21 micro habits that make weight loss stick #10: Stop fooling yourself.
When we want to eat, but we’re not hungry, our brains justify it, says Eating Psychology Coach Laura Lloyd.
Here, she talks you through why we eat behind our own backs, how to bring all your eating onto your own radar, and get emotionally honest with yourself so that you can start learning to think and behave differently.
Don’t worry – we all do it! We all make excuses to eat when we just like the look of the food.
When we’re overeating, or eating when we’re not actually hungry, we have the engrained habit of giving in to urges to eat.
Your brain knows that you usually give in. It expects you to.
If you have a fleeting thought like ‘that looks good’, and you don’t respond to it, your brain ups the ante to get the expected reward.
It starts cranking out these persuader thoughts. It just wants you to do your habits! Your brain runs on habit. It likes pleasure. Avoids discomfort. Takes the easy way. That’s your genius.
Here are some of the justifications your brain uses to tell you to eat whenever you get the slightest urge to:
Justifications pop up in our head like these (and the implication is, ‘eating this right now is OK because…’)
- I didn’t have XYZ earlier.
- I’ll just have less later.
- I have a headache.
- It’s healthy.
- I’ll just have one.
- I’ll just open the cupboard door and see what’s in there.
- They’re only broken biscuits, they don’t really count.
- I might get hungry later otherwise.
- It’s free.
- I paid for it, so I’m going to get my money’s worth.
- It’s Friday. It’s my birthday. It’s the dog’s birthday.
- Everyone else is eating.
- It’s still just one scoop, technically, even though I’m using a tablespoon.
And just to be clear – eating when you aren’t hungry is ‘OK’ – if you like your choice afterwards.
There’s no morality going on over here!
We’re just trying to stop you being at war with yourself, and going to bed wishing you’d showed up differently.
That’s the feeling that drains you.
Guilt and regret over what you ate will deplete your confidence, erode your sense of self-worth and self-belief.
The problem is, when we fool ourselves like this, lie to ourselves and believe our own BS for long enough to give in to the urge and eat the thing, most of the time there’s a feeling of unease afterwards.
Regret. Guilt. Shifty.
One part of you wanted to. Another part wished you hadn’t.
You wonder why the voice that would have called out the argument you were trying to persuade yourself with was so quiet at that moment, whereas afterwards it seems pretty obvious you’d actually rather you hadn’t eaten it.
A little bit of my own personal story:
One good experience I’ve had of diets – and I don’t recommend dieting as a strategy, by the way, but I think it’s interesting to see why they feel so good for that first couple of weeks we try them – is that they generally make you get very real about what you’re eating.
A while ago I had a little play inside Noom – I’m sure you’ve heard of it, it’s a weight loss app that gives you bitesized chunks of psycho-education alongside calorie-counting, recording and planning your food, and seeing a colour-coded analysis of what you ate with a traffic-light system showing you which foods are higher caloric density than others.
There were good things about Noom, and maddening things about it – I won’t go into a full review of it here – but here’s what I learned: When I had to figure out how many calories were in the food I was preparing, (which was the first time I’d looked at calories since I was 15) it did make me get real and honest with myself about what I was eating.
- I couldn’t pretend that eating 10 walnuts while I ran to the car ‘didn’t count’ because when you added up the calories, they starkly seemed to.
- I couldn’t just guess at what the calories were in a ‘serving’ of porridge, because I had never weighed anything in my life, and had no idea if I was eating a double portion or not.
- I couldn’t tell myself a sliver of cake didn’t matter – it was clearly quantifiable.
- If you added up a lot of little bits and bobs, your daily calorie total soon filled up.
And you know what? After bugging myself about my eating and feeling like I wasn’t really facing up to it for a while, it was really energising and refreshing to be honest with myself, and factual and realistic.
So – obviously I’m not now on Noom, nor would I recommend it (because the coaching is too superficial for me, and I find the colour-coding dodgy, and having a calorie limit restrictive which would have aggravated my binge eating tendencies if I’d tried to do it long-term) – but since becoming Noom-free I have tried to take some of the honesty that I felt when I recorded what I’d eaten, back into my lifestyle.
I mean, I want to be clear that I’m not counting calories or weighing things, because counting and measuring is way too much bother for me. I’d never ask any coaching client of mine to do that stuff either! It’s not part of my method.
(The exception is though that I’ll look up the calories in something I’m woefully abusing, to shake myself back to reality – like if I’m pretending to myself that banana chips are just a free for all because they are fruit, for example. But that’s the only time.)
But each day now, I do look at what I’ve eaten today, and whether I liked my choices. I try to notice if I was using any excuses to eat when I wasn’t hungry, and weed out those thoughts so I’m prepared to laugh them off or talk back to them when my brain offers them up.
And that’s what I do in my coaching too.
When we’re not in coaching, usually we accept all of our justifications and excuses unquestioningly.
We don’t notice ourselves eating behind our own back.
In fact, we don’t even really notice our thinking around food – our decisions to eat can happen pretty quickly, and we just give into the brain’s rhetoric.
This is pretty funny when you think about it.
You pretend to yourself, and then you believe your own self-deception.
Why do we deceive ourselves about what we’re eating?
I guess it’s painful, admitting that we’re acting against our former intentions.
It’s awful, confronting our own self-sabotage, when we know we have dreams – weight loss, focus at work, romance – and yet in the moment, do things that are going to take us in the opposite direction.
And, we just don’t want to stay in the decision space and reason with ourselves, so we just give in, eat the thing, end the urge that way.
And because we’re afraid we’ll beat ourselves up so badly if we realise what we’re doing.
We are scared of our own self-judgment.
Deceiving yourself about what you’re eating is like a child hiding a broken ornament under their bed.
So, in order to bring your excuses and justifications into the daylight, you have to first agree with yourself that you’re going to be very interested in them.
Thinking back to that analogy of the child who’s hidden an accident or a mistake they felt guilty about or thought they’d be in trouble for…
Imagine you’re the parent – of course you’d be cheesed off it happened. But it happened.
Once you realised how bad and scared they felt, you’d stop yourself rushing in there with all guns blazing, right?
You might not be all sweetness and light – perhaps you really cared for that china leopard, perhaps it was a family heirloom or cost you a week’s savings – but you still take the time to find out, by asking gently, exactly how it happened.
What happened first?
What happened next?
What were you feeling?
What did you say to yourself about it?
What did you think it meant about you?
What repercussions were you anticipating?
What have you learned?
What would you prefer to do next time?
When you just judge and punish, or let the slip-up stay hidden and never spoken of again, you miss the chance of all this learning.
You just increase the chance that it’ll happen again, because you never learn better.
The only thing that changes is the shame and misery and regret pile up and up. You think ‘I should know better’, but you never learn HOW to know better.
So be brave. Stop being too scared of yourself to be honest with yourself, and that’s how you’ll stop overeating. I promise you, you can handle the truth.
Just get your journal, and write down what you ate in the most factual way you can.
Then, instead of regret, say to yourself: That’s exactly what happened. I’ve got my eyes open, and now I’m trying to figure this out.’