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How to break bad eating habits

  • Story Highlights
  • Small steps to change your eating habits
  • Eat two "real food" snacks per day instead of junk food
  • Eating slower can mean eating fewer calories
  • Try a non-food mood booster to get out of bad mood
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Real Simple

( -- Bad habits are made to be broken. Learn these easy tricks to help you eat better every day.

As tempting as it looks, eating your way out of a bad mood won't last long.

Bad eating habit: You're a serious snacker

The fallout: You may end up overeating. A healthy snack or two between meals is fine. They can keep blood sugar steady as well as allow you to rack up more servings of fruits and vegetables. "It's when you snack in place of eating real meals that you're more likely to lose track of how much you're eating," says Tara Gidus, R.D., an Orlando, Florida--based spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. Of course, what you eat matters, too. Typical snack foods (chips, cookies, pretzels) aren't that nutritious or satisfying, so it's easy to overdo them.

The fix: To keep your energy up and hunger at bay, allow yourself two snacks a day of 100 to 300 calories each. "Rather than a cookie or a candy bar, opt for something that feels like real food -- half of a small sandwich, whole-grain crackers with cheese, a handful of nuts, baby carrots with hummus, or yogurt sprinkled with cereal," says Gidus.

Bad eating habit: You're a speed-eater

The fallout: Gulping food may set you up for stomach troubles. "You take in excess air, which can lead to bloating," says Leslie Bonci, R.D., director of sports nutrition at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. You also might not be chewing well. Saliva begins to break food down, and too little time in the mouth leaves more work for the rest of the digestive tract. This may contribute to indigestion, says Ellie Krieger, R.D., host of the Food Network's Healthy Appetite.

Finally, speed-eating doesn't give the brain time to catch up to the stomach; it needs at least 20 minutes to get the message that your stomach is full. A recent study found that women who ate a meal in 30 minutes ate 10 percent fewer calories compared with those who wolfed one down in barely 10.

The fix: Try to slow down. Avoid finger foods, and instead choose items you have to put on a plate and eat with utensils, such as stir-fries and salads. Pause often, and drink water throughout meals.

Bad eating habit: You eat your way out of a bad mood.

The fallout: It may be soothing in the moment, but feeding your fears and frustrations, instead of confronting them, can lead to a cycle of more bad moods as well as steady weight gain. Many people turn to carbohydrates, in particular, which produce tryptophan, a type of amino acid that is used by the brain to manufacture serotonin. When the brain makes more serotonin, your mood improves, but only temporarily, says Judith Wurtman, Ph.D., a coauthor of "The Serotonin Power Diet."

The Fix: Stop to think about what's bothering you before reflexively opening the cupboard. Then try a nonfood mood booster, such as taking a walk, seeing a movie, or calling a friend. If nothing but carbs will do, get the serotonin boost without triggering a binge, says Tara Gidus, R.D.. Opt for a whole-grain treat so at least you get more fiber and less sugar.

Bad eating habit: You eat carefully all week, then blow it on the weekend.

The fallout: Whether you want to lose weight, maintain your weight, or simply eat healthier, it is possible to undo five days of good with regular weekend free-for-alls. In 2004 data from the National Weight Control Registry revealed that people who were consistent in their weekly eating habits, even if they weren't perfect, were 1.5 times more likely to stay within five pounds of their weight over one year than were those who were vigilant on weekdays only.

The fix: Since much socializing around food takes place on weekends, it pays to strategize. "Have a mini meal before you go out to help you have more self-control, and offer to be the designated driver to limit alcohol intake," says Gidus. (Alcohol has more calories than you probably think.) And don't restrict yourself so severely Monday through Friday that the weekend feels like your only time for indulgence. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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