How to Stop Feeling Guilty After Overeating

Give the negative self-talk a rest and regroup with these expert tips.

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Another Thanksgiving dinner has come and gone and another day of healthy eating intentions has been thrown out with the turkey’s gizzards. But before you start beating yourself up with mental name-calling, know that berating yourself can do more damage than good.

“Your knee-jerk reaction is to hunker down and give yourself a stern tongue lashing to prevent from doing it again, but this won't help,” says Susan Albers, Psy.D., clinical psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic and author of 50 Ways to Soothe Yourself Without Food. “In these moments, summon your inner best friend,” she says. Tell yourself the positive, forgiving things you’d tell a loved one. In fact, research suggests that being compassionate helps you to do better next time. “Shame and guilt shut you down and make you either want to avoid thinking about it or it plunges you even deeper into emotional overeating,” she says. Here’s how to move on and refocus on your healthy eating plan.

Identify why you overdid it in the first place

It could be that you wanted a little bit of everything, or maybe you told yourself you won’t see these foods again for another year. Or perhaps stressful family situations caused you to take comfort in second helpings. “No one does holiday eating perfectly,” says Edward Abramson, Ph.D., professor emeritus of psychology at California State University and author of Emotional Eating. Use the experience as a learning opportunity, he suggests. If you were eating moderately until Aunt Mildred brought out the pecan pie after you already ate a slice of apple pie, walk yourself through the steps to figure out what you might do differently next time. Perhaps you’ll ask how many pies there will be, figure out which you’d prefer, and practice graciously declining the first pie while waiting for the preferred one.

Surround yourself with positive mantras

A healthy lifestyle is about “progress, not perfection,” says Albers. When you’re facing eating challenges in the near future, tell yourself, “I can only control this minute, I can’t change the past or control the future.” She also likes the phrases, "Tomorrow is another day,” “I don't like what I did, but I still like me,” and in the words of Taylor Swift, “Shake it off!”

Set your phone or computer calendar to have reminders pop up with favorite sayings, positive phrases and goals throughout the month—especially before you attend a party—to help you stay on track all season long. Sharing an encouraging quote or message on Twitter or Facebook can make you feel good too, Albers suggests.

Comfort yourself without calories

Stressing about eating isn’t doing yourself any favors. Stress triggers production of the hormone cortisol, which in turn can make you crave sugary, fatty foods, says Albers. Find cortisol-reducing activities, like drinking black tea (research suggests it can lead to as much as a 47 percent dip in cortisol). Or try self-massage, like placing a tennis ball under your foot and rolling it around to relieve achy feet. Three minutes of deep breathing can also help you to get and stay calm and centered, or try gentle stretching, like these four yoga poses that ease stress.

Set attainable daily goals

Use process goals, like a daily 15-minute walk, versus an outcome goal, such as losing five pounds, suggests Albers. Process goals are ones you set every day that eventually lead to an outcome goal. Crossing out a simple process goal daily will help you feel accomplished and stay focused. Added bonus? Research in the journal Appetite has shown that a brisk, 15-minute walk may help reduce chocolate cravings and keep your mind off of snacking.

Be mindful of scale behaviors

Don't hop on the scale daily, and especially after large meals. You’ll only feel discouraged and disappointed, which can lead to binge eating behaviors. “Obsessing about ups and downs on the scale can make or break your mood,” says Albers. According to the National Weight Control registry, 75 percent of people who’ve lost weight and kept it off for at least a year weigh themselves weekly, so do it the same day of the week, in the morning, and jot it down so you know where you stand throughout the month.

Researchers at Cornell University found that we make an average of 220-plus eating decisions a day and no one is going to get all of them right, says Abramson. Making healthy eating choices takes effort and isn’t done casually. “Adopting all-or-nothing thinking is self-punitive, and that drains the energy you need to stay on track,” says Abramson. “You have to be good to yourself in order to succeed at weight loss, so practice self-compassion often.”