It’s the rare person who exclusively eats when they’re hungry and stops when they’re full. Most of us eat for reasons other than hunger as well. Identifying your particular triggers to overeat is a major step on the way toward changing your eating patterns. Brainstorming strategies that will help is the key. You may notice that particular thought patterns occur just before or after you overeat. Some may feel familiar and some won’t. The first step is identifying which types of thoughts are unique to you. After that, you can work at reality checking these thoughts and responding differently. I’ve described a few types of these thoughts below.

“This little bit doesn’t count.”

It could be appetizers at that social event, it could be those large portions at your favorite restaurant, it could be something freshly baked that you find sitting on the kitchen counter at home, or it could be the candy dish on that co-worker’s desk. You name the food, if it’s something you love and it’s tempting to you, avoiding it is a much tougher challenge when it’s staring you in the face. The thoughts isn’t actually wrong – a little bit isn’t going to be problematic. The big question is whether or not you can keep things to “a little bit.” If you can, then it’s no big deal. But if you can’t, this kind of thinking may set you up to feel angry at yourself later.

What about trying this instead? Determine ways to avoid seeing the tempting food and having it “call to you.” This might mean keeping it out of the house or storing it in the freezer or top shelves of cabinets. You could also try to avoid the “candy coworker,” the break room, or the vending machine when you’re already hungry. Ask to keep the bread basket off the restaurant table and to have half of the meal packaged for you to take home before you actually get served. The basic idea is that if it’s not there, you won’t be tempted. However, if you know you can keep it to a small portion and really enjoy it, then do so guilt-free.

“This time I’ll have willpower.”

Scientists run an experiment over and over again to see if they get the same results each time. This is how they show that their results are consistent and believable. I’ve noticed a similar process but different pattern with my patients who struggle with weight. Time and time again, they try the same behaviors convincing themselves that this time things will end differently. They can buy that carton of ice cream, big bag of chips, or you name the food, and this time they’ll eat just a little bit over a longer period of time. But that isn’t what happens. Instead, they fall into the familiar pattern of eating the food too quickly again (often in one sitting), leaving them feeling stuffed and ashamed. “Why can’t I just have willpower?” they ask themselves.

What about trying this instead? If this reminds you of your own experience, it’s time to apply a different strategy. The reality is that it’s not about willpower. It’s about changing the magical thinking that this time is going to be different. Sometimes, this is hard to accept. But when the same experiment is run that many times, you can predict the results. This means acknowledging that there are certain foods that just can’t come into the house in large amounts. They’re just too tempting and triggering of overeating.  This doesn’t mean that foods you enjoy have to be banned for life. I never recommend that mindset. It’s just not realistic. However, it’s likely that you do need to learn a new way of handling these foods. For example, if you choose to buy them, it helps to buy them in much smaller amounts – like single serving sizes. Another strategy is to allow yourself to have these types of foods, in a portion that won’t make you feel guilty, when you’re out of the house, for example at a restaurant or party. This way, you get to enjoy what you like but in a way that won’t make you feel ashamed or out of control.

“Why not? I’ve already blown it today.”

This sort of thought can get triggered when you eat something you’ve decided is off limits. Creating rigid food rules can make you feel deprived, increase feelings of temptation, and then lead to shame and feelings of failure when the food rule gets broken. Thoughts like these can become circular. For example, “Since I’ve already blown it, I may as well eat it all. Starting tomorrow, I’ll never have it again.” You can see how this type of thinking can get more and more rigid – more and more black and white.

What about trying this instead? Food is really just food. But if you’ve been struggling with a diet mentality for a long time, certain foods become “good” or “bad” in your mind. The dieticians that I work with at Joslin Diabetes Center teach an entirely different approach. They believe that all foods can fit into a healthy meal plan. The key is to focus on reasonable portions and how often you eat them. Moving away from strict food rules toward greater flexibility may help you to feel more empowered rather than powerless over your eating.

To sum up, even if these particular thought examples don’t feel familiar to you, you may have other types of thinking that derails you from time to time. Remember to work at identifying the type of thoughts that are unique to you. Once you understand which thoughts pull you off track, you can work at changing these thoughts or getting ahead of them. The goal is to move these roadblocks out of your way so you can continue to move along toward greater health.

About the Author

Ann Goebel-Fabbri, Ph.D.

Ann Goebel-Fabbri, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor in Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. 

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