Where the mind leads, the body follows isn’t just a great Instagram caption; it’s the truth. Your thoughts can build you up or break you down, and nowhere is that more true than when it comes to food. In fact, some of your beliefs might be keeping you from reaching your weight loss goals, and even hurting you. (Psst…Check out these 7 Weird Things That Might Be Widening Your Waist.)
You don’t need to live at the mercy of your mind. Check out these seven common-but-oh-so-wrong thoughts about food and see if any of them ring true for you:
“I can’t help it, I’m addicted to junk food.”
Believing that you are powerless in the face of tempting treats can lead to a vicious cycle of restriction and binges. One University of Liverpool study found that women who were randomly told they were “food addicts” then reported being very concerned about eating. While this helped them eat less of a subsequent snack food, the women also showed greater fear of food and enjoyed the food less, eating so quickly as to not even taste the treat.
One way to combat feeling helpless around food is to practice mindful eating, says Susan Albers, PsyD, a food psychologist and author of 50 More Ways to Soothe Yourself Without Food. Paying attention to what you eat and recognizing that you do have a choice can help you feel more in control of yourself and better about your food.
“Let’s celebrate over margaritas and pizza!”
Food and celebrations go together like, well, birthdays and cake. And there’s nothing wrong in taking pleasure from a delicious meal. The problem is when you use food as a reward or a punishment, Albers says. Rewards and junk food both release serotonin, the “feel-good” brain chemical. So when you constantly reward yourself with junk food you are programming a good emotion around bad foods. “Rewarding yourself with food is a dangerous habit that is often started in childhood by well-meaning parents,” she explains. “But a real reward is fitting well into your pants.”
“Devil’s food cake really is the devil.”
Demonizing certain foods may make you feel righteous but giving them that “bad” label can backfire by bringing out your inner rebel, according to a new Cornell University study. People who were told that “all sugary snacks are bad” ate 39 percent more cookies than people who were told a positive or neutral message about the snacks. Rather than policing your food with emotionally charged thoughts, the researchers recommend being more honest and balanced. “If you want to change what [you] eat, a more even-handed message that contains both positive and negative information is the way to go,” said Naomi Mandel, Ph.D., one of the authors.
“Granola bars are healthy, right?”
Many foods marketed as “healthy” or “all natural” come with a health halo they don’t necessarily deserve. But while those terms are completely meaningless and say nothing about the actual nutritional content, simply thinking a food is healthy can make you eat more of it, according to a recent study published in The Journal of the Association for Consumer Research. “When we think a food is healthier, we actually end up eating more calories than foods that we perceive to be less healthy,” she says. “This study makes a good case for being even more careful of your portion sizes when you believe the food is ‘healthy.’ Check the back of the package to make sure it is truly nutritious or just a marketing ploy.”
“I’m swearing off pizza forever!”
We’ve all been there: Feeling guilty about a splurge or depressed by our weight, we resolve to never eat junk food again, ever. Unfortunately, this type of black and white thinking is setting you up for failure, Albers says. Instead of making your favorite foods forever off limits, a practice she says can lead to bingeing later, set aside a time to sit quietly and fully enjoy every bite. “Recent research indicates that accepting rather than pushing away cravings helps to reduce them,” she explains. “It sounds counterintuitive, but fighting with yourself leads to poorer decisions.”
“Eating ice cream really does help me feel better after a breakup.”
There is something inherently calming about eating certain foods-it’s called comfort food for a reason! But just because it works doesn’t mean it’s the best option, Albers says, noting a study that found that people only felt less stressed for three minutes after giving into a chocolate craving. “We have the misguided belief that eating large quantities of delicious food will give us a lot of pleasure. Unfortunately, food is only pleasurable up until a point,” she says.
The trick is to find that line between feeling overstuffed and comfortably full, which requires being very sensitive to your body’s signals. This is why she recommends eating slowly, seated, and without distractions (no phone!), so you can really pay attention to how you’re feeling-and when you do, you’ll probably notice that your comfort food isn’t as comforting as you thought. (Related: Healthy Recipes For Your Favorite Comfort Foods)
“The only way to get rid of a craving is to indulge it”
Your first instinct might be to just eat the treat already, but this might backfire. (Here’s What Your Food Cravings Mean.) Many processed junk foods are designed to get you to eat more and more, so indulging may set off an insatiable desire to keep eating. But you can use that same mental power to combat cravings by having other tools at the ready, according to a Carnegie Mellon University study. Researchers found that people who simply imagined eating a food, in great detail, had fewer cravings for it. Other options include drinking a big glass of water, taking a walk, or starting a different activity. Just changing your situation can curb cravings.