Even when some people dine alone, they have the company of four or more internal voices. These people don’t suffer from mental illness. Their brains are merely replaying conflicting and possibly negative messages about what to eat and how much.

To successfully change your eating habits, behavior experts say you should learn to recognize these voices and put them in perspective.

One internal voice is the Indulger. This one can be fun to eat with because he or she says, “Go ahead, you deserve it,” and “This isn’t really so bad.”

The Indulger is likely to visit you when you’ve had a tiring or difficult day. This voice can be comforting and convincing.

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If you listen to it, however, you may make choices that you later regret, like a third portion of pasta or three brownies.

The secret to turning the Indulger into a friend rather than a bad advisor is to hear what he or she is really saying: “You need nurturing. Maybe you need to go to bed early to catch up on lost sleep, talk to a friend for support, or put aside more time for yourself.” Some people have yet to learn how to nurture themselves in a way that makes them say, “I’m so glad I did that.”

A far less pleasant voice who visits some people frequently is the Critic. The Critic rattles off all your unhealthy food choices, criticizes your body shape, points out what you neglected to do, or reminds you of all your mistakes.

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People who hear the negative thoughts of the Critic are more like to have grown up with perfectionistic authority figures, according to some experts.

Some other experts say these negative thoughts arise when people try to live by overly-restrictive rules. Studies show that Americans tend to go on and off many diets throughout their lives. But even if you stop a diet, the rules may still stick in your mind as the ideal goal.

If you try many diets, you could end up with quite a crowd of critics in your mind. One voice would tell you to avoid all foods with fat, another might forbid you sweets, and yet another might condemn any more than one-half cup of pasta as overeating.

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Rarely do these critical voices help people eat healthfully in the long run. When the rules become too rigid, the Indulger is usually nearby, ready to offer a treat. If people become sad, hearing the Critic replay their failures, the Indulger can be insisting it’s time for “comfort food.”

The Rebel could also answer the Critic’s voice, however. The Rebel is the inner voice that says, “Do it anyway.” A wide body of research shows that those people who have made the strictest rules about what to eat and how much are the ones who are most likely to rebound into overeating, especially when stressed. If the Critic starts to speak to you, admit that you are not perfect and opt for a realistic way to improve your health.

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The pitiful voice of the Victim will whine that you are utterly helpless at making healthy eating choices. The Victim will give you excuse after excuse. For instance, he or she will note that others are getting seconds, that you never stick to a diet, or that you surely can’t eat healthfully when dining out.

Experts say that when you hear this victim talk, you need to talk even louder, reminding yourself that you always have choices.

Instead of perfect choices, strive for ones in which the benefits outweigh the negatives. These are choices you can feel good about later.