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Overeating: It’s All In Your Head

Harnessing the Power

How did I get Suzie to remain convinced, at the moment of temptation, that the disadvantages outweighed the advantages? Practice, repetition, and reinforcement. Here are some of the most effective techniques:

1. List the disadvantages. I asked Suzie to make a detailed and extensive list of the disadvantages of eating pizza. She came up with over 30 items, including:

  • It’s fattening
  • I feel guilty afterwards
  • I could spend the money on something else
  • I’m more likely to become depressed
  • I’ll be less healthy
  • It adds to my difficulty fitting into clothes

The longer the list, the more powerful the technique, even if some items are repetitive. (Suzie wrote: “I’ll be less healthy,” “It will raise my cholesterol level,” and “I’ll be more susceptible to some diseases.”)

2. Vividly read through the disadvantages. I advised Suzie to read through the list of disadvantages every day, and to spend some time dwelling on each item at its worst. For “It’s fattening,” she would picture herself eating while getting fatter and fatter until she became hugely obese, then getting fatter still, and becoming increasingly uncomfortable because of her extra weight.

3. Practice imagining the disadvantages. Next, I asked Suzie to adopt the habit of vividly reminding herself of the disadvantages of compulsive eating, in situations where it was impracticable to refer to the list. When driving, while preparing or eating dinner, when walking down the street, waiting in line or on hold, she would vividly picture one of the disadvantages of pigging out.

Suzie liked to listen to music tapes while driving. We decided that when she first got into the car, she would spend a few minutes vividly imagining some of the disadvantages of overeating, before she allowed herself to put on a tape.

4. Referenting. I also explained to Suzie the principle of “referenting.” Whenever she thought of junk food, either spontaneously or in response to some external stimulus such as seeing an advertisement or the aroma of food, then she would immediately concentrate on some of the disadvantages on her list.

The first day Suzie began to use referenting, she was walking past a pizza parlor and looked in at the pizzas. She started to think about the tasty and pleasurable aspects of pizza, but quickly noticed the way her thoughts were going, and deliberately reminded herself: “Fattening . . . unhealthy . . . feeling regret afterwards . . . I won’t look good . . . won’t fit into my clothes . . .”

Consistent use of referenting caused Suzie to have a heightened and more immediate awareness of the disadvantages of overeating, so that the temptation to pig out became easier to overcome.

Meanwhile, Suzie employed Three Minute Exercises to challenge and topple her “musts.” Some of these “musts” were:

  • The pounds MUST come off quickly
  • Life SHOULD be more fun
  • I MUST be thinner, or else I’m less of a person
  • If I start to feel bored or dissatisfied, I MUST feel better right away

Suzie began to control her eating better, to feel better, and to drink less.

Suzie’s Setback

I was surprised and curious when Suzie arrived for her fourth session with a down-in-the-dumps air about her.

“Gee, I really blew it,” she announced, as she flopped down into the chair dejectedly.

“In what way?”

“Well, let’s see. I left here on Thursday night, went straight home, and watched some TV. All I had was an apple, a cup of decaf, and some popcorn. Oh yeah, some skim milk in the decaf, and that’s it.”

“Any butter, oil, or cheese on that popcorn?”

“No, I just got a hot air popper. All I put on was a pinch of salt.”

“Okay. Great.”

“Then Friday and Saturday went okay. Saturday, I went to a club with Sammy, but I didn’t have any beer or wine. Sunday, I had coffee with toast and a grapefruit, and tuna salad for dinner.”

“Sounds like an excellent week diet-wise, so far.”

“Yeah, I thought I was in control. But I don’t know what happened on Monday night. I was feeling kind of crummy about work. I went out for lunch and had a salad bar. But I started thinking about the cherry pie on display, and I was feeling very low and thought I’d have just a little pie to feel better. So I got one slice.”

“Uh-oh,” I said, with a tone of mock dismay.

“Well, when I slipped up like this the time before, I just reminded myself, as you told me: ‘So I had a setback. Too bad! That’s to be expected. I’ll just get right back on track.’ And I just snapped out of it, and it was no big deal. But this time, after the cherry pie, I was still feeling lousy, so I got another piece. So then I figured I’d really blown it, and I had cookies throughout the afternoon until I left work. Now I’m doing better again, I guess, but I’m still depressed about Monday.”

“It sounds as if you basically did quite okay this week, except for that isolated cherry pie and cookies incident. But let’s look a little closer at what went on in your head. You slipped up with the pie, which was natural.

“Yes. But the time before I recovered quickly-immediately after the slip-up.”

“Right. But what were you telling yourself this time after you finished the first piece of cherry pie?”

“I don’t know. I think I was comparing my last quick recovery to this time.”

“And was the ‘must’: ‘I MUST recover quickly . . .’?”

“Yeah, that was it.”

“So you were telling yourself: ‘Last time I immediately felt determined to get back on track, but now I’m still feeling lousy, I haven’t recovered, and therefore I’m a hopeless failure. So I’ll just be fat for the rest of my life.”

“That’s it! I felt I MUST recover quickly, just like the time before.”

Overeating: It’s All In Your Head

Michael R. Edelstein, Ph.D.

APA Reference
Edelstein, M. (2018). Overeating: It’s All In Your Head. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 26, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Oct 2018 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Oct 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.