Hey friends! Today I have advice & a super cool study for you on how to stop negative emotions from making you overeat or binge eat. This study also has useful advice for how to feel fewer negative emotions generally!
For the highlights, check out the video:
And now, the details & how to use the strategy into your own life:
Emotions are a MAJOR cause of overeating–in fact many scientists think it’s THE cause of binge eating disorder (BED).
So in this study, they tested whether a simple psychological trick could prevent people from overeating when feeling sad.
They had two groups: a group of 39 overweight women with BED, and a control group of 42 overweight women (weight-matched) without binge eating. Their average BMI in both groups was 34. The BED group was bingeing 4x a week on average, for at least the last 6 months.
They had the participants watch a really sad movie, had them use one of two emotional regulation strategies, then looked at how much they ate afterwards from bowls of biscuits and chocolate M&Ms.
They split the BED and control groups into two strategy groups: suppression and reappraisal. For the people in the suppression group, they told them to suppress their emotions:
Try to hide your feelings. Try to behave in a way that someone watching you would think that you don’t feel anything at all. Try to hold a neutral expression so no one can read your feelings from your face. You can feel whatever you feel, but try your best not to show it.
For the people in the reappraisal group, they told them to try to change how they felt about the movie by focusing on different aspects:
Try to distance yourself from the movie and see it objectively. Whenever you sense a change in your feelings while watching, try to internally step back. For example, think of how the photographer and actors succeeded in presenting the scene.”
(Instructions in studies tend to be REALLY repetitive to make sure participants get it, so I paraphrased 😉 )
Suppression means doing nothing to actually help you stop feeling the feelings, but just hiding or ignoring them. Reappraisal means trying to be less involved in the negative emotion–focusing on other aspects of the situation, distancing yourself from the situation, or looking at it as sort of a scientist. Reappraisal is actually a big reason why some people cope better with negative emotions than others: they naturally do more reappraising. (More specific advice on this below!)
So the participants watched a movie scene about the loss of a loved one, and other studies have shown that the movie scene makes people really sad. After the movie, both groups of participants rated themselves as feeling more sad than before the movie. But, the group that had done reappraisal during the movie felt less sad.
Then, they gave each participant a bowl of biscuits and a bowl of M&Ms, and told them they were doing a taste test to see how the movie affected their ratings of how good the food tasted. They had 15 minutes to eat & fill out questionnaires about how good the food tasted. They had all been told to eat a regular meal 2 hours earlier, so they weren’t coming in hungry.
Participants in the suppression group ate 40% morethan the reappraisal group. And this applied to both people who binge ate, and those who didn’t. Over 15 minutes this amounted to 30 extra calories, but imagine…
If you would usually have eaten 1100 calories in a binge, this strategy could make that an 800 calorie binge instead.
And, more importantly, learning reappraisal can help you deal with negative emotions better over time (tons of other research has shown this) and break the bingeing cycle completely.
Interestingly, the group with BED tended to use suppression in daily life much more than the control group, and used reappraisal a lot less. So that may explain how binge eating arises in the first place.
So, how can YOU start reappraising?
Reappraisal means changing the way you think about a situation. Most of the time, we only feel negative emotions because we decide that a situation is bad: for example, for one person starting a new job might be exciting; for another, it might be terrifying. Same situation, different perspectives.
So how do you reappraise a situation?
Let’s say your significant other breaks up with you. A natural reaction may be to feel worthless, self-loathing, etc. A reappraisal strategy here would be to focus on how maybe the situation isn’t the worst thing ever. Focus on the ways in which it might be a good thing: maybe he wasn’t a great match for you anyway, maybe he prevented you from seeing friends or pursuing your hobbies, and there’s definitely someone better out there for you.
Suppression, on the other hand, would be to “put on your brave face” and make it seem like the breakup didn’t affect you.
With reappraisal, challenges become opportunities for growth.
Try asking yourself questions like these:
What did you learn from the situation?
Can you find something positive that might come out of it?
Are you grateful for any part of it?
Are you better off in any way than when you started?
Could it have helped you grow or develop as a person?
So, next time you’re feeling overwhelmed with emotions, try reappraisal. It may help you feel better instead of leading to a binge.
Today I have a video for you where I go over a recent study on how eating processed versus unprocessed foods affects how much you eat, your weight gain vs loss, your hunger hormones, your satiety and satisfaction level, etc.
This study is a really nice one because they actually had people eat an unprocessed food diet for 2 weeks, then switch to a processed food diet for 2 weeks (or vice versa), so everyone tried both diets. The researchers measured exactly what they ate, and looked at how a bunch of macro and micronutrients, and other diet & eating measures, predicted differences in eating amounts & weight gain vs loss between the two diets.
The coolest part to me is that this is a particularly good example of how the typical “calories in versus calories out” view of weight loss and gain just does NOT apply a lot of the time. Specifically, the unprocessed diet led people to lose weight despite eating more calories than they burned, and there are differences between the processed and unprocessed diets’ weight loss vs gain that can’t be explained by the differences in calories.
See the video for the details and more fun & crazy findings!
Maybe you’ve been dieting, maybe you’ve been binge eating. Maybe you have uncontrollable cravings, or overeat because of emotions or boredom. Maybe you want to heal your relationship with food, or lose weight without having to diet.
If any of these sound like you, intuitive eating can help!
It may sound too good to be true, but science supports it: a big review of 20 scientific studies found that intuitive eating leads to weight loss and increases in happiness; improvements in body image, quality of life, and self-esteem; and reductions in binge eating and restricting, depression, and anxiety1. And these benefits are maintained even for years afterwards. It’s also much easier to stick to than any diet plan: 92% of people stick to it long-term.
It just works.
This guide is for those of you who want to get started with eating intuitively. I’m basing this advice off of my own experiences with breaking a cycle of bingeing, restricting and weight gain by learning to eat intuitively, plus evidence from scientific research on it and experience from my psychology/neuroscience PhD.
Read on for 11 tips to start intuitive eating!
(All the little numbers like this link to studies that are in a reference list at the end!)
1. Break the rules.
Throw out any and all diet rules that you might be consciously following, or subconsciously incorporating into your eating decisions. The only “rule” you should follow is:
Eat when you’re hungry, stop when you’re full.
No more rules on when you should eat, like no eating after 9pm, or always eat breakfast first thing in the morning. No more rules on how much you should eat, like eat small frequent meals or eat a big breakfast and a small dinner.
You don’t even need to follow nutrition rules on what you should eat, like having a balance of fat, carbs, and protein in a meal or eating lots of fiber. That can come later on!
Right now, the goal is just to undo the years of intuitive eating unlearning we’ve gone through, whether it’s thanks to diet culture or childhood rules. Over time, intuitive eating actually makes you crave healthier foods on its own2.
2. Eat mindfully.
Do you ever drive somewhere routine, then wonder how in the world you even got there because you were spacing out the whole time?
We tend to do that with eating all the time. And it really gets in the way of feeling satiated.
Eating in front of the TV is fun, I know. But mindful eating–paying attention to the process of eating–has been shown to be really helpful for binge eating, weight loss, and healing your relationship with food3.
You don’t have to do it forever once you get the hang of intuitive eating. But at the beginning, eliminating all distractions (this includes talking and using your phone!) and really focusing on eating is essential for learning to listen to your body’s signals. It’ll also make your meals more satisfying, and you’ll actually like them more4, because the feedback from your brain is a huge contributor to feelings of satisfaction.
3. Eat what you want to eat, not what you “should” eat.
When you’re first starting out, the most important thing is to just allow yourself to eat. Eat what you want, as much as you want of it, when you want it. Without guilt or shame.
This may involve baking and eating entire batches of cookies at a time. (It did for me, at least!)
The key here is to let yourself eat whatever super unhealthy, decadent, “bad” foods you’ve been craving and forbidding yourself from eating. Once they stop being forbidden, they lose their power over you. In fact, you may find yourself eating less overall because you’ll feel more satisfied when you eat whatever it is you’re actually craving. (If you’re anything like me, you’ve probably tried to eat healthy substitutes for the thing you’re craving, and end up eating more than if you’d just eaten the cookies in the first place!)
During this process, it’s important to try your best not to feel guilty. It’s easier said than done, of course, but if you ever want to beat yourself up over eating something “bad”, just remind yourself that it’s part of the process. Just about everyone who has restricted their diet in some way or another has experienced this.
For example, research shows that in people who have restrictive mindsets around eating (“restrained eaters”), being deprived of chocolate makes them overeat chocolate way more than people who don’t have restrictive mindsets5. So right now, focus on training yourself to be one of those nonrestrictive eaters. You’ll reap the benefits–like peace of mind, self love, health, and weight loss–later on.
Remember: It’s not your fault if you want to eat tons of chocolate, cookies, fast food, etc. It’s years of diet culture and labeling those as forbidden foods. All you need to do now is release yourself from guilt and trust the intuitive eating process.
Now, healthy eating is important, of course… but an important part of healthy eating is having an important mindset around eating. And you can’t do that if you’re forcing yourself to eat things you don’t enjoy, or feeling bad for eating things you enjoy.
So right now, focus on fixing your mindset. Later, it’s easy to reintroduce the healthy foods if you don’t find yourself naturally craving them. (And I’ll tell you how 🙂 )
4. Practice self-compassion.
If you’re on the more scientifically-minded side like me, you may be skeptical about this tip actually helping much. But research supports it: being kind to yourself actually stops overeating while it’s happening6. (In fact I plan to dedicate a whole post/video to these studies at some point, because it’s so cool!)
Practice compassionate self-talk. Treat yourself like you would treat your best friend or partner if they were feeling the same way.
A lot of fitness and diet culture focuses on treating yourself like a tough-love coach would: try harder, suck it up, no pain no gain. Maybe this can work for a select few people, but I think for most of us, this kind of mindset just perpetuates feelings of guilt and not being good enough.
Next time you feel like you failed, remind yourself of the struggles you’re overcoming, the ways you succeeded, and how all that really matters is that you’re trying. No one’s perfect, and the journey to healing your relationship with food is really difficult… everyone stumbles.
Love yourself just where you are, and celebrate the growth you’re experiencing (or about to experience).
5. Start learning your hunger & fullness signals.
The ultimate goal of intuitive eating is to follow your hunger and fullness signals, but for many of us, the problem is that we forgot what they feel like. I’ll do a full post on this too, but for a shorter version for now–experimenting on yourself can be a great way to figure this out.
One helpful thing is to realize that there are hunger signals besides just hunger pangs or a growling stomach. Maybe you get shaky, grumpy, suddenly tired, or a bit dizzy. For me, I get a fun cocktail of tired, grumpy, and shaky.
The goal is to learn what your signals are, and the feelings that lead up to them. (Because I certainly don’t advocate letting yourself get dizzy regularly, but rather you should learn when you’re about to start feeling that way so you can eat and prevent it!) Now, I can tell what happens before I get grumpy/tired/shaky, so I can prevent it from happening without eating sooner than necessary.
Try eating a meal later than you usually would, or skip a snack you’d usually have. What do you feel? If the beginnings of stomach growls or other hunger signals don’t start for a few hours, then you were probably eating earlier or more than you needed.
That may sound like torture because a lot of us are afraid of hunger pangs, especially if we’ve ever dieted. But no need to be scared of them anymore: they’re a useful signal, and you can eat immediately, as much as you want, once you get one!
Do the same thing with fullness: try eating a little more than usual and see what cues your body gives you that you ate too much. Besides feeling overstuffed, maybe you feel sluggish or sleepy an hour later, maybe the idea of food sounds disgusting to you.
Then, once you’ve started to identify your hunger and fullness cues from these little experiments, use those cues to guide when and how much you eat.
6. Say no to habit.
You may have longstanding habits that get in the way of you being able to learn your hunger and fullness cues. For me, that was eating first thing in the morning–I would always do it, thinking I was hungry, but I realized it was just the habit. One morning I finally decided to try not eating until I was completely sure I was feeling actual hunger signals.
Turns out, when I thought I was “starving,” I was actually just thirsty!
Running little experiments on yourself can be key for learning to eat intuitively. Practice breaking your habits, and see what you learn.
Maybe you don’t actually need an afternoon or late night snack. Maybe you actually need a bigger lunch than you can fit in your current tupperwares.
7. Quit counting calories, measuring portions, etc.
Unlearn what you think you know about food. Contrary to popular opinion, calories don’t count (much). There are a LOT of scientific studies supporting this.
You also don’t need to eat certain portions of food. Serving sizes are arbitrarily created by companies for marketing purposes.
Throw away your calorie journal. Delete Myfitnesspal. Free yourself. Use that time you would have spent counting calories to take a nap, meditate, cook something healthy or fun, or pet your dog.
I was a calorie counting addict–I counted my calories every day for over 5 years. 5 years! On Myfitnesspal, I had a recording streak of over 1200 days (the only reason it wasn’t longer is because I went on a vacation out of the country and didn’t have service!) If I can quit it, so can you.
8. Don’t clean your plate, and don’t be afraid to take seconds (or thirds).
A plate is just a thing that holds your food. Its size shouldn’t have a say in how much you eat!
Sometimes, we don’t know exactly how much food to dish ourselves: only your body can tell you how much you need, once the food’s in your mouth. (You may be skeptical, but I swear, after practicing intuitive eating my body is a finely-tuned energy-sensing machine. It knows exactly how much I need to eat, somehow.)
If you dish yourself too much, stop eating once you’re satiated. Stop once another bite doesn’t sound that exciting.
I was taught to clean my plate. That led to years of overeating, especially at restaurants.
Just breaking that simple habit made such a huge difference to me. I started breaking the habit by always leaving a bite left on my plate after eating (I give it to my fiance when I can, but don’t be afraid to throw it away or compost it)! Now I regularly have leftovers, even in teeny tiny containers if it’s only a little bit left, which makes for a nice snack the next day.
Learning not to eat everything on the plate can be really, REALLY hard to learn, but it is so rewarding once you do. Try fast-tracking the process and serve yourself way more than you know you can eat, so the serving size holds even less control over how much you eat. That way you HAVE to put some back, and can’t convince yourself you need to eat the whole plate.
On the flip side, if you finish your plate and you’re still not satiated, you should absolutely serve yourself more. If you run out of the meal you were eating, eat something else. Don’t deprive yourself–don’t let a predefined portion tell you how much to eat!
9. Trust the process.
An important part of intuitive eating is just believing it’ll work. Mindset is a huge part of the battle with everything you do, not just intuitive eating.
Placebo is one hell of a drug. Just the belief that something is working can make it work, even if it wouldn’t have otherwise7.
On the other hand, if you believe something won’t work, you reduce how effective it is even if it would have worked otherwise… or even have bad effects that wouldn’t have happened otherwise8.
Here’s a simple daily life example: if you believe someone likes you, you’ll be nicer to them and act like their friend, and they’ll grow to like you more even if they didn’t actually like you before. And the opposite is true too: if you believe someone dislikes you, you might act cold and distant, making them like you less.
Your mindset affects your world because it changes what you think and do, and even physiological processes7,8.
Because half the goal of intuitive eating is psychological, putting faith in it can really do wonders. It has worked for SO MANY people1, and it worked for just about all of us back when we were young… before rules and guilt took over our eating. Luckily, you don’t have to go just based on faith or anecdotes or placebo, because a lot of research–like all the papers I’ve been citing in this post–supports it.
If you believe it’s working, your cookie binge becomes a part of the process instead of a failing. Your current weight is just your starting weight before intuitive eating can work its magic, not something you’re stuck with. And that mindset actually makes it work faster, because the sooner you release the guilt and shame, the sooner you can eat intuitively.
10. Throw yourself into something you love.
Many of us looking to do intuitive eating are obsessed with food. Trust me, I understand, I was there for 10+ years.
A HUGE help for me was throwing myself into other passions: photography, cooking, animal activism, blogging, and writing, for example. The more excited you get about other things in your life, the more you’ll be thinking about them instead of food.
I used to always be thinking about my next meal… sometimes before I was even done with the current one. Now, eating is sometimes a bit of a chore for me because it takes time away from my passions, and I occasionally forget to until the hunger signals start getting quite strong!
11. Exercise: especially if it’s fun.
Exercise is not only great for your mental and physical health, but it can give you the reward hormones you might have been using food to get. It can help deal with overwhelming emotion, boredom, and other causes of overeating. It even suppresses your appetite, so it can help you make sure you’re eating out of actual hunger and not just mental appetite9.
A key difference from how you may have treated exercise in the past is that you should choose something that you enjoy, not something that burns a lot of calories! Exercise should be fun, not a punishment.
Maybe it’s a slow stroll in nature, maybe it’s dancing or yoga or swimming or basketball. Whatever you find the most sustainable and enjoyable.
If you don’t find any exercise particularly fun, then you could try motivating yourself by focusing on the health benefits. Or just do some stretches!
But, try not to let guilt creep in. Don’t feel bad if you miss a workout. Don’t feel like you need to push yourself to go faster or harder. If it’s fun and stress-free to keep improving your times or the amount of weight you can lift, go for it. Go at a pace that feels good, mentally and physically.
* * * * * * * * * * *
Reversing years of dieting, rules, guilt, shame, and suppressing our body’s signals takes time. But it is so worth it, for our relationship with food and our body, our physical and mental health, and our daily quality of life.
I know many of you are here looking to lose weight: if you have weight to lose, it will happen. (I even lost fat while already at the lower end of a healthy BMI, in line with my ab-related goals, just by shifting what I ate!) But take it one step at a time: you have to get your body’s trust back and heal your relationship with food first, and then losing weight without trying becomes a breeze.
Following these 11 tips should allow you to get most (if not all) of the way to intuitive eating, but there’s always more to learn and more ways we can grow. I’ll be continuing this series of blog posts to cover specific issues that might be especially difficult to deal with, how to fine-tune your intuitive eating and shift towards more weight loss if you’ve already got the hang of the basics, and more.
In the meantime, this book (and this one) also explains ways to eat intuitively, if you’d like more in-depth advice and explanation.
I’ve been talking about intuitive eating for quite awhile now, and I thought it was finally time I make a post all about it. Specifically, what it is (my take on it, at least), and especially, whether it can help you.
But first, let me ask you a question. Do you find yourself having issues with…
Wanting to lose weight and not being able to?
Eating because you’re stressed, emotional, or bored?
Feeling hungry or craving something because you saw food on TV, social media, friends eating, etc.?
Overeating because you’re starting your diet tomorrow, or because you failed at following your diet that day?
Feeling guilty for eating?
Not letting yourself eat even though you were hungry?
So did I. And intuitive eating is the reason I don’t have these issues anymore.
Intuitive eating is a term coined by the authors of this book, but the idea has been around in different forms for a lot longer than that. There are scientific studies from before 1995 and in more recent years showing that following the tenets of intuitive eating lead to weight loss, treat disordered eating like binge eating, reverse obesity, heal relationships with food, reduce depression and anxiety, and improve self esteem and body image.1,2,3
The basic principle of intuitive eating (and related ideas) is simply:
Eat when you’re hungry, stop when you’re full.
That may sound too simple, too good to be true, or just something you’ve tried before that hasn’t worked. But it can be tricky to get right, especially with society’s attitudes about food these days. We start out doing it as kids, but somewhere along the way, most of us lose the ability.
Maybe because we learned to use food to deal with our emotions, maybe because of our culture’s obsession with dieting as THE way to lose weight, maybe because we’re taught that desserts, carbs, sugar, etc. are “bad”.
If you’ve tried dieting, followed meal plans with scheduled eating times and portions, overeaten or undereaten, or felt guilty for eating, chances are you’ve fallen out of tune with your ability to eat when hungry and stop when full. I know I did, completely–hunger and fullness were almost irrelevant in my eating behavior for 10 years.
The more we learn to ignore our hunger and satiety signals, the more we start to rely on cues like emotions, stress, the presence of “bad foods” in the kitchen, and other people’s diet plans to dictate when we start and stop eating. And that’s how weight gain, guilt, and constant dieting sneak in.
Intuitive eating is all about undoing this: getting back in tune with our hunger signals, and learning not to let external or psychological factors determine when and how much we eat. As a result, it involves effortlessly maintaining a healthy weight, improving your health, and healing your relationship with food and your own body.
With intuitive eating, there is no such thing as dieting, restricting, binging, “bad” foods, or guilt for eating.
No more calorie counting. No more food scales. No more portion control. Just reaching your goal body by eating as much as you want, when you want it. Channeling all that time and mental effort that you were once spending on food into the rest of your life: your relationships, your work, your hobbies.
If it sounds too good to be true, don’t worry… I thought so too. Until it worked.
So, I’m starting a series of blog posts all about how to get started with intuitive eating, no matter how unattainable it might feel for you. I was stuck in a restricting/dieting and binge eating cycle for over 10 years, so I think I qualified as one of the more hopeless cases out there… so I’ll be sharing what worked for me, and incorporate tips from scientific research on it.
Maybe you already do intuitive eating, and still can’t lose weight. I still have advice for you coming up, and part of that involves tweaking what and how you’re eating (notice I didn’t say how much)!
So stay tuned for posts every other weekend on how to eat intuitively or troubleshoot your intuitive eating. If you’re looking to lose weight, escape disordered eating habits, or improve your physical and psychological health, this series is for you.
Some of the posts I have planned so far are:
My 10 year battle with “unintuitive” eating, and my journey since
How to get started with intuitive eating
How to troubleshoot your intuitive eating
How to stop binge eating
And more! (I’ll add a table of contents with links as the posts come out)
If you’d like to keep up, sign up below to get email notifications when I post! 🙂
(I know I probably sound like I’m trying to sell you something, but honestly, I just want to share this because I want to help other people not have these issues anymore too. Getting rid of them seriously changed my life… not only have I finally achieved my goal appearance, but more importantly, I’m so much happier. And I want to turn my gratitude into a way of helping others. I even paid to get rid of ads on this blog because I don’t want them to get in the way!)
Once you’ve done intuitive eating for awhile, your weight tends to be more of a curiosity than anything to actually care about.
Until it isn’t.
I didn’t weigh myself much at all while learning to eat intuitively, because the number on the scale used to be a bit of an obsession, and a major source of guilt and shame.
But after feeling firmly settled into my unrestricted eating and body positivity habits, I started to weigh myself again… both out of curiosity, and because my fiancé is always talking about his day-to-day weight fluctuations. We’re scientists and we love our data, for science’s sake. (Did running after that high salt meal negate the water retention? Did we actually manage to lose weight on that beach vacation from all the swimming?)
But today I realized that at some point, it stopped just being data. I’ve noticed that my weight on the scale is affecting how I see myself again, and daily fluctuations are having an influence on my mood.
I’ve been lifting weights more, so this is especially damaging because I want to gain muscle. But my lifelong conditioning is that weight going up = bad.
But either way, why should an arbitrary, irrelevant number have an effect on my mood?
So I’ve stopped weighing myself.
If thoughts about my weight creep in, I can just shake them off by deciding that I think I look fine. Instead of the other way around where I let the scale decide how I feel, when otherwise I would have felt happy about how I look.
And, most importantly, I remind myself that it doesn’t really matter either way if I gained a bit of weight.
Would my career suffer if I gained weight? Not at all.
Would my fiancé leave me? Nope.
Would it really affect my life in any way besides my own self-perceptions, which I can easily change? No!
(Now, I know there are some careers and circumstances where gaining a bit of weight could negatively impact your life. But still, feeling bad about yourself won’t prevent it at all. Feeling good about yourself and nourishing your body with satiating foods will prevent it1.)
I’ve found that the key to maintaining intuitive eating is to be mindful of what kinds of thought patterns and habits you might fall into. Some of us may naturally trend back towards bad habits and thought patterns if we’re not actively maintaining our new, better patterns. And that’s okay!
For some of us, thoughts are like teeth that way… without a retainer, they slowly drift back towards old, pre-braces patterns. It’s worth having to pop in a retainer occasionally to avoid being stuck with painfully crowded teeth. We don’t feel bad about ourselves because our teeth do that, it’s just how it is!
So every once in awhile, take a moment to self reflect about your feelings towards yourself and food. Check in with yourself to find any bad habits or worries that are forming, and stop them in their tracks. Better yet, replace them with something good: freedom to eat, self love, and good food.
Here’s a great book on intuitive eating for those looking to get started. I’m also starting a series of every-other-week posts on how to eat intuitively, both for beginners and for those facing issues later on the process (none of us are perfect!), so subscribe to stay tuned!
See my weight loss videos for scientific research on how to lose weight without restricting.