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We've all experienced it - that overstuffed feeling from eating too much that leads us to groan and loosen our pants or shirts. In fact, with more than one-third of Americans defined as "obese" and the U.S. claiming the highest rate of obesity of all countries, we're feeling it all too much.

Like many habits, overeating is often triggered by emotional factors and can have serious physical and psychological ramifications if not addressed.

We recently spoke with Bradley Beach, N.J.-based registered dietitian Robyn Flipse to better understand why we overeat and how we can avoid it.

"We eat to refuel our bodies and relieve the unpleasant sensation of hunger, and, under ideal circumstances, we stop eating when we achieve a physical sense of satisfaction," Flipse explained. "Newborns instinctively respond to that cue, but as we get older, other distractions interfere with our ability to recognize the internal signals that tell us we've had enough - to the point where most people no longer know what the physical sensation of satiety feels like."

She noted that while overeating is not typically life-threatening - the body will process the food and we'll likely feel hungry again four hours later, "research has connected overeating with an inflammatory response that's been linked to heart disease and certain types of cancer.

"So while gluttony many not hurt you in the short-term, it represents an assault on the body and can contribute to serious long-term concerns if practiced on a regular basis."

Cultural cues

Flipse attributes our nation's excessive eating habits to a plethora of drivers.

Among those, "portion sizes have grown," she said, "and food has become supersized as a way for outlets to compete with each other for the consumer's dollar. In addition, the size of plates and the depth of bowls have increased over time - the average dinner plate used to be 8 to 9 inches and is now 10 to 12 inches, a 25 percent to 50 percent increase," she said.

And Flipse said food also is more readily available than ever before - "as close as the nearest gas station or even the checkout counter of department stores - and food outlets are open longer hours than ever. Cars have built-in drink holders and everything today is made to accommodate the process of eating. So there's nothing keeping people from feeding any impulse."

Following are some of Flipse's tips to help curb the desire to overeat:

Be mindful: "When we eat with distractions, we often don't even remember that we ate or else we may feel like we didn't eat that much, so we keep on eating."

Portion control: "Buy single-serving portions or create them for yourself with baggies to give yourself a built-in advantage over the mindless habit of eating a large bag or portion of something," she said.

Size matters: Flipse recommends trading down dish sizes to help reduce portions. "Normal-size portions can look small and dissatisfying in today's oversized dishes," she said.

Eat more slowly: Because it can take up to 20 minutes after eating for the brain to receive fullness signals, Flipse recommends eating more slowly through such tricks as "eating with your nondominant hand, eating with chopsticks, or putting your fork down after each bite."

Choose wisely: Flipse recommends avoiding restaurants that pride themselves on big portions. "And don't eat the bread on the table before your meal," she added. "You wouldn't do this at home, so why do it in a restaurant?"

What's eating you? "We need to practice safe, alternative ways of working through unpleasant feelings, such as talking to friends, exercising, listening to music, etc."

Chew on this

-- According to a recent Pew survey, 6 in 10 Americans said they eat more than they should either "sometimes" or "often."

-- While the consumption of food triggers the release of good-feeling dopamine, a 2012 University of Texas at Austin study published in The Journal of Neuroscience suggests that "obese individuals have fewer dopamine (D2) receptors in the brain relative to lean individuals and overeat to compensate for this reward deficit."

-- A Yale University study suggests there may be a link between the rising consumption of fructose - a sweetening agent increasingly present in processed food and drinks over the past 30 years, in parallel with the rise in obesity - and the increased incidence of overeating. Unlike the consumption of glucose, which suppresses areas of the brain associated with a desire for food, researchers believe fructose may play a role in stimulating appetite.

-- Founded in 1960 and headquartered in New Mexico, Overeaters Anonymous (www.overeatersanonymous.org) estimates its membership at 54,000 in more than 75 countries. It uses a 12-step program to help members combat overeating.

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