3 Psychological Tips for Healthy Eating

Like so many goals in life, eating well is tough because powerful psychological obstacles often get in the way…

  • We find yourselves mindlessly snacking because we’ve let our stress levels get too high and don’t have better ways to manage them
  • We get upset and take comfort in the momentary pleasure and relief of ice cream or chocolate
  • We criticize ourselves for small slip-ups, which leads to shame, and even bigger binges or giving up entirely

If you struggle with healthy eating, here are a handful of psychological principles that can help…

1. Distinguish hunger from craving

Hunger is what you feel when you need food. Craving is what you feel when you want food.

When you feel the desire to eat something, it can be helpful to pause for a couple seconds and ask yourself this question:

Do I actually need food or do I just want it?

If the former, proceed mindfully. If the latter, here’s a helpful follow-up question:

Do I actually want food or do I want the pleasure, relief, novelty, or some other secondary effect it brings?

If that’s the case, you can then ask yourself if there’s another way to get the same result without eating…

  • Could I get some pleasure by taking a hot bath?
  • Could I get some stress relief by going for a short walk or doing some self-massage?
  • Could get some novelty and boredom-relief by browsing my favorite Reddit thread?
  • Could I get relief from loneliness by writing a letter to my best friend?

Try not to use food to address emotional needs that would be better met in other ways.

Learn More: 4 Tips for Building a Healthier Relationship with Your Emotions

2. Manage your stressors assertively

Much of unhealthy eating is a coping mechanism for stress. And as we discussed above, there are probably better ways to cope with stress.

But if you left things there, you’d be missing the forest for a tree…

Stress management is a losing proposition if you’re unwilling to manage the stressors causing stress in the first place.

You overeat because it’s you default way to manage stress. But why do you have so much stress that needs managing in the first place? Why do you have so many unchecked stressors?

One answer is that you’re not very good at setting boundaries and managing your stressors assertively…

  • You have a hard time saying no when your manager or coworkers ask you to do extra work, work on the weekends, reply to email immediately, etc.
  • You always pick up the phone and answer anytime your father calls even though you know there’s a 95% chance he spends 30 minutes complaining about his new girlfriend and asking you for advice.
  • You have a hard time saying no to your kid wanting to read 27 stories before bed even though you know that the evening is the only time you have to exercise, which is a huge part of self-care for you.

Stress management, by food or anything else, is a Band-Aid at best.

If you really want to reduce stress-eating, you have to confront root causes of your stress directly and set healthy boundaries on them.

Learn More:

3. Clarify the values behind wanting to eat well

Values are the why behind our goals…

  • If you goal is to become a doctor, the value behind that goal might be service or esteem — that is, being of service to people, or being held in high regard by others, is the why behind the goal of becoming a doctor.
  • If your goal is to write a book, the value behind that goal might be creativity or personal growth — that is, expressing your creativity, or pushing yourself to grow, is the why behind your goal of writing a book.

It’s important to know what your reason for pursuing a goal is because, among other things, our values are what give us internal motivation to achieve and stick with our goals.

And this is true of the goal of healthy eating….

You will only stay motivated to follow through on eating well if you have a strong value motivating you.

But as it turns out, simply having a value behind your goal of healthy eating isn’t itself very motivating… Health for example, might be a value behind your goal to stick with a plan for healthy eating. But on its own, health is just a concept without much motivating pull.

Values only motivate us when they’re clear and specific.

Imagine two people with the same goal eating well and the same value of health as the why behind that goal…

  • Bob, what’s the value behind your goal of eating well? To be healthy, I guess… Anything else? I dunno… My doctor just said I need to do this diet so I can lose weight and bring my blood pressure down. I just wanna be healthy.
  • Judy, what’s the value behind your goal of healthy eating? I want to be healthy because I know that when I’m healthy I have so much more energy and enthusiasm to do the things I love… I look forward to getting up early to hike in the mountains… I can play with my grandkids all afternoon without getting tired… And my sex life is much better and more enjoyable when I’m eating well and at a good weight.

Now, if you had to put money on who’s more likely to stick to their goal of healthy eating, Bob or Judy, who would you choose?

Judy, of course!

And why? Because she has a value behind her goal that’s clear, specific, and as a result, is far more likely to keep her motivated to stick with her plan for healthy eating.

So, if you want to increase your odds of eating well long-term, try this:

  1. Set aside some time to identify the values behind your goal of eating well. Once you’ve identified a handful, try to narrow it down to the one you think will be the most motivating.
  2. Now, clarify that value and get really specific about it. What would it look like, feel like, taste like, if you were living out that value? If you’ve been better about living out that value in the past, recall what it was like with as much detail and specificity as possible.
  3. Every day, take five minutes to visualize that value in action. By imagining all the details and specifics of what life will look like when you’re truly living your value out, you’ll be summoning a powerful swell of motivation to help you stick with the challenges of a new diet.

Learn More: A Guide to Values Clarification

All You Need to Know

If you want to consistently eat well, managing your mind well is at least as important as food plans and counting calories. Here are three tips to help:

  • Distinguish hunger from craving
  • Manage your stressors assertively
  • Clarify the values behind wanting to stick to a good diet


Add Yours

Well, Alex, I’m guessing you’re a man who attempts to insult women regarding their appearance when he can’t match their intelligence, knowledge and education to discuss the topic at hand. When that doesn’t work, you resort to a more general put down like “Karen.” It’s very clear what you are doing and it’s inappropriate and immature.

The message I understood from Nick mentions the emotions and thought patterns that may draw us towards food.
Eating healthier is better for our bodies, we probably realise this, sometimes we get pulled into reaching for unhealthy food, Nick is pointing out why we respond as we do reaching out for food that isn’t necessarily needed.
Thank you Nick so much for explaining the psychological reasons behind eating.
I understand we all read things and may deduce different information.
If a professional person is writing offering their insights wouldn’t it be better for all if we had a more appreciative and grateful attitude.
Thank you Nick for your valuable insights.

Daniela – the only people who should be concerned with hormones are Endocrinologists.
As for damaged metabolisms, that is very outdated info.

I’m quite alarmed you are claiming to be an emotional eating coach when your views around food are this wild.
You are targeting vulnerable people with this dangerous misinformation, and yes I will say it’s dangerous because it is.
You are working with members of the community who are already struggling with food, then trying to coach them with this quackery such as metabolic damage, insulin resistance & damage to the heart, lungs & kidneys! come on really?!

I’d suggest finding an evidence based course to learn from before working with anyone regarding nutrition.. even more so with emotional eaters.

Please do better.

As a registered dietitian/nutritionist, I appreciate this article. A lot of my practice is spent on helping people find their motivations (ie clarifying their values) to make healthier choices, build confidence and identify support to continue being motivated, and what to do when they face challenges rather than eating out of anxiety, sadness or boredom as some might habitually do. I am not trained in psychology, but these themes always come up and I always find myself referring to one of Nick’s articles (in addition to therapy). This will be another great addition. Thanks Nick and keep them coming!

Beautiful article and very true that whenever we control or stick to any habits if disturb, by any means, it manifests in low lying stress which complicates in ways you explained in this articles.
Very nicely explained.

Every diet works
Every exercise regimen works
Every weight loss apparatus, machine, equipment, etc works
What fails is human intent, focus, perseverance, etc, etc.
It’s all a form of “mental trickery” on your own mind
Learn to master your own mind, without drugs, therapy, $$$
Do the “Sedona Method” and you’ll lose weight & a LOT MORE

I found this really helpful, and forwarded it immediately to two friends. Thanks, Nick. As so often, you say things which seem so obvious when you see them written down, and yet had never quite clicked before.

Wow! I am quite surprised by the negative and nasty comments. I can see disagreeing with someone, however, doing it constructively makes better sense. Actually I agree with a lot of what this article has to say. Losing weight & maintaining it is difficult but necessary if one wants to be healthy. I think there are a number of very useful tips in this article if this is a journey one chooses to be on……

I find this article quite useful as I am a nutrition specialist and health coach and cravings (and giving into them) is at the top of the list of struggles with people that I work with.

I am a bit surprised by the negative comments. It is obvious by the articles on this website, that the author is trying to help people.

I love the articles on this site and now I am off to read some more.

Oprah once commented that that one can eat anything in SMALL portions – once you make the connection, you’re home free; Don’t snack in between meals, drink water – rehidrate once a week; Don’t skip breakfast – you need fuel for the day; Make lunch and not dinner your main course for the day; Exercise – even if you just do a cardio on an exercise bike at home – (if you don’t make time – even just 15 min, you’ll have to make time for illness) you’ll feel better and enjoy life 🙂

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