Unusual Observations to Help You Stop Overeating for Good

It's common to think overeating is a lifelong curse, but must it be?

Posted Sep 15, 2019

At some point, most people who seriously struggle with overeating are told it will be a lifelong problem, and the best they can do is learn how to manage it. I, therefore, find the first step in helping people stop is to convince them this is not necessarily true. Below, I'll share three uncommon observations to make my point.   

First, take the case of people who make dietary commitments for ethical reasons: Vegans and orthodox Jews, for example. In both cases, we can point to thousands of people who previously indulged in a particular food, then later decided it was wrong. In both cases, most are able to keep their commitments indefinitely. So we can, at minimum, conclude that when a food and/or treat becomes an immoral choice, it suddenly becomes possible to eradicate it from your life. 

Second, let’s do a crazy thought experiment to illustrate further that when not overeating is important enough, it's entirely possible to make sudden, radical, and permanent changes to your diet. Don't skip this experiment; it only takes a moment, and if you do it, I promise you'll remember it for the rest of your life. (It can change your perspective and feelings of self-efficacy around difficult foods forever.)

Begin by bringing to mind some treat you've been overeating of late. Your favorite junk. Then, think of someone you love dearly. Perhaps your son or your daughter, or maybe a spouse, sibling, parent, or beloved pet. If there’s nobody in your life you love dearly right now, think of a role model or celebrity you care about.

Before you go any further, please be sure you really are thinking of a special person and some special treat you tend to overeat despite your best efforts. Got them? Good.

Now assume an evil dictator is stalking the person you picked, and this tyrant presents you with a twisted choice: Although he will continue watching your special person forever, he will never contact, influence, or harm them in any way provided you abstain from the treat under consideration until you draw your very last breath. But if you ever indulge again, no matter how far in the future, no matter how small the amount, and no matter what the circumstance, the evil dictator will kidnap and hold your loved one in prison for the rest of their lives. You’ll always know the one indulgence you just “couldn’t resist” was solely responsible for depriving your very special person of their freedom forevermore.

Remember, this dictator has the resources of an entire country behind him, so the authorities are powerless to stop him. The only way to keep your special person safe is to completely abstain from even one more bite or swallow of this treat forever. You’ll literally have to avoid it for the rest of your life as if it were arsenic because the consequences are so grave.

What would you do? It’s a no-brainer, isn’t it? When you care enough, tolerating any level of discomfort forever is suddenly within your power, no matter how strong the cravings may become. I’ve got little doubt you’d keep your word in this situation.  

Third, consider the power of character. I often illustrate this by talking about people who overeat chocolate. Many report eating several bars more days than not. Usually, these people don't want to give up chocolate entirely; they want to moderate it in some way.  

I accidentally discovered two different forms of the same question that seem to have the polar opposite effect on these people: "What if you only ate chocolate on weekends?" "Could you become the kind of person who only eats two ounces of chocolate on weekends?"

The first question seems to invoke fear. "Oh no, I could never do that; chocolate is too delicious, and the temptation is too strong," people say. 

But the second question shifts their paradigm, and almost miraculously seems to bring the goal within reach. "Yes, I might be able to become that kind of person," they say. I then instruct them to repeat, "I am becoming the kind of person who (fill in the blank)," whenever they feel tempted, and a higher rate of success ensues in my experience.

The reason for this is because we are already used to managing our behavior with countless unspoken rules. For example, ask yourself if you'd ever take a crisp $10 bill on the table at a diner when the waitress hadn't seen her tip, even if nobody would see you? Most people are offended by the question itself. "I'm not a thief!" they retort. "I never steal!"  

I call these kinds of statements "character rules." They simplify our lives by eliminating a myriad of decisions, because we are "not the kind of person who does X," or because we are the kind of person who does YFewer decisions mean that less willpower is required to manage temptation, so it's much easier to regulate your behavior, including eating, when you decide to become a particular kind of person.

I'm not saying any of this is easy. Overeating can (and often does) become a very well established, seemingly automatic behavior chain. What I am saying is that it's entirely possible to change your eating permanently, and in my experience, it's critical to avoid succumbing to the "overeating is a chronic, lifelong problem" mentality which is so common in our culture. 


For more practical tips and tricks to stop overeating and binge eating, please see "How to Stop Binge Eating in Three Unusual Steps."