The path to freedom from weight obsession and food cravings.
How to Stop Overeating Sugar, Fat, and Salt

How to Stop Overeating Sugar, Fat, and Salt

In my previous post, I talked about how eating processed food can make people fat. Processed foods are fabricated in labs, specifically and deliberately to use our body wisdom against us. The weapons they use are fat, sugar, and salt, which trick us into overeating. From the chapter on Stage 4 in Normal Eating® for Normal Weight:

“Humans enjoy sweetness because in nature, sweetness is a sign that fruits and vegetables are at their peak of ripeness, and when they’re at their peak of ripeness, they’re also at their peak nutritionally.”

“People love salt because it’s required for life, but was hard to come by for early humans living inland from the ocean. Those who had a taste for salt and sought it out stayed alive to reproduce; those who didn’t take the time to find salt got sick and died.”

“People have a natural liking for fat because it’s energy-dense – that is, it’s high in calories for its weight. For most of human evolution, the food supply was unreliable and going hungry was common. A taste for energy-dense food evolved to keep us from starving when food was scarce.”

Stage 4 of Normal Eating®, Choosing, is about making healthy food choices once you have overcome the compulsive urges that take away your ability to choose. But what if you’re not yet at Stage 4? How do you free yourself from the addictive effects of sugar, fat, and salt?

The groundwork for being able to take or leave these foods is laid in Stage 2, Reconnecting. The idea in Stage 2 is to notice how different foods affect your body. When you eat processed foods loaded with sugar, fat, and salt, don’t just notice that you have an urge to eat more and more. Also notice how these foods make your body feel.

If you take the time to pay attention to this, you’ll notice that these foods make your body feel like crap. Noticing this, fully experiencing this, is what leads to your being able to say no to them.

Pay Attention to Your Full Experience

Stage 2 is a time of experimentation. Compare how your body feels after eating real food that nourishes your body and satisfies your hunger, versus how your body feels after eating a bowl of ice cream or a bag of chips. Even if you don’t overeat, there is an enormous difference. When you eat junk food, your body feels bad compared to when you eat real food. It’s very hard to describe these physical sensations, but if you’re paying attention they are unmistakable. You don’t feel the same sense of well-being and energy.

Junk food feels like a lump inside you. If you ate sugar, you may feel a buzzy kind of high followed by a low. After an hour or so you may feel tired, or even depressed or anxious. You also may feel gassy and bloated (sugar causes gas in many people). If you ate salt, you probably feel thirsty. And then after drinking to sate your thirst, you probably feel bloated from retaining water. If you ate fat, you may have heartburn (excess fat causes heartburn in many people).

Most of all, when you eat junk food you don’t feel a pleasant sense of satisfaction – even if you ate when you were hungry and stopped when full – because your body received no nutrition. You may even have a desire to eat food with nutrition despite feeling stuffed. Your body doesn’t feel good when you eat junk food. Notice this!

Noticing these negative bodily sensations turns on your natural internal controls. This eventually enables you to choose not to eat these foods, or to limit when and how much you eat.

Pleasure-Seeking Can Be Good for You

In the end, we all seek pleasure. But we have a tendency to eat mindlessly and attend to only a fraction of our full experience. If you only pay attention to feedback from your tastebuds, there’s nothing to incent you to stop. If you learn to pay attention to your full experience, you give yourself internal motivation to stop.

It is the natural instinct of every living being to avoid foods that make it feel unwell. When I was a kid, I tried a bowl of Froot Loops for the first time and promptly threw up. Probably I just had a stomach virus, but the association between Froot Loops and vomiting was unbreakable. I never ate them again.

Pay attention to your full experience when eating processed foods high in sugar, fat, and salt and your natural pleasure-seeking instinct will work for you rather than against you.

You’ll find more on the the stages of Normal Eating® and how it works in my book, Normal Eating® for Normal Weight.

Thoughts? Comments? I’d love to hear them.


  1. Sugar, I can already recognize, never makes me feel satisfied, I always want more and more until I feel absolutely grotesque. The next day my eyes are all half closed and I feel very sluggish with low energy. Also processed foods not only contain a lot of the sugar, fats and salt, but all the other additional bad contents, additives etc.

    avatar Sian
  2. What a great post. I’d like to add (and Sheryl I know you inherently mean to say this but I want to add it anyway) that in Normal Eating we get to the point of choosing in Stage 4 (which is where I am) and I can read this and not be triggered. For those of you who are working the other stages of NE, please know that you still have every right to eat whatever you want to eat without being a bad person. It is imperative to remember that just because a certain food makes you feel bad (or if you are reframing or experimenting and haven’t gotten to this point and instead feel like this is *another* rule, that the *idea* of eating a certain food *should* make you feel bad) doesn’t mean you HAVE to stop eating it. You’ll get to a point where you’ll WANT to stop eating it. You’ll get to a point–through reframing and pausing and being mindful–where you honest to goodness don’t want to feel badly anymore. That takes time and patience and practice. It has nothing to do with willpower–it has to do with committing to listening and respecting your body.

    If my body says have a hot dog with ketchup (=fat + salt + sugar) then I have one. I know that I don’t want them all the time and I enjoy it and move on. This is something that’s just come with Stage 4 and my learning how to choose without feeling like it’s restriction.

    That being said, YES! I agree that processed food IS designed to trick satiation cues and internal wisdom. There are many ways to help your body, and sometimes (again, in Stage 4) to employ your self-care in a good parent sort of way–as in, “You’ve had enough, you’ll get a stomach ache if you keep eating that. Let’s go outside and play instead.” And it works! And it’s a cycle that helps you build faith in yourself to continue to care for yourself and make healthy choices AND (I think most importantly) proves that I CAN BE TRUSTED. The world is hell bent on proving you can’t be trusted (so they can sell you things that will better you, regulate you, improve you) and choosing out of self-care shows them they’re wrong: I can be trusted.

    I’m very interested in other’s thoughts!

    avatar Becca
  3. Sian – yes, processed foods contain all those yucky additives, as well. I’m so philophically against polluting my body with non-food edibles that it’s hard for me to even enjoy eating this stuff anymore. It turns my stomach to think about what’s in it.

    There are non-chemical alternatives to virtually everything. For example, I used to like Fritos. Now if I have an urge for corn chips, I’ll eat organic corn chips made from nothing but corn and salt. When you eat the hyper-chemical variety after not eating it for a while you can taste the difference. Fake food doesn’t taste as good as real food!

    Another example… I’ve become a chocolate connoisseur. When I was in high school I used to eat a lot of cheap candy bars (compulsively, of course). Now I’ve become very picky about my chocolate. I only like gourmet chocolate with all real ingredients and no artificial anything. It tastes so much better! If I’m going to eat chocolate, why not wonderful chocolate? I’m worth it. 🙂

  4. One of the many, many things I am amazed about with NE is that looking back at these steps, everything is so clear. When I first began stage 2, I found it very frustrating.

    Pay attention to your full experience when eating processed foods high in sugar, fat, and salt and your natural pleasure-seeking instinct will work for you rather than against you.

    Ah, therein lied the rub! I think Sheryl says in the book that this process is very much like learning to drive. At first, it seems like there’s just too much to pay attention to all at once. But with persistence and patience, soon you can begin to pay attention to how you feel both emotionally and physically.

    Also, once you are able to pay attention to your full experience and take note of how these foods make you feel, you may still choose to eat them regularly and in excess for some time. This is basically reiterating what Becca said. In my experience, I continued to engage in a great deal of overeating and binging of processed (and other) foods until well into stage 3 when I began to address my underlying emotional needs. But this was a key step in the process.

    A few weeks ago I really wanted some chocolate cake and potato chips. I ate the whole bag of chips and a few slices of cake. It was nowhere near what would have constituted a binge for me before NE, but what was really interesting was that I noticed right away that I wasn’t full at all. Not even a tad bit. I didn’t want any more cake or chips, but I easily COULD have eaten more. It’s really fascinating what I’ve started to notice now that I’m able to pay attention to the full experience of eating.

    avatar Octopus
  5. Becca wrote:

    …employ your self-care in a good parent sort of way–as in, “You’ve had enough, you’ll get a stomach ache if you keep eating that. Let’s go outside and play instead.”

    Sometimes it takes that form, but other times it’s more direct and visceral. For example, I know from my own food experiments that I feel especially crappy if I eat something sugary on an empty stomach. That body memory makes it unappealing for me to eat something sugary when I’m hungry. I prefer – on a gut level – to have sweets after eating real food.

    The experience that taught me this is sort of amusing. A store I used to shop in had a glass jar of locally-made chocolate turtles next to the cash register. I was incapable of walking by that jar of chocolate turtles without taking one. I’d usually eaten several by the time I got to the register with my groceries, and then I’d have to confess how many I’d eaten to the cashier so s/he could charge me (kind of embarrassing).

    I’d never actually eaten these anywhere but inside the store – no sit-down mindful experience of eating these chocolate turtles. One day, as a Stage 2 food experiment (to see how it felt), I decided to have chocolate turtles for dinner. I rode my bike to the store, bought 16 chocolate turtles (way more than I’d ever bought at once), brought them home and sat down at the table with them. (My then-boyfriend watched this with extreme dismay – he was very into healthy eating.)

    I ate them slowly and mindfully, and ended up stopping at about 6, as I recall. Maybe 7. I don’t remember the exact number, but I do remember this. I never got a clear satiation cue eating turtles the way you get when you eat real food. The first physical cue I got that I’d had enough was a stomach ache.

    Though I had as many turtles as I cared to eat, I never had a feeling of body satisfaction. I enjoyed the taste, then I had a stomach ache, and then I felt tired and bloated. That was my experience of chocolate turtles for dinner.

    There were two results of this mindful eating experiment:

    1. I lost the impulse to eat chocolate turtles whenever I came into the store. The cashier would ask me, “No turtles today?” I just stopped wanting them.
    2. I retained a body memory of how crappy I felt after eating sugar on an empty stomach. Now when I’m hungry and think about what I might like to eat (which you do by imagining eating different things), the thought of eating sugar is unpleasant to me – I have a visceral disinclination.

    The visceral disinclination is what I was trying to describe in my post. This is different from a superego type parental thing. The good parenting impulse also plays a role – for example, when I have dessert after a meal – but you don’t have to rely on that completely.

  6. Octopus – that’s a great description of the process and how it works. You reconnect with your physical cues, though you still may overeat the foods. Then as you learn to deal with emotional triggers in Stage 3, what you learned in Stage 2 kicks in and you become able to put down the foods that make your body feel bad.

    The reason for the stages is that it’s too much to absorb all at once. If you focus on one piece of learning at a time – reframing, reconnecting, relearning – eventually it can all come together in freedom from emotional eating and ability to make choices.

  7. Sheryl, I love the story about the turtles and the phrase “visceral disinclination.” You really have a skill for describing these things!

    I had a similar experience long before I ever started NE. I used to loooooooove, love, love V8 juice. But every time I’d drink it, I’d get terribly bloated and tired from the incredibly high sodium content. Finally, I just stopped drinking it. It made me feel so crappy (and I didn’t like the low-sodium version at all) that it just wasn’t appealing anymore. If I drink it at all now, which is rare, I drink the little tiny cans which are only about 6 oz., I think.

    avatar Octopus
  8. Normal Eating is expensive– I’ve lost my taste for packaged ramen noodles, processed meats, and cheap pastries, replaced by “real” food with a “real” price tag! But as you say, Sheryl, I am MORE than worth it.

    And then there are foods that are so emotionally connected to childhood that they offer comfort sometimes, even if they are processed and gross. What I tend to do with those is to have a small portion after I’ve put something nutritious in my stomach, since it really is just for a sensory thrill and not nourishment. It’s a good compromise for me.

    avatar Lisa (Xanadu)
  9. What I’m finding as I move toward NE is that, for me, the processed stuff is about cravings & soothing, not eating with awareness of being hungry and needing nourishment/fuel. But also that it is possible to eat processed foods with awareness of quantity. I have to disagree with those who say NE is expensive; compared to the cost of eating meals out, or to buying prepackaged items at the grocery, once I built up a pantry of basics, buying fresh vegetables, fruits & real meat isn’t more expensive day-to-day. Maybe it just feels more expensive because you’re buying for more than one meal at a time?

    avatar etinca
  10. I wonder if some of the reason that people eat processed food rather than real food is that the skills for maintaining a functioning kitchen have gotten lost in recent years. People just don’t know how to do this anymore. It seems too hard, too expensive, too time consuming. Maybe some practical tips would help? I’m thinking about a blog post on that.

  11. My problem is that after I eat something processed, my body is very sensitive to the feelings, but it leads me to feel really bad about myself. And sometimes I even keep eating to numb out feeling bad about myself. I’ve read the book, Intuitive Eating and I am planning on buying your book when I have the money, but how do you handle feeling bad about yourself after eating something that makes your body feel bad?

    avatar Lily
  12. Hi Lily,

    I understand! This is a problem for all emotional eaters, and I talk about it extensively in my book. It’s hard to say something quick that will help, but you might want to read this sample chapter that’s available online. In this part I’m talking more about feeling bad about being fat versus feeling fat about overeating, but it’s much the same thing:

    From this chapter: “Carrying extra fat simply means that you have been using food for comfort as well as fuel, because you didn’t know how else to deal with the stress and problems in your life. Carrying extra fat is no more shameful than crying. Your fat is like tears; a physical manifestation of distress. If you saw someone crying, you’d view her tears with compassion, not contempt. Your fat is no less a sign of distress, and also deserves to be viewed with compassion rather than contempt.”

  13. Hi ladies,

    This is a really intresting post and thank you so much everyone for your contributions. I am at a juncture I think with many of the stages – I do feel better when I eat non processed foods. But then I go into Orthorexia as xanadu calls it and think these foods are BAAAD. and of course want to eat more of them. I grew up in a house where soooo many foods were totally forbidden so the impulse to rebel of course is strong. Add to that my 7 years in a 12 Step programme which advocated no sugar no flour as they were “drugs” which would lead me to “self destruction” (!!!). I hope to bit by bit disentangle my internalised melodramatic, demonisation of “junk” foods, my rebellion against all the bans, and the real body wisdom that I think I do get, most definelty at times. Right now I am premenstrual and yesterday I wanted dense, solid, simple, and quite sugary in fact. Whereas the week before it was big raw salads with sprouted beans and fresh veg!

    I trust Stage 2 will help me do this and indeed I am already experiencing a greater attunement to it all.

    avatar Lisa Bee
  14. I am in stage two working towards stage three but took a trip to stage four by accident. I visited my Aunt in Chicago and since I didn’t drink alcohol like everyone else, I drank coca cola, way too much! AND I felt terrible! So, I decided to give up all products with high fructose corn syrup. Six weeks later I had my semi annual check up and lab test with my doctor (my poor eating habits and weight gain gave me diabetes type II). My sugars dropped to 81 and she looked at me in amazement and asked what did I do? Well, ever since then, I’ve read many organic newsletters and have totally converted to an all organic diet. Ive also eliminated all chemicals (with the exception of the medicine I still have to take, but hopefully not much longer) in my life, from makeup to cleaning supplies. I feel great, I’ve lost over 25 pounds, I exercise regularly and scrutinize labels on food. You would be amazed at the amount of non-food in the grocery store. I eat whatever I want but, I make sure it falls within my guidelines. For example, if I want a cookie, I’ll go to a bakery and buy one (if I don’t bake it first). I refuse to buy them from the store unless the ingredients mirror an actual recipe and that is very hard to find. Hydrogenated fats are in everything but I don’t remember seeing that ingredient in a recipe! I am very strict about what I eat as far ingredients are concerned. It drives my mother crazy! But I know from all my reearch that such diligence is very important. Especially right now since I am trying to reestablish my insulin-leptin connection in my body. That’s not to say I do not overeat and have emotional issues with food. If only it could be as easy as reading a label! Eating healthy does not lessen my pleasure of eating. It has made conventional grovery stores a nightmare but luckily, we have a great organic grocery store nearby. I am very glad I tried my experiment back in September. My life and body have changed for the better. I look forward to conquering my emotional eating habits next!

    avatar Kittycat

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