No matter how many years or decades you have overeaten or how many diets have failed you, you still can learn how to become a “normal” eater—eating when you are hungry, choosing satisfying foods, remaining aware while eating and enjoying food, and stopping when you are full or satisfied.
Note: You did not fail on these diets. These diets failed you.
To succeed at weight management, you will need to:
- Focus like a laser on eating “normally”
- Stay persistent like a dog digging for a bone
- Not expect overnight success
- Switch your attention from the scale to your appetite
- Learn effective life skills to manage stress and internal distress
Disregulated eaters can learn how to eat “normally.” Here are some tips to speed you on your way.
Learn “normal” eating skills: Look in the mirror daily and tell yourself you can learn the skills of “normal” eating.
Think of foods as nutritional and non-nutritional: Instead of thinking of foods as “good” or “bad,” consider them as nutritional or non-nutritional, or nutritional or “fun”. “Good” and “bad” are moral terms that are best avoided in the food arena.
Give yourself praise: Do not put yourself down for the mistakes you make with food. Instead, lavishly praise yourself for your successes, even the tiniest ones.
Try a different approach: If experience tells you that diets do not keep your weight off, do not try to convince yourself that you should diet. Instead, give yourself points for trying a different approach.
Become your own cheerleader: Never say anything to yourself that you would not say to a young child you love, including calling yourself stupid, hopeless, bad, a failure, or worthless. Become your own cheerleader by generating positive thoughts about yourself and your progress.
Avoid all-or-nothing thinking: Do not use words like “never” and “always.” Remind yourself that most of life is not black and white, but gray. Think incrementally.
Do not dwell on untrue comments: Detoxify negative things people say about or to you that are untrue, rather than repeating them to yourself. Remember that what people say belongs to them, not to you, even if your name is attached to their words.
Connect to your emotions: Ask yourself often how you are feeling, so you can connect more easily to your emotions, but explore only with curiosity, not condemnation.
Stop judging yourself harshly: Develop self-compassion. Treat yourself lovingly. Practice speaking to yourself with extreme esteem.
Keep a positive attitude: Do not keep telling yourself that learning to become a “normal” eater is hard, because saying so only programs you to find the work more difficult. Instead, substitute words like challenging or doable.
Rate your hunger: Check in with yourself often to see how hungry you are by using descriptions such as “not hungry,” “moderate,” “very,” and “famished” or a 1-10 scale.
Evaluate if you are hungry: Every time you think about food, ask yourself if you really are hungry enough to eat or if you actually need something else.
Consider having smaller meals: Experiment with eating smaller meals more frequently.
Think about hunger as a signal: It means that you need fuel, not that you have to go out and seek the most fantastic eating experience of your life.
Know what hunger means: Practice believing that hunger is for fuel and pleasure, not for meeting emotional needs.
Choosing satisfying foods
Choose for yourself: Do not get hung up on what other people are eating. Instead, ask yourself what you would like to eat.
Forget about good and bad: Remind yourself that foods fall on a nutritional continuum (high value/low value), not on a moral continuum (good/bad).
Make a satisfying choice: Never eat without first stopping to consider what you want. Spend time making your decision by tuning into your appetite.
Stay clear of guilt or shame: Refrain from allowing guilt or shame to contaminate your eating decisions. Avoid secret eating.
Choose foods that you like: Do not eat foods that you do not find satisfying or enjoyable. Eating them will make you think that you are on a diet.
Eating with awareness and enjoyment
Look before you eat: Before you eat, look at your food, its portion size, and presentation. Breathe deeply. Look again before taking a mouthful.
Chew every mouthful thoroughly: Chewing a lot helps to thoroughly release the flavor of foods.
Let food sit on your tongue: This allows your taste buds to absorb the flavor and transmit messages about your appetite to your brain.
Talk or eat: When you are talking, stop eating. When you are eating, stop talking.
Stay connected: Pay attention to your body’s appetite signals while you are eating.
Forget about guilt and shame: Push away guilt and shame while you are eating. Focus only on sensory pleasure.
Pause while you are eating: Think about how you are feeling about your food in terms of quality and quantity.
Know when to stop eating: Stop eating when flavor intensity declines, as it is bound to do. Do not try to polish off all of the food in front of you. Instead, aim for the moment when flavor peaks and you feel an internal “ah” of satisfaction—then stop.
Evaluate how full you are: Keep asking yourself while you are eating, “Am I still hungry?” and “Am I satisfied?”
Stopping when you are full or satisfied
Know the definitions: Think of “full” as having enough food (fuel) in your stomach and “satisfied” as reaching the high point of pleasure.
Quantify fullness and satisfaction: Use words, such as “nearly full,” “too full,” or “just right,” or a 1-10 scale to rate fullness and satisfaction.
Tell your body: When you feel full or satisfied, focus on that sensation, and broadcast it to your whole body.
Disconnect from food: When you are done eating, put down your utensils, push away your plate, and get up, if possible. At least mentally move on. Do whatever you need to do to disconnect yourself from the food.
Decide when enough is enough: Make sure you do not focus on food that is left in front of you. Recognize that you do not have to finish it or clean your plate.
Changing your beliefs
“I need to diet to lose weight.”
“Diets do not work long term.”
“This is too hard.”
“I can learn to do this over time.”
“This will take too long.”
“If I do not change now, I will only end up back in this same place again, so I might as well get going on it.”
“Losing weight is the most important thing.”
“I will lose weight if I honor my appetite and learn to eat ‘normally.’”
“I am bad/worthless/ugly if I am overweight.”
“I accept my body as it is and still will try to improve it.”
Stopping emotional eating
Consider your feelings: If you have the urge to eat when you are not hungry, identify the emotion you are feeling.
Think of a different response: Remind yourself that feelings need an appropriate response—not food.
Know the emotions that trigger unwanted eating: Boredom, loneliness, anxiety, shame, guilt, disappointment, confusion, and helplessness can trigger unwanted eating. Look for more effective ways of dealing with these feelings.
Keep a feelings log: This will help you keep track of what is going on inside of yourself all day long.
Reduce stress: This will lessen frustration, helplessness, and the overwhelmed feeling you sometimes have that may drive you to eat.
Take care of yourself: Make sure you are taking care of yourself (with rest, sleep, hobbies, and fun) at least as well as you take care of others.
Learn from your behavior: If you find yourself eating when you are upset, do not take it out on yourself. Treat yourself with compassion and curiosity. Think about your behavior as a learning experience.
Find help: If you have a history of trauma or abuse, get help through therapy. A strong correlation exists between such a history and emotional eating and weight gain.
Take responsibility for yourself: Do not blame others for your emotional eating. Take accountability for your actions.
Build emotional muscle: Tell yourself that you can bear any emotion and practice doing so. You will find that the emotional muscle you build is amazingly strong and enduring.
References and recommended readings
Koenig KR. Nice Girls Finish Fat: Put Yourself First and Change Your Eating Forever. New York, NY: Fireside/Simon and Schuster; 2009.
Koenig KR. The Food and Feelings Workbook: A Full Course Meal on Emotional Health. Carlsbad, CA: Gürze Books; 2007.
Koenig KR. The Rules of “Normal” Eating: A Commonsense Approach for Dieters, Overeaters, Undereaters, Emotional Eaters, and Everyone in Between! Carlsbad, CA: Gürze Books; 2005.
Koenig KR. What Every Therapist Needs to Know About Treating Eating and Weight Issues. New York, NY: WW Norton and Co; 2008.
Contributed by Karen R. Koenig, LCSW, MEd
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