I’ve had many conversations with clients (with friends and acquaintances too) who aren’t really sure what behaviors are appropriate around food. Small wonder. Fearing it smacks of dieting, they don’t know if any restriction of food is kosher or wonder if overeating due to stress means they’re abusing food. Even in the realm of exercise, they’re unsure of how much is enough. Although there are no hard and fast answers to these questions, there are ways to think these issues through effectively.

Let’s take the question of whether it’s ever okay to consciously rein in your eating. Of course it is. If you’ve been overeating on vacation, dining out, hosting house guests, or over the holidays, it’s fine/normal/natural/healthy to be aware of it and cut back for a while. What you want to avoid is extremes, feeling deprived, and making a negative judgment about yourself or your eating. So you might avoid certain foods or make an extra effort to eat smaller portions until you’ve shed the excess pounds you’ve gained. If you expect you’ll be eating a lot at dinner, have a scaled down lunch. If you ate too much yesterday, eat a bit less today. This is all part of “normal” eating behavior.

Don’t panic if you’ve been eating comfortably for a while and hit a bump in the road that triggers overeating, likely stress-induced. Your first thought might be that you’ve relapsed and that there’s something wrong. Nothing’s wrong. It’s natural to return to old behavior under stress. So be super compassionate and kind to yourself. When you realize you’re engaging in stress eating, rather than berate yourself, consider ways to relieve stress without food. Remind yourself that you’ve been doing fine with eating and will again after the stress has passed and as you learn better ways of handling it.

Regarding exercise, if you know you’ll be eating a lot tomorrow, it’s fine to do a bit more exercise to compensate. Note the words “a bit more.” That doesn’t mean hours on the treadmill or at the gym. Ditto if you overate yesterday and your body feels sluggish and bloated, there’s no crime in doing an extra 15 minutes on the treadmill if you’re up to it. Don’t push yourself if you’re not, but if you’re enjoying moving your body, a few minutes extra don’t mean you’re caught up in an exercise obsession.

Nuanced self-regulation is difficult for people who are disregulated around food and weight. You may fear falling back into old addictive patterns or all-or-nothing thinking, but the only way to avoid this and to develop a felt sense of what’s right for your body is to make conscious choices and intentionally regulate your behavior.