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How to Replace Mindless Eating with New Habits

  • Eating

While reading an article on research about anorexia nervosa being rooted in habit—not extreme self-discipline—I ran across the comment that for treatment to be successful, “Habits have to be replaced with another behavior.” It was made by Dr. Timothy Walsh, psychiatry professor at the psychiatric institute at Columbia University (“Anorexia may be habit, not willpower, study finds” by Erica Goode, NY Times, 10/12/15)

How true. Too often therapists ask dysregulated eaters to give up mindless, compulsive, or emotional eating and that is the end of the story. We don’t advise them on how to do that and what to do instead of eating. Unless you have a substitute, you're going to have a harder job not acting on impulse when a craving comes along.

Why haven’t you given up impulsive eating even when you feel determined to do so? It makes sense that you won’t stop it unless and until you find a better alternative. If you don’t find—and practice—whatever that something is, you’ll be left with the feelings that drove you to eat in the first place. In the long run, you’ll need to learn to experience feelings such as loneliness, boredom, sadness, frustration, etc. Emotional health means the ability to feel every emotion that crops up. In the short run, you’ll benefit from having a behavior that’s an effective substitute for eating until you learn how to better deal with uncomfortable affects.

Think about the actions you can take to replace mindless or emotional eating. Come up with at least two possibilities for every trigger situation in which you eat without hunger.

  • If you have low energy in the afternoon and are used to eating a candy bar, instead, take a walk or eat an apple.
  • If you’re stressed when your spouse or partner goes out of town for a few days, leaving you alone with the kids, and turn to ice cream to comfort yourself, make a new habit of calling a friend or downloading a movie to watch.
  • If you get upset after spending time visiting an aging parent and swing by for a fast food pick-me-up treat on the way home, listen to some great music in the car or plan to make yourself a cup of tea when you arrive home.

Stop relying on will power to prevent you from eating foods which you’re accustomed to eating in certain situations. Science tells us that will power does not help us avoid mindless eating, but that planning an activity—that is, changing a habit—does. Spend a bit of time devising new habits and soon they will replace your mindless eating.