Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family. But in order to get enough of those favorite foods without feeling out of control and ashamed of ourselves, we also have to have discipline, adds Satter: "We need to incorporate those foods in regular, structured meals and snacks and we have to pay attention when we eat them."

And here are some comments from experts who fall somewhere in the middle of the other two camps:

  • Several experts said that there's no single approach that works best for everyone. "It is true that the easy-to-access presence of something desirable makes it hard to resist," Paul Rozin, PhD, professor of psychology at University of Pennsylvania, tells WebMD. "But if you have some, that can be either satisfying or produce more ingestion." Roberts stressed the importance of being aware of your own strengths and weaknesses.

  • Christina Baker, PhD, with the Eating Disorders Clinical and Research Program at Massachusetts General Hospital, believes the decision to eat is influenced by different factors, including genetics and the environment. Baker’s experience has been that it's very difficult for some people to incorporate moderate amounts of certain foods (usually sweets) into their diets because once they have a little, they just can’t stop. "For these individuals, perhaps avoidance is a reasonable long-term strategy," Baker tells WebMD. On the other hand, Baker has many patients who experienced restricted eating in their childhoods, but are able to eventually integrate favorite foods into their diets in a way that doesn’t lead to overeating.

Not only can you find researchers on both sides of the "out of sight" and the "absence makes the heart grow fonder" approaches, there is also some research to support both views. There's no simple answer to most questions about eating behavior, and this is no exception.

But perhaps the people who use the "out of sight, out of mind" approach are stopping short of doing some of the hardest, most essential work. Developing eating competency skills, like portion control and hunger recognition, may take some time. And understanding what is going on when you feel out of control around certain foods isn't easy. But being able to enjoy your favorite foods, in a positive, peaceful way, as part of a complete healthy lifestyle -- I'd say that's well worth the work.