Why do We Eat Impulsively 

Why do We Eat Impulsively? 

As I am writing this, I have a food hangover. Yesterday was way too exciting. I made and ate some healthy desserts, hung out with friends, and for a few hours, my higher, better self blacked out and I stopped caring about how much I was eating. Oh well. Before I knew it, I had added three extra pieces of chicken, a couple of handfuls of dark chocolate-covered almonds, next week’s ice cream, and a dark chocolate slab on top of what I had planned to eat for the day.

I feel as if I sound like Cher in the movie “Clueless”[1] when she says: “I feel like such a heifer. I had two bowls of Special K, 3 pieces of turkey bacon, a handful of popcorn, 5 peanut butter M&Ms and like 3 pieces of liquorice.”

It is safe to say that Ed took over for a big part of the day. 

Who the F*ck is Ed? 

Ed is what I call my annoying inner voice, lesser self, monkey mind, subconscious, etc. It is short for eating disorder. Ed is also the source of my anxiety.

He is the one who screams “eat it” when you want to say no to a slice of cake because you want to lose fat or tells you to watch one more online video even if you should really go to bed.

Have you seen the movie Split? The lead character has multiple personalities but talks about the different ones stepping into the light when they take over. It really feels like Ed steps into the spotlight and my better self goes and sits in a dark corner for a while.

While Ed and I still fight sometimes, we have made peace with each other and I try to only allow Ed to step into the light one or two days a week when it comes to making food choices — like yesterday. Ed still tries his luck a lot and I have to tell him to shut up often, but we’re cool.

Do I feel bad about taking the night off and leaving Ed in charge last night? No. I do feel a bit over-nourished and puffy this morning, but my body will return back to its pre-overindulging state.

Why do We Eat Impulsively? 

Impulsivity is linked to low serotonin levels in the brain and delayed reward discounting, which means that a reward loses its value the further away it seems.[2] This is why people who have anxiety and depression are often quite impulsive.

If you have a moment of weakness and act impulsively, then do not be hard on yourself. Know that your brain could also be to blame and love yourself regardless of any impulsive behaviour that could be slowing down your progress. Relax, and accept that it does not have to mean you will never reach your goals. It might take a little longer, but you will still get there if you keep trying.

Impulsive Eating Doesn’t Have to Ruin Your Health 

What I have learned is that I can still achieve my health goals even if I do not get rid of my impulsive eating completely. Over the years, I have managed to reduce my overeating and snaccidents a lot. That is already a big win. Ed doesn’t take over nearly as much as he did when I was still in school. I used to overeat or binge eat five days a week on average, so the fact that I have reduced my overeating by around 80% to 90% is a huge win. It is easy to focus on the 20% struggle and forget that you are winning 80% of the time.

Plus, if you are in a calorie deficit, meaning you are burning more than you consume, for days or weeks at a time, it is good to have a refeed day, where you eat more calories, just to signal to your body that you are not actually starving. I do not schedule these days into my plan. Ed makes sure that I eat in excess at least once a week and I never know when I will be really tempted to overindulge or need comfort food.

I still go to the store and buy a few slabs of dark chocolate with every intention of them lasting throughout the month, but they usually end up disappearing within a few days. I plan on only eating a few blocks before and after dinner but end up eating half a slab before dinner and then the other half afterwards.

How I Manage Impulsive Food Shopping

Shopping for food impulsively is something that also happens quite often, but there are a few strategies that I have found which helped me. They are:

  • Giving myself a snack allowance. I put a certain amount of cash in my wallet every month that I can use to buy sweet snacks and try to stretch it out.
  • Trying to get all of my shopping for the week done in one go. The fewer times I go to the store, the fewer opportunities I will have to buy snacks impulsively.
  • Only taking a limited amount of cash with me to the store to buy the things I need to buy. You will think twice about buying something if getting it means you have to leave something you actually need to buy.
  • Buying some healthy, low-calorie snacks, so I can eat more food, but reduce the impact.

Just remember that if you eat healthily most of the time, and do a few of the hundreds of things you can do to improve your health, you will still be moving in the right direction towards your goals, and impulsive behaviour now and then does not have to mean that you can never reach your goals.


[1]Clueless. (2001). [film] Directed by A. Heckerling. California: Paramount Pictures.

[2] 1: Schweighofer N, Bertin M, Shishida K, Okamoto Y, Tanaka SC, Yamawaki S, DoyaK. Low-serotonin levels increase delayed reward discounting in humans. J

Neurosci. 2008 Apr 23;28(17):4528-32. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.4982-07.2008.

Erratum in: J Neurosci. 2008 May 21;28(21):5619. PubMed PMID: 18434531; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC6670945.

*Written October 2020

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