The Five-Minute Rule

It’s 3 in the afternoon, and I’m looking at a napkin in front of me that has a slice of coffee cake and an Oreo cookie. There was one other cookie, but I plopped it in my mouth on the way to the table.

I just finished lunch – a late lunch for me, but I wasn’t hungry earlier – and I am desperate inhale these treats as quickly as possible.

And then maybe get more.

More sounds nice.

And yet I have to ask myself: Are you still hungry, Katie? 

The answer? I’m not quite sure.


I’m sure that my heart is beating kind of fast and I feel kind of hot. I have a lot on my mind – I’ve been thinking about my life and what I want.  And I also need to get back to work soon; I’m feeling a bit behind.

I’m sure that I was really hungry 10 minutes ago, before I ate a salad and some lamb and half of an English muffin with guacamole.

But now, I'm not quite so sure. Except that I would really like to eat.

And then eat some more.

I’d like to eat now please.

In moments like this – when I really wanna eat but am maybe hungry but maybe probably not – it is time to implement the five-minute rule.


The five minute rule is: if you're in the middle of eating and you're no longer sure if you're hungry, you must physically leave and do something pleasurable for five minutes. 

You can definitely have this guacamole. You might just want to take a 5-minute break to see if you're full or not.

You can definitely have this guacamole. You might just want to take a 5-minute break to see if you're full or not.

The reasoning behind the five minute rule is that you need to separate yourself from food for five minutes, so you can assess whether or not you’re full with an open mind.

There are three components of the five-minute rule:

1. You have to leave the place where you are eating.

2. You have to do something pleasurable.

3. You have to promise yourself that after five minutes you will come back and eat if you’re still hungry. And if you’re not hungry, promise yourself that you will finish eating at the next available moment when you are hungry. And you have to mean it.

Here’s why:

1.  You have to leave the place where you are eating.

Leave the table. Go to a different room. Only when you have physical space can you actually know whether you are hungry enough to keep eating. Try to find somewhere quiet, where you can connect to that deepest part of yourself.

This can be a bit tricky if you are with a team or on a date or at work or a dinner party. In those situations, I highly recommend the bathroom. Five minutes isn’t an insane amount of time to spend in the bathroom, and bathrooms are usually pretty quiet.

Even your reaction to the thought of leaving your food for five minutes may be telling. If I am truly hungry, I am slightly reluctant, but it’s usually not a big deal. “It’s fine, I’ll just eat later,” I say to myself. But if I know, on some deeper level, that I’m not hungry, I hate leaving, because the thought of facing the truth is overwhelming.


2. You have to do something pleasurable.

If you tell yourself, “You have to go and go work on a boring work project for five minutes and then you can finish this coffee cake,” is that going to work? Maybe, but I also bet that once those five minutes are over, you are going to be gobbling down the sweet, crumbly brown sugar topping yet again.

If you are someone who struggles with over-eating, or emotional eating, or compulsive eating, you need to keep a “bag-of-tricks” of five-minute (or more) diversions with you at all times. For me, the easiest one is usually a good book. I’ll usually also have a friend in mind that I’ve been meaning to call or a blogger whose site I’ve been wanting to spend more time checking out, and I always want to take a walk.

Admittedly, these things can take more than five minutes. But five minutes is all you need to break the spell. If I’m being a little bingey, and I go read a great Jennifer Weiner book on my bed for five minutes, I will enjoy the book so much, I won’t need to eat. Even when I worked in management consulting, I would always keep a novel in my bag, and sometimes sneak off to an empty conference room and read my book for a few minutes, if I just needed some space to be quiet and decompress.

Even just walking out the door of your home or job and walking two minutes away, and two minutes back, will give you enough perspective to know whether you need to keep eating or not

A final note: maybe you are genuinely unable to think of something pleasurable or don’t have anything with you. If that’s the case, any break will do. If you’re at a restaurant, go to the bathroom and say some nice words to yourself in the mirror, play Candy Crush on your phone or admire how pretty your hands are (I bet they are very pretty). Just some space can make a big difference.


3. Promise yourself that you can eat again after the five minute break, and mean it.  

The only way that I can get myself to stop eating the brown sugar coffee cake that is on the table in front of me, when I am feeling jittery and kinda-maybe-still-hungry but also just really feel like having a full belly, is to promise myself that I can finish it later, and really mean it.

That way, what you’re doing is not being a mean parent who says “no” all the time. You are just saying, “Wait five minutes, my sweet one.”

And then if you are still hungry, go for it.  And if you aren’t, then you won’t go for it. But make a promise to yourself that as soon as you are hungry, you will.

And mean it. At the end of the day, repairing our relationship with food and eating is fundamentally about trust, about knowing that we can trust ourselves to be kind to our deepest selves, about knowing that we can take care of ourselves.

The five-minute rule is not about depriving yourself of anything. It’s about taking care of yourself as well as you possibly can.