Change Your Thinking to End Emotional Overeating

Emotional Overeating

Celebrity Russell Brand, a self-confessed emotional overeater with a history of bulimia and bipolar disorder, said it well. While overeating, “I’m expecting food to do something for me that food is not designed to do,” Brand says. “Food is not designed to provide comfort.”

If you struggle with emotional overeating like Brand, you likely spend a lot of time thinking about food and seeking comfort from it for life’s troubles. To stop overeating, however, it might be more helpful to start thinking about your thinking instead.

Emotional overeaters, by definition, are prone to negative thinking or, to use the concept we originated here at Amen Clinics, ANTs: automatic negative thoughts.

If you struggle with emotional overeating, you probably think a lot about food. However, to stop overeating start thinking about your thinking instead. Click To Tweet


Once an ANT infestation sets in, your brain releases chemicals that impact every cell in your body, creating a cascade of negative feelings. They can lead to anxiety, depression, trauma, and grief that fuel emotional overeating. But you don’t have to let these bugs run amok. Our aim here is to introduce you to the 10 main categories of ANTs—including the worst three, aka the red ANTs—and provide you with the tools to defeat them so you can gain control of your eating habits.

There’s strong scientific evidence that naming and wrangling with your ANTs can help you to lose weight. People who were trained to talk back to their negative thoughts lost 17 pounds in ten weeks and continued to lose weight over eighteen months, according to one Swedish study. Another twelve-week program designed to change thinking patterns helped binge eaters stop bingeing for at least one year, according to a 2010 study.


1. All or Nothing Thinking

In All or Nothing thinking, people abandon their capacity for nuanced thought; everything is either all good or all bad:

  • Since I ate a scoop of ice cream, I give up! I might as well finish the tub.
  • I didn’t follow my food plan perfectly, so I’m doomed to be fat.
  • I’m so thrilled I lost six pounds. I don’t think I have a problem with food.

Whenever you catch yourself engaging in black-and-white thinking, talk back to that ANT. And remember that positive emotions—especially manic ones—can drive overeating, too.

You can stop at a scoop, accept the incremental progress on an imperfect food plan, and maintain daily vigilance about emotional eating. As Brand himself has admitted, he will probably always need a structured eating plan.

2. Always Thinking

Always thinking usually involves thoughts with words such as always, never, every time, or everyone. When you hear them, recognize that you are over-generalizing, which is blocking you from an accurate grasp of reality:

  • I feel hopeless because I’ll never be thin.
  • I’m so bored eating healthy food.

When assaulted by these intrusive thoughts, interrogate them. Do you really know that you will never be thin? Is healthy food really boring? Remember the time you ate a ripe pear bursting with so much juice you could almost drink it?

3. Focusing on the Negative

This ANT can taint the most joyful occasion with doubt, fear, or judgment:

  • Sure, the vegetable stew was good, but pizza is better.

Negative thinking unleashes chemicals in the brain that make you feel badly about yourself and prepare you for failure.

Spin these ANTs in a constructive direction:

  • I’m learning to enjoy more vegetables.

4. Thinking with Your Feelings

Notice when your thoughts begin with the words, “I feel,” such as:

  • I feel sad, so I need a fourth cup of coffee.
  • I feel lonely and unlovable.
  • I feel so anxious that if I don’t eat now, I feel like I’ll be sick.

When these feelings arise, take a moment to breathe and examine that feeling. Instead of more coffee, what about walking around the block? Are you really unlovable? What about all the people who do love you? What would happen if you took three deep breaths before eating right away?

5. Guilt Beating

When your thoughts deploy words like “have to,” “should,” “ought to” and “must,” a guilt-inducing ANT is at work:

  • I’m disappointed with myself for not working out every day at 5 a.m.

How do you feel when you hear this kind of talk? Probably not better. Often the ideas behind them aren’t the problem, it’s the tone. Switch it up:

  • I can go to the gym once more this week.

6. Labeling

Whenever we label ourselves or others we are engaging in a process of dehumanization:

  • I’m such a loser.

While this ANT makes us think we are focusing on others, we are harming ourselves and strengthening negative pathways in the brain.

Labeling thoughts strip away our agency and creativity. They leave us mired in self-doubt and fear. Refuse to label yourself or others.

The last three ANTs are called the red ANTs because they produce so much more harm than the first six.

7. Fortune Telling ANTs

These ANTs predict negative futures, and, in so doing, can sometimes consign us to fulfilling them.

  • I always fail when I try to eat better.
  • I’m depressed because being overweight is my destiny.
  • Why try? People who lose weight gain it back.

How do you feel while harboring these ANTs? Our studies find that people’s anxiety mounts, their heart rates climb, and their breathing grows shallow.

We are powerful visualizers. What we can envision we can often create. When these thoughts set in, your body knows—and informs you with physiological signals—that you are not creating the future you desire.

8. Mind Reading

Mind-reading ANTs destroy relationships:

  • I’m afraid my husband is angry with me because he hasn’t texted all day.
  • I’m crushed because they don’t like me anymore.

To counter them, remind yourself that nobody is a mind reader. Try telling yourself—out loud, if it helps—that your boss, friend or spouse has something going on that might have nothing to do with you.

When you don’t know where you stand with someone, get clarification about how they really feel. I promise you’ll often be surprised.

9. Blame

This ANT strips away the impulse to make positive change in your life:

  • There’s no point in trying because I’m like everybody else in my family who is fat.
  • It’s the restaurants’ fault because they only serve heavy food.
  • It’s rude not to eat what everyone else is having.

When we think like victims, we do little to initiate change. Don’t give away your personal power. Your life is worth more than that.

10. Denial

Emotional overeaters can be prone to denial ANTs:

  • I eat like everyone else, so I don’t understand why I’m overweight.
  • I only have desserts when I’m out with friends, so they aren’t a problem.
  • When I’m depressed, it’s OK to eat pizza, chips, or ice cream while watching TV.

Refusing to see a problem ensures you won’t change.

As the physicians at Amen Clinics recommend, and as Russell Brand suggests in YouTube videos, write down your ANTs. Treat them like visitors. Once they are on paper, or on a computer screen, they become far harder to deny.

Start talking back to your ANTs. Turn them around, reclaim your nuanced, optimistic thinking, and point yourself toward healthier eating habits.

Depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues can’t wait. At Amen Clinics, we’re here for you. We offer in-clinic brain scanning and appointments, as well as mental telehealth, clinical evaluations, and therapy for adults, teens, children, and couples. Find out more by speaking to a specialist today at 888-288-9834 or visit our contact page here.


  1. Great advice. Positive reinforcement
    With the Amen Brain Power vitamins help keep your mind and emotions on the track. Visualize the way you want to feel and look. Do not listen to negative people,
    And keep your eyes on Jesus.

    Comment by Robert Beswick — April 3, 2023 @ 6:11 AM

  2. This article is exactly why I love Dr. Amen and the work his team does! I can take this and start changing my life right now. Thank you for caring and for working to help people in such a real way.

    Comment by Eric — April 3, 2023 @ 7:38 AM

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