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  • Helly Barnes

Don't Think - Just Eat to Overcome a Restrictive Eating Disorder

Are you trying to make food decisions to find your freedom from an eating disorder and struggling each day with overthinking and anxiety? Perhaps it is time to apply the 'Don't Think-Just Eat' approach.

An emoji of a very thoughtful face within a mobile phone

After all, it is a truth universally acknowledged that eating disorders just love thinking.

They love not just thinking but overthinking, planning, plotting, trying to 'perfect' the 'best way' to eat—a way that feels safer, more possible and less chaotic.

This is understandable—when your brain has a powerful addiction to restrictive eating and restrictive habits have become your most effective tool to feel calm and more able to get through your days then eating anything outside those restrictive habits will feel chaotic and wrong, creating massive peaks of anxiety. That anxiety will then create racing thoughts where your brain is trying to find a solution that will allow you to escape the perceived 'threat'.

Many people attempting to overcome an eating disorder and break restrictive eating habits, become experts at plotting and planning how to eat more but in ways that make them still feel 'safe' and therefore in ways that remain restrictive but just less restrictive than they were before. This essentially means that the eating disorder is still giving them a 'hit' from their drug of restriction and energy deficit and so the eating disorder isn't actually going too far. Even if a bit more food is added into the day, it remains part of a formulated, controlled, calculated and very over-complicated eating equation.

Now before you jump to feeling like you are 'doing recovery all wrong' because you are consuming more but still eating in quite a rigid and planned way, please stop your inner critic in its tracks!

When you are overcoming a powerful restrictive eating disorder and beginning to add more food into what might have been years worth of eating in a very rigid and habitual way, then any changes from your old ways are a good start and ruddy hard to do. Give yourself massive credit if you have made changes and you are eating more without compensating for it.

But once you are past the initial stage of making yourself eat more and starting to emerge from the deeper depths of energy deficit, demonstrating to yourself that you really can make changes that go against the eating disorder, then sooner or later, you are going to need to push further out of the planning, plotting or very structured way of eating that is likely to remain present.

As I said above, an eating disordered brain loves to overthink food and eating, working out how to eat more, what, when, how much and all kinds of mental gymnastics of, "am I hungry or not? Surely this is too much.." and so on and so on.

I know I was an expert at trying to 'think my way out' of the eating disorder and think my way towards eating more creating less feelings of chaos and wrong-doing. But the overthinking just led to higher anxiety, future tripping and mental exhaustion.

The more thought that you put into eating, the more likely you will find that you have overwhelmed and exhausted your brain with all the thinking, resulting in higher anxiety and so resorting back to the safety of the foods and eating habits that you know.

OR you will spend so much time trying to think, plan and plot eating more that you then find that this has replaced the more important thing, which is the actual ACTION of eating!

Food decisions can be so hard with an eating disorder but when you are facing a food decision and you are spending minutes or hours thinking about it, weighing up all the options and discarding all kinds of great choices because some very persuasive fear-based thoughts have entered your mind for why the cake, 'really isn't a good idea today (but maybe tomorrow)', it is time to apply the 'Don't Think - Just Eat' rule.

The Don't Think-Just Eat rule is where you make a quick decision, giving yourself three seconds to acknowledge the most terrifying food that first enters your mind and go with it.

When you are stuck between the persuasive eating disorder arguments for why to eat less and the pro-recovery arguments for why to eat more and you are engaging in both lines of thinking, weighing up pros and cons of all possible outcomes in the hope that the answers will come and it will suddenly be easier to make that 'pro-recovery choice' , then just stop. Continue down this path and you will end up more frustrated with yourself for being so indecisive, your anxiety will just have escalated and you are more likely to give up on it all, feeling dejected and hopeless.

A stopwatch on a rusty chain

Instead, apply the 'Don't Think-Just Eat' approach. Decide you will make your choice in 3-seconds or less, focusing on the most terrifying option that first enters your brain as that will be the most pro-recovery choice you can make. Decide that you will stick to this option no matter what thoughts, doubts or anxieties follow. This helps to eliminate the ability to overthink, talk your way out of something or make excuses.

You might fear that if you use this approach that it will lead you to making the wrong 'choice' but what if there aren't any wrong decisions and you can deal with the outcome of any eventuality?

And when you fear that choosing one option risks leaving you missing out on another option that you might have also wanted, then go back to my earlier post on food decisions and the fact that you don't have to eliminate any food options at all, now or ever, because you can now eat as much as you like of all the foods you want—today, tomorrow and in every single day for all the rest of your days!

Therefore, when you notice you are hungry and you decide you need to eat, which for many of you coming out of energy deficit will be much of the time, then give yourself 3-seconds to make your choice and go with it.

Allow yourself to spend more time than this deciding and you will risk letting the eating disorder interfere.

Ask yourself, "what is the most terrifying and incredible thing that I do really want to eat right now?'". The first idea that pops in your mind is the one to go with, shutting down the thoughts that follow.

At the end of the day, eating disorders create anxiety which creates overthinking. The overthinking exacerbates the anxiety and future-tripping thoughts, predicting the worse for the future and so it goes in an ongoing vicious cycle. You need to break this cycle and an excellent way is to just stop.


Let the thinking go, let down your eating disorder-generated inhibitions, push away the 'shoulds' or 'should haves' and allow the eating disorder's control over you subside. It will feel at first like you are losing control but this is actually you reclaiming your control over yourself.


YES... But exhilarating too if you let it be.

Focus on NOT focusing too much on 'how to perfect' your recovery. This process isn't supposed to be perfect. It is crazy, messy, chaotic, snotty and emotional and so it should be.

When you feel out of control, overwhelmed, uncertain and as if everything is wrong then I would lay bets you are doing everything right!

Focus on NOT overplanning how to eat more, when, where and what, so that you have every mouthful documented, planned and registered.

Focus on NOT overthinking.. in fact focus on as little thinking as you can when making food choices and let your true instincts and hunger through.

Focus on NOT over-questioning, 'am I hungry or not?'. If you are asking that question then just eat—you are hungry.

Focus on disengaging from your fears and 'what ifs?'....

Focus on NOT thinking about tomorrow and future tripping, so you are NOT wondering how you will cope with weight gain or what eating this cookie will do to your tomorrows or even to how you will manage with the rest of that day. Just eat for the moment you are in and proudly so.

Children, animals and people who are really in tune with their appetite without doubting it will eat for the moment they are in. That is where freedom from an eating disorder lies—not by thinking but by eating.

Eat for this moment, stay present, trust yourself and your body as you push away inapprorpiate doubts or guilt. Your body will guide you when you let it.

Open your mind to the potential of being someone free around food and by that I mean completely free around food...

Tell yourself that all foods are an option and nothing is off limits. Let yourself develop an ABUNDANCE mindset as that is where the best brain reprogramming lies.

A build you own hot dog menu sign

Notice when you are attaching moral judgements to foods in types or amounts and let yourself eat those foods you have these limiting and damaging beliefs around.

Decide that the most terrifying foods and challenging eating situations are the only compass you will follow in mindless and amazing ways, while resting and not compensating.

Let yourself stop thinking and start eating, finding your wild and joyful, fabulous freedom.

My challenge then for you today is to give yourself three seconds for your next food decision...

"One, Two, Three..."

and grab the foods that are taunting and terrifying you, going with the first exhilarating idea that enters your mind, no matter what thoughts or doubts follow.

It is the right choice - you do know that deep down because how can it not be?

This might all sound a little crazy and you might think it is impossible... but is it?!?!

Important End Note:

Any of you reading this who have read my books or who work with me might be questioning how this fits into the journalling, self-reflection, setting intentions and other 'deeper work' that I advocate as being important in your process to overcome an eating disorder.

The 'Don't Think-Just Eat' approach to use when you are making a food decision does not mean that you don't continue with the other work of reflection and journalling and it doesn't mean not setting wider and even specific intentions around food and other things within your day-to-day journey and process to finding freedom.

Self-awareness with ongoing daily reflection to recognise patterns of thought, identify your emotions and when they are creating higher urges towards eating disorder behaviours, being able to identify your progress and where your challenges still lie so that you can address them is not just important, it is vital. Deeper thinking in a self-reflective, calm and strategising way is necessary but the mental gymnastics created by an anxious and disordered monkey brain when trying to decide on an in-the-moment food choice is rarely helpful and that is what this post relates to. I just wanted to clarify that!

**For more information on eating disorders and how to overcome one, please don't miss my newly available books,


If you like to listen, as well as (or instead of read!) then this blog post is the transcript of a podcast episode which you will find on my podcast series,

available on this website, all mainstream podcast platforms and on YouTube.


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