Impulsive eating: what gives!?

What is impulsive eating? 

Impulsive eating happens when, despite our best intentions, we eat something that doesn’t align with our goals. And, oh yeah, did I mention it’s usually junk food? I have yet to have someone tell me that they really over-did it on the celery.

Impulsive eating isn’t always a problem. It’s fine to enjoy life and enjoy food in the process. However, for those who find that impulsive eating is preventing them from achieving certain health or physique goals it can be extremely frustrating.

Why does impulsive eating happen?

Our brains evolved during a time when food was scarce. Humans need the calories in food to survive so the more calories something had, the better. Sugar and fat are two indicators that something is calorically dense and therefore perceived as valuable by our brains.

Back in the day, this meant things like honey or fatty meat – CALORIES! SURVIVAL! That’s why our brains get amped when these foods are available. ‘No time to waste on those tubers, EAT THIS HONEY.’ Even so, these things weren’t available often so even if we went crazy when they were, it wasn’t enough to be detrimental to our health or physiques.

Fast-forward to today–our brains haven’t changed much but our environment sure has. We’ve got access to veggies and lean meats but we’re also surrounded by sweet, fatty foods that have been engineered for hyper-palatability.

Melissa McCarthy FTW

Companies proudly proclaim that their products are irresistible.

No shit!

Despite our plans to become healthier or lose fat, our brains still put the current self before the future self. Our brain wants us to survive RIGHT NOW and doesn’t really care if we look good on vacation in three weeks. What a pain in the arse, eh?

What can I do about it?

The unconscious, instinctual part of our brain is just one part. We’ve also got a highly rational part to our brain that understands how our current actions will impact our future self. This is the part we need to call on to prevent impulsive eating. Like a muscle, the more we use it the stronger it gets.

Okay, so how do I call on my rational brain? 

To give the rational brain a little boost we can use a technique called future episodic thinking. In order to do this, all we need to do is imagine our future selves as vividly as possible working toward and succeeding at our goal.

For instance, if your goal is to eat healthier so you can be around for your grandchildren – envision that. Imagine yourself with your family in the future. Think about how it will feel to be healthy, happy and able to do the activities you enjoy with the people you love. Create a picture in your mind, imagine conversations, sounds, and smells.

The strategy of pre-experiencing a future event helps us in two ways. First, it can stop delay discounting (minimizing larger future rewards in favour of smaller immediate ones). Second, it stimulates the rational brain so you can better moderate your own behaviours.

What do you think?

I’ve spoken to a few clients about this topic recently. A few have already been using this strategy (without realizing it) and do find it helpful. One client has been imagining herself on her upcoming beach vacation to help keep her behaviours aligned with her goals.

A couple clients who have not tried this strategy have decided they would like to give it a shot–I mean, you’ve got nothing to lose, right?

What about you? Have you used this strategy? Would you consider trying it?

Click here to contact me if you have any questions or if you’d like to set up a complimentary consultation for nutrition coaching.


Atance, C. M., & O’neill, D. K. (2001). Episodic future thinking. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 5(12), 533-539. doi:10.1016/s1364-6613(00)01804-0

Guyenet, S. M. (2017). The Hungry Brain: Outsmarting the Instincts That Make Us Overeat. St Martins Pr.

Study Could Lead to Impulse Control Treatments for Weight Loss. (2013, October 08). Retrieved February 27, 2017, from

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