When I eat more than I intended, even if only slightly, I blow my diet and lose control of my eating. How can I stop doing this?

When you’re trying to lose weight, you may struggle to stick to the rules of a particular diet.  When you break a dietary rule, it can feel as though you’ve failed and you abandon your diet, only to feel bad the next day and resolve to start again.  In this week’s Ask the Appetite Doctor column, Susan asks how she can put an end to this frustrating pattern.

How can I stop losing control around food whenever I eat even a bit more than I intended?

Dear Helen,
There is a particular habit that I really want to change because it is so frustrating and leads me to overeat and feel out of control.

I always start meals with good intentions to eat the right amount, and fairly often I do stop at that point.  But when I even slightly overdo it, so that I’m feeling more than full but not yet uncomfortable, I can feel guilt which can thenturn into a “blow it” thought which can result in eating most of what is in sight, in the fridge/ biscuit tin etc. On those occasions I eat until I am SO uncomfortable I stop.

It feels as if whenever I get the guilt feeling that comes from slight overeating, I eat even more to cover the guilt.   Other times I just think “sod it!”. 

I’d love this not to be.  Is there anything I can do to stop this happening?

Best wishes


Understanding how the rules you set yourself around eating can lead to losing control

Dear Susan,

What you describe when you slightly overeat is what appetite researchers Herman and Polivy call the “what-the-hell effect”. This happens when, in an attempt to control food intake, dieters make rules for themselves about what or how much they can eat.  When the rule is breached (because you’ve eaten too much or eaten a “forbidden” food), dieters think “what the hell – I’ve already blown my diet so I might as well carry on”. Herman and Polivy have studied this effect extensively and discovered that even a very small breaking of a dietary rule leads to the what-the-hell effect in people who try to restrain their eating. In fact the effect is so powerful that in laboratory studies Herman and Polivy have found that if dieters are assured that an impending break of their dietary rule will sabotage their diet, they overeat even before they’ve broken the rule by eating a “banned” food.  So it’s a psychological effect rather than being anything to do with actual calorie intake.

The pattern of tightly regulating your food intake by creating rigid rules is part of the problem.  It may seem paradoxical, but those of us that attempt to restrict food intake through trying to avoid pleasurable eating (“restrained eaters”) tend to end up eating excessively and becoming disinhibited with food intake once a self-imposed rule is broken.
Particularly importantly, how you react to “breaking” a rigid rule determines whether you’ll eat more or less following your unintended eating.  Herman and Polivy have studied both restrained eaters and people who have more flexible approach to eating (“unrestrained eaters”).  In laboratory studies, when both groups are given a milkshake to drink before a meal, the restrained eaters then eat far more at the subsequent meal whereas the unrestrained eaters tend to compensate by eating less.

Let’s look at what this would mean for Susan

First, look at the diet you are trying to follow and be honest about whether its rules are sustainable for you over the long term.  So many weight loss diets are short-term fixes that don’t address the crucial issue of whether you can keep to them over months or years.  If it isn’t sustainable, ditch the diet and start where you are now and focus on making one specific change to your eating habits. Use the UEH checklist to see where to start.

Second, the issue you’re struggling with when you eat beyond what you intended is being able to stop eating when you’ve had just enough.  What will help here is to have a specific clear strategy to make it easy on yourself to avoid overeating – see “how to stop eating”.

Third, replace your rigid rules with guidelines or principles of how you want to eat. Try to change the way you talk to yourself that the language you use is compassionate and non-judgmental. For example, “I’ve had a bit extra and that’s OK, and now I’ll go and do something absorbing that’s away from reminders of food”.  Or remind yourself that having had a bit more than you intended is just that – a bit more.  It doesn’t mean you’ve broken a diet and it will help to gently get back on track by distracting yourself away from food for a while until any angst about the extra food settles down.

Fourth, you may feel anxious about relaxing rules around eating because you may fear that without them, you’ll be out of control.  If this is the case it will help you to learn an anxiety reduction strategy from my free ebook for this.  If you get anxious at any point when following the above advice to shift from following strict dietary rules to learning how to stop eating when you’ve had just enough, you can try out the different anxiety reduction techniques in my ebook.  Once you find one that works for you, use it whenever you feel anxious or uneasy about stopping eating when just full. Or when you feel anxious about not having your old rules.  In time being able to stop eating at the right point will become a habit, once you’ve done it deliberately enough times.  “How many times?” do you ask?  On average it takes about 60 repetitions of a new pattern for it to become a habit.

If you have a question for Dr Helen McCarthy about eating and weight loss, email info@theappetitedoctor.co.uk

We cannot answer queries personally.  Advice given here does not constitute specific psychological or medical advice.  If you are unsure about anything to do with your own weight loss plan, please consult your own doctor.

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