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.


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.