Eating the Way You “Should”

Are you constantly telling yourself that your eating should be a certain way?

Do you believe you should never eat over a certain amount?

Do you think you should or should not be eating certain foods or at certain times?

When you have a lot of “shoulds” around eating, it creates pressure and stress each time you have a meal or snack.

I want to help you have more peace with food, and a big part of that is not getting caught up in thinking that there’s one right way that you should be eating at any given moment.

 Are Your “Shoulds” Leading to Binges?

It’s exhausting to think that there are exact rules to follow with food or that you’re supposed to eat “right” at each meal. You may have thoughts saying, “you’re eating too much, or not enough, or at the wrong times, or too fast, or too slow, or in the wrong place, or with the wrong mindset.” It may feel like you’re always thinking your eating should somehow be different than what it is.

This gets more complicated when you have a binge eating habit, because what tends to happen is that the “shoulds” end up triggering urges to binge. This is because bingeing behavior is often strongly connected to breaking a diet or eating what you think is too much of something, and then thinking “screw it, I’ve already failed, I might as well eat everything and start over tomorrow.” If this has been your diet-binge pattern, then your brain will automatically suggest binge eating at times when you feel you messed up with your eating (even if you’re not trying to diet anymore).

In effect, your brain offers binge eating as a “solution” to eating in a way you think you shouldn’t have eaten.

For example, if you tell yourself that you should avoid food before a certain time of day, and then you eat something before that time, you may have thoughts like, “you’re a failure, you’ll never get it right, so you should just give up and binge.”

You Know You Should Not Be Bingeing

It’s important to realize that the brain has formed a connection between thinking that you did not eat right and encouraging you to eat in a way that you absolutely know that you should not be eating.

Looking at this logically, you can see that it doesn’t make sense. You know binge eating is the furthest thing from a solution to breaking your “shoulds” around food, but if you have this habitual pattern, it can seem very real and convincing in the moment. Instead of learning to accept imperfection in your eating, you may end up in a cycle of trying to eat perfectly, and then not being able to do that (because no one can eat perfectly!), and then jumping right back into bingeing.

You can certainly dismiss any urge to binge regardless of the what the binge-encouraging thoughts say, but what can also help in this specific situation is to stop thinking that you should be eating in a certain way in the first place.

Questioning the “Shoulds” 

It’s difficult to go through life with rigid “shoulds” and a lot of self-criticism surrounding them. Even if you stop bingeing, you don’t want to continue this form of stress. Now, I realize there are certain people who need to eat in a certain way due to health issues/food allergies/sensitivities, and Brain over Binge Coach Julie and I recently discussed this in Episode 147: Redefining Restriction. However, most of the rules people create for themselves are not related to specific health problems, but instead, the rules are based on something they’ve heard or seen about the way they should be eating (and it’s usually aimed at weight-loss).

I want you to start questioning your “shoulds” surrounding food:

Where did these rules come from?

What if it’s not true that the way you think you should be eating is the way you really should be eating?

What if there are not any actual “shoulds” around food?

If we go back to the previous example of thinking you should not eat before a certain time in the day… What if that’s simply not true? Or what if that’s not true for you personally? Or what if it’s just not right for you right now? What if it’s totally optional to eat whenever you decide to?

A way you can recognize your should thoughts as just thoughts and not absolute truths is to consider that other people may have completely opposite should thoughts

If you think that you should avoid eating in the morning, someone else might think they absolutely should eat breakfast because it’s the most important meal.

If you think you should not eat meat, there are people out there who think that they should be eating mostly or only meat.

If you think you should not eat carbohydrates, there are people out there who believe they should because the best diet is based primarily in carbohydrates.

I want you to start believing that you can make your own authentic decisions about food without all of the arbitrary rules. If there is truly something that you feel you need to change about your eating, there’s nothing wrong with making adjustments, but you can make those changes because you want to and from a place of self-care, not from a place of creating rigid “shoulds.”

Drop the “Shoulds,” Create More Peace with Food

You can learn to see that there are simply food choices—which are neutral–and then there is feedback from your body about what foods work best for you. Even if sometimes you choose to eat foods that don’t tend to make you feel good, you can just go on with your life without the self-criticism and without thinking that you “blew it and you might as well binge.”

I encourage you to start dropping the pressure that you’re putting on yourself and to consider that you should be eating in the way that you are eating in any given moment. (I’m of course talking about eating habits that are not bingeing).

It gives you so much freedom to think: “maybe I ate exactly as I should have in this situation.”

This is not about tricking yourself into thinking that you ate healthy when you clearly didn’t, or that you ate the perfect amount when you feel like you overate, but it is about accepting the way that you ate in that moment. Maybe there is something to learn from the way you ate, or maybe not, but either way, you can simply move on without all of the overthinking.

Consider that you can just eat and let it be what it is. 

You can make a decision about food that you think is best for you (for whatever reason), eat the food, let go of any negative thoughts about it, and redirect your focus back to living. And then the next time you eat, you can just repeat this process—all the while thinking this is the way it should be.

Deciding what and when to eat is a lifelong journey, and you may certainly take into account health information, or what foods are going to make you feel the best, or what time it is, or when you’ll be eating again, or where you are, or who you’re eating with, or what foods you have available, or what you can even afford. But a sound decision for any given moment does not have to involve harsh “shoulds.”

Keep Food Decisions Neutral or Positive

If you stop to think about it, you could find flaws in any food decision, and even if you can’t, someone else probably could. You already know you can avoid a binge when you eat imperfectly, but you don’t even have to focus on the imperfection. You don’t have to tell yourself, “I did not eat perfectly, but that’s okay, I can still avoid a binge.” Yes, that’s true, but instead, you can choose to keep it neutral and just say, “I ate,” and that can be the end of the story for that meal or snack.

As I’ve said, there certainly may be lessons to take away from any eating experience, but there’s no use dwelling on what you feel was not perfect. You can even spin it in a positive direction by saying, “I ate, and it was delicious, or it was just what I needed, or it hit the spot, or it will give me energy for living.”

Positive after-meal thoughts will help train your brain to associate eating with decisiveness, confidence, and satisfaction, and it will break the habit of constantly second guessing yourself.

Giving yourself the freedom to decide what to eat without all of the “shoulds” does not mean that you’re going to suddenly start choosing all unhealthy foods. In fact, it will probably greatly improve your eating because you’ll avoid the mindset of thinking that you “blew it so you might as well eat everything in sight.”

You can still make healthy choices, but you can do that without rigid “shoulds.” Any healthier choices you make can be from your own insights into what is most helpful for you, and you can be kind to yourself in the process. You’ll realize that eating does not have to be so hard, and you’ll see that you’re doing so much better than you think.

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If you want more help as you let go of the “shoulds” and create more peace with food, you can check out the following Brain over Binge resources:

One-on-one Coaching – Book a 45-minute private and highly personalized session with Kathryn or Coach Julie. You will learn to change your thinking, uncover what is holding you back, and get on a path to complete freedom from food issues.

Group Coaching – Get help from coach Julie and support from others who are overcoming this habit. Includes a forum that is open 24/7, group coaching calls, mindfulness resources, plus course access.

Brain over Binge Course – Self-paced online lessons (plus an app) for only $18.99/month. Includes over 125 tracks to listen to that give you the information and answers you need as you end binge eating.

Restriction in Binge Eating Recovery

Ep. 147: Redefining Restriction (with Coach Julie)

Ep. 142

Ep. 142: Allowing What Is (with Coach Julie)

Thinking Too Much About Food?

Is food constantly in your thoughts? Even if you’re not having urges to binge, are you incessantly thinking about eating?

This post will help you learn to manage these bothersome food thoughts.

You can listen to a audio version of what follows at BrainoverBinge.com/subscribe (Scroll down on that page until you see the audio except from course Lesson 8: Food Thoughts)

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In addition to your struggles with bingeing, you may feel like food takes up too much of your brain space. If you’re around food, you may have a hard time focusing on anything else. Even if you’re not necessarily thinking about binge eating or feeling that impulse to eat very large quantities of food, you might be thinking about what’s in your refrigerator or what you’re going to eat next.

You may be at work and trying to get things done, and all you can think about is getting your lunch, even if you’re not hungry yet. If this is the case for you, you may find yourself eating just to make those incessant thoughts about eating go away. Eating might feel like it just quiets your mind for a minute—but then once you’re done eating—it’s possible that more thoughts start to pop up about what you’re going to have next. It can feel exhausting to be constantly thinking about eating or trying to talk yourself out of eating. Understandably, you want to be able to concentrate on the rest of your life and not just concentrate on food.

It’s definitely not your fault that you’re feeling this way and that you’re having these incessant thoughts, but it’s important to accept that this is simply the way that your brain is wired at this point in time. Getting upset at the food thoughts, or strongly wishing they would go away, or getting upset at yourself is only going bring more attention to these food thoughts. So as much as you can, try not to react emotionally to these thoughts. Notice them with a level of detachment, so that you’re observing these thoughts without so much judgment.

As far as why your brain seems to be so zoned in on food, there could be various reasons for it. One factor could be a natural tendency based in your genetics that does make you more attracted to food. Everyone is different, and some people do find food more rewarding than others. This doesn’t mean anything is wrong with you. It’s just part of a normal variation. The reason that you’re so zoned in on food could also have to do with past dieting and the fact that your lower brain is still trying to protect you—by encouraging you to eat as much as possible.

This fixation on food could have something to do with conditioning from childhood—if you were constantly given food—and now your body and brain still expects that constant supply of food. It’s possible that a partial cause could be some of the types of food that you’re eating, which may be causing drops in blood sugar and therefore some thoughts about getting more food to get your blood sugar back up. Another cause could be that the binge eating itself has trained your brain to make food a priority, even when you’re not bingeing.

But whatever the theoretical cause may be, you can learn to redirect your focus and change this habit of thinking about food too much—and  if the cause has anything to do with the types of food you’re eating, you can look at that as well. Even if the cause has some of its roots in you being more genetically attracted to food and rewarding experiences, that does not mean you’re destined to be constantly consumed with food thoughts. Knowing your tendencies helps you deal with those tendencies appropriately. Once you’re self-aware of whatever your susceptibilities may be, you can take steps to help yourself.

For example, if you’re naturally prone to anxiety or worrisome thoughts, you can be prepared for them and you can use strategies for calming yourself down in difficult moments. If you’re naturally more prone to focus on food, then you can be prepared for the thoughts to come up and you can use strategies that help you turn your attention elsewhere. This tendency is probably very common, but it does not have to interfere with your life. Everyone is susceptible to something, but your genetics and your brain-based tendencies are not your destiny. Your brain is plastic, it can change. You can teach it to function at its best, and take advantage of your strengths—and you can simply be aware of some of the thoughts and the behaviors that you’re at risk of engaging in, and then take steps to prevent that.

So far, I’ve basically explained some of the possible reasons you may be focused on food and why it’s important to accept it, and also believe that change is possible. I’ve also mentioned that learning to refocus your attention will be very important to changing this tendency. Through the rest of this discussion, I’m going to give you some suggestions for learning to shift your attention away from food and onto other things.

My first suggestion is to set the proper expectations.

Even when you bring your food thoughts down to a normal level, you should still expect to have food thoughts. Normal eaters enjoy eating, they look forward to eating, they certainly may have thoughts that pop into their head while they’re working or doing other things about what they’re going to eat next. They’ll probably look forward to their lunch break or look forward to getting home for dinner. Normal eaters also have feelings of desire surface when they have these food thoughts. They may think about how delicious something is going to be. They’ll definitely look forward to eating a great dessert. If their favorite food is around at a party, they may be thinking about it more than they would like to.

These examples are just to show you that you do not need to label all of your food thoughts as problematic. It’s normal to have a desire for food and thoughts about food. But I want that to have its proper place in your life and not feel like it’s taking over your mind. You’ll want to get to a place where your thoughts about food feel more fleeting, and less incessant. You’re certainly capable of bringing your food thoughts down to a level that feels much healthier to you, but make sure you’re not expecting them to go away completely.

My second suggestion for refocusing your attention is to notice when you’re not thinking about food.

I know it can sometimes feel that you’re thinking about food all the time, but I know that there are moments in the day when you’re not thinking about it. There are times when you’re focusing fully on your work or on something else in your life. I want you to notice that and see that your brain does have the capacity to go in other directions. Now, I realize that looking for those moments that you’re not thinking about food and then possibly saying, “Wow, this is great. I’m not thinking about food right now” can possibly have the unintended effect of making you then think about food. So try to do this in a way that you’re just observing your mind in a relaxed way, instead of constantly judging whether or not you’re thinking about food in that particular moment.

My third suggestion is to notice when your mind wanders onto other things that are not food, and then realize that the food thoughts don’t have to have so much significance.

I’m going to explain what I mean by this. Right now you may be thinking that when your mind wanders, food is the only thing that it’s turning to. But when you step back and observe your mind, you’ll notice that you have wandering thoughts of other things as well—but the difference is that you don’t take those other thoughts so seriously. You likely don’t get mad at those other thoughts that your mind is creating. You don’t criticize yourself for having those thoughts. You don’t think those other thoughts mean that you’re diseased or damaged. You just let those thoughts come and go.

Try to view your food thoughts as just one type of countless thoughts that run through your head during the day. When you view the food thought just like any other thought, you’ll see that you can have the food thoughts running through your head and still do what you need to do in your life—because that’s exactly what you do when you’re experiencing other types of thoughts.

My last suggestion for redirecting your attention is to simply refocus, refocus, refocus.

When you notice the food thoughts, you can redirect your attention back to the present moment and focus on whatever you’re doing or whatever you want to focus on. You may need to refocus a lot at first, but it will get easier over time. You could compare this to a meditation practice. When you do a meditation practice, your mind naturally wanders, and then you bring your attention back to a focal point or a mantra. And when you first start a meditation practice, you may need to refocus your attention on the mantra or on the focal point hundreds of times, even within just a minute—but it gets easier over time, and your brain starts to stay more and more focused on what you want to be focusing on.

It’s the same with the food thoughts. You may need to bring your attention back from the food thoughts onto something else many, many times before it starts to become more effortless and the food thoughts start appearing less and less. Your brain learns that the thoughts you focus attention on are the ones that are important to you, and will keep producing those thoughts over and over; but when you stop focusing attention on certain thoughts, the brain will learn that those thoughts have less significance to you, and the food thoughts will stop being so intrusive in your life.

One last thing I want to mention here is that, if you are struggling with incessant food thoughts—just make sure that you are eating enough food. Everything I’ve said here assumes that the problem does not lie in current restriction. If you are restricting and you start nourishing yourself well, you’ll likely find that a lot of these food thoughts simply go away on their own.

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More help:

If you want extra guidance as you learn to develop a healthy relationship with exercise, food, and weight, here are some resources for additional support:

Brain over Binge Course – Self-paced online lessons (plus an app) for only $18.99/month. Includes over 125 tracks to listen to that give you the information and answers you need as you end binge eating.

Group Coaching – Get help from coach Julie and support from others who are overcoming this habit. Includes a forum that is open 24/7, weekly group coaching calls, mindfulness resources, plus course access.

One-on-one Coaching – Book a 45-minute private session with coach Julie. She will help you change your thinking, uncover what is holding you back, and get on a path to complete freedom from food issues.

Dr. Amy Johnson the mind binge eating

Ep. 89: The Mind & Binge Eating, 5 Common Patterns (with Dr. Amy Johnson)

desire a binge free life

Ep 87: Start Desiring a Binge-Free Life

I Don't Know How to Eat

Ep. 86: Stop Thinking “I Don’t Know How to Eat”