The H.A.L.T. Diet

End overeating for good with four simple questions.

The HALT Diet

The next time you feel like mainlining a box of Thin Mints, halt! The idea is to stop and consider what brought on the munchies in the first place, before you automatically indulge every craving. Experts say this pause can lead to a saner relationship with food and to skirts that still fit — year after year.

"Knowing why you're reaching for something to nosh on can help you make a different choice," says Sofia Rydin-Gray, PhD, behavioral health director at the Duke Diet and Fitness Center.

Ask yourself these questions and you won't nom-nom-nom when you're not even hungry.

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1 Am I Hurried?

Ever found a half-eaten candy bar in your bag, lint dust and all, and you don't even remember tearing into it? You could be suffering from in-a-rush-eating amnesia.

"Healthy meals are often the first to go when we look at all the things we need to get done during our busy days," says Kathleen Melanson, PhD, an associate professor in nutrition at the University of Rhode Island, who's studied the connection between our speedy lives and overeating. "When we're in a hurry, we tend to choose foods that can be eaten quickly, which are typically the more processed, less healthy options."

For example, you make time to put a healthy breakfast in front of your kids, then do the pastry-in-the-car thing after dropping them off at school. Or you're running late for an appointment, so you grab some trail mix to snack on while you drive and plow through the entire 600-calorie bag, oblivious.

The next time you find yourself calculating the fastest possible way to get fed, hit "pause." It might be time to put nourishing your body back near the top of your list of priorities.

Set yourself up for success by prepping meals for the week on sunday, and chopping veggies to grab when you need a quick snack. Consider it "me time" (because it is).

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2 Am I Anxious?

The stress feels like it's bubbling over, and suddenly you're doing that unconscious hand-to-mouth eating. This may be because you think food will calm your anxiety, or you're noshing for a temporary distraction, relief or just a bit of pleasure, says Rydin-Gray.

There's a biological explanation: When you're anxious, your brain tends to focus on an immediate reward (a tasty bite) while forgetting a long-term goal (like losing weight). Plus, the stress hormone cortisol can mess up your hunger signals. Unfortunately, comfort foods you crave during those situations may not provide real comfort. In one University of Minnesota study, researchers found that reaching for chocolate, ice cream, and cookies was no more of a mood booster than abstaining from them.

"Once you acknowledge that you're eating because you're anxious, try to figure out the source of that anxiety," says Rydin-Gray. Easier said than done, but once you ID the issue, you can start to make changes that put you in a happier headspace. And we all need a calming ritual for tense times — like sitting quietly for five minutes a day, playing tennis after work, or gardening. Writing down your feelings is another tool that helps stress eaters unpack their emotions instead of stuffing them down with food, say experts.

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3 Am I Lonely?

"Loneliness is a difficult emotion for people to experience," says Rydin-Gray. "We start catastrophizing and telling ourselves, Wow, I have no one or People don't like me. We want anything that can bring us relief in the moment. Food is a reliable go-to." After all, when has a snack ever said, "Sorry, I'm too busy to spend time with you"?

If you tend to turn to eating in moments when you feel isolated — or just alone with a problem — remind yourself of this: Over time, food can be like a toxic friend. When it's unhealthy or you overindulge, you'll feel worse, not better, after going there.

A healthier coping strategy is to recognize when and why loneliness strikes and try to make real changes in response. Ask yourself, What else can I do to deal with this better? Is there an activity I can schedule or a group I can join that will give me a sense of belonging? Rydin-Gray says evening is prime time for overeating because there may be fewer social interactions; we're not chatting with colleagues or saying hi to the checkout lady at the store. So consider making a phone date with a friend a regular part of your nighttime hours. Adds Rydin-Gray: "When you acknowledge the fundamental need — connection with others — you can come up with ways to fulfill it."

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4 Am I Tired?

If you're yawning your way through the afternoon, you're probably eating your way through it, too. Studies have shown that sleep-deprived people take in an extra 300 to 550 calories per day. Not getting enough shut-eye may upset your appetite-regulating hormones, so your brain nudges you toward a cupcake when all you really need is a catnap.

Why doesn't fatigue propel you toward some actually energizing choices? When you're run-down, the reward centers of your brain illuminate like fireworks in response to unhealthy foods, making junk more attractive and harder to resist, explains Marie-Pierre St-Onge, PhD, an assistant professor in the department of medicine at Columbia University. Broccoli doesn't exactly give you that same hit, so you go for the sweet-salty-fatty stuff.

You also may be eating simply to keep yourself awake, especially when you're behind the wheel. Driving while munching is dangerous, for you and your waistline — just one more reason experts urge us all to get enough zzz's.

If you really need something to help hop you up, try heading for the nearest coffee place, not your candy stash. An espresso: 5 calories. Fitting into your pants: Priceless.

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This story originally appeared in the April 2016 issue of Dr. Oz The Good Life.

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