You know the drill….
Waiting in the checkout line at the grocery, you spot a dozen women’s magazines promising a sleek, sexy body. I used to fall prey to those empty promises — trying the latest Spartan diet, buying all the ingredients, and mentally preparing myself to truly stick with it this time.
But the diets never work, do they? And every time you give up after a week or two, you feel like a failure. Again.
But what if you could quit the crazy diets and discover a better path to health?
What if you could nourish your body without having to follow tons of rules and beat yourself up when you slip?
If you change some of your mindsets around dieting, you’ll end up with a saner approach that will help you succeed.
Finding a healthy mindset is a lot easier and more rewarding than trying yet another diet. So before you waste any more money on diet books, examine your behaviors.
You’ll be surprised to see how your thoughts, beliefs, and subconscious can sabotage your best efforts.
1. Allow thoughts of forbidden foods into your mind
Suppressing thoughts of forbidden foods backfires. Science shows that suppression even results in higher rates of intrusive thoughts about the topic. Scientists call this ironic rebound, a hard-wired cognitive bias in the human brain.
When you try to push a thought away, it comes back even stronger. A subconscious part of the brain focuses on the thought that will resurface.
And guess what? The effect is strongest when we’re stressed out, tired, or distracted.
For years I did it the wrong way. I’d start a strict diet, and then I’d dream of chocolate brownies from my favorite coffee shop. I tried like hell to quit thinking about those chocolate brownies. In hindsight, it makes so much sense. Because I tried not to think of those brownies, the thoughts came back even stronger, and I became frustrated with myself.
Starting a diet and creating a list of no-no foods sets your brain up to suppress thoughts of those foods. You might be able to stick to your will for a few hours or a few days. But at the end of a tedious workday, your mind will naturally allow thoughts of tempting foods to resurface. No wonder you struggle to resist potato chips and a glass of wine.
The fix: Banish the concept of forbidden thoughts. When chocolate cookies or kettle chips come knocking, allow these thoughts into your psyche. Accept the feeling of desiring these foods, and then come back to the present moment. Feel your breath, and note where the craving settles in your physical body. Understand that suppressing the thought only makes you want those foods more.
Over time, you’ll notice that you have control over your actions. Rather than judging yourself, imagine the thoughts of the temptation disappearing like clouds slowly blowing away. Stop suppressing your thoughts, and over time, the invaders will stop entering your mind.
2. Stop overworking your willpower
Your willpower is like a muscle: the more you work it, the faster it tires. Creating tons of rules and focusing on what you can’t have will quickly fatigue your willpower. Self-control spends mental energy.
When you require constant self-control to follow your rules, your willpower muscles are likely to give out. You’ll find that remembering your long-term goals is challenging. By creating tons of rules for yourself, you set yourself up to break these rules.
The fix: Harness your inner rule-maker by making one or two healthy habits automatic. Start with a healthy breakfast. My breakfast of choice is oatmeal made with almond or soy milk, topped with cinnamon, flax, and berries. I keep all the ingredients on hand and prepare the night before when necessary.
My breakfast choice is automatic, and it doesn’t require choosing or willpower. Do this for breakfast, and maybe a salad with lunch, and you’ll have the mental energy to focus on bigger temptations.
3. Stop ignoring your stress
If you focus on creating the perfect diet while ignoring your stress, you’re putting lipstick on a pig. It won’t work, no matter how hard you try.
When under stress, your pre-frontal cortex, or your rational brain, goes to sleep. Your body and mind become hyper alert and speed up. Rather than remembering your long-term health goals, you focus on immediate survival and become more impulsive.
You’ll find it harder to resist strawberry cheesecake when you operate under stress. Your instincts will push you toward a potentially bad decision, so you’ll need to protect yourself from yourself.
The fix: Slow yourself down. Activate your “Pause-and-Plan” reflex, which is the opposite of “Fight-or-Flight.” You can do this by slowing your breathing rate to four or six breaths per minute. Research shows this technique increases your heart rate variability — you become more resilient to stress and build your willpower reserve.
Exhaling for longer slows your body down and increases your breathing capacity over time. Inhale for a count of five, and exhale for a count of five or ten. Depending on your current breathing capacity, it may take time to slow down to four cycles per minute, but you’ll derive benefits from any decrease in your breathing rate.
4. Practice moderation, even though it’s harder than extremes
Are you tempted by restrictive diets such as juice fasts or no-carb? When you are on your diet, you board the diet train of choice and follow the rules— no carbs, smoothies for dinner, or paleo. When you make a mistake, you jump off the healthy eating train and lose your self-control.
All-or-nothing thinking leads to yo-yo dieting and frustration. This comes back to point #1, where we stopped creating “good” and “bad” foods. As a general rule, all foods are there to nourish, satisfy, and support our lives. Some are much better than others at fulfilling that purpose. Learning to use your intuition will help you make choices over the long term.
The fix: Extreme diets lead to failure and unhappiness. The perfect way of eating is different for you than it is for me. Do yourself a huge favor and let go of unrealistic beliefs. Restrictive plans don’t work in the long term.
Instead, have a flexible mindset. Allow space in your healthy eating plan for occasional indulgences because one choice won’t doom you to failure. Plan for a square of chocolate after your lunch. If you indulge more than you’d like, take a deep breath, forgive yourself, and move on.
5. Stop rewarding yourself for being good
When you do something good, such as forego dessert, you feel good about yourself, and this gives you permission to do something bad. Scientists call this moral licensing. If you tell yourself that you’re good because you worked out today, you might skip the gym tomorrow or even have a chocolate chip cookie with your coffee.
When we have conflicting desires, being good gives us permission to be a little bit bad. And usually we don’t feel bad about these choices; we justify them with past good behavior.
When you feel like a saint, the idea of indulging doesn’t feel wrong. Moral licensing tricks us into acting against our long-term goals. And if you’re not careful, you’ll fall into this trip.
The Fix: What’s your long-term goal? Is it finding a healthy weight? Write it, and remember it. Behaviors that support your goal, such as exercise and eating well, are not reasons to indulge. Avoid the trap of thinking, “Well I worked out and burned 363 calories on the treadmill, so now I can have a second or third piece of pizza.”
When you are faced with the choice of birthday cake, remember your long-term goal of feeling great, being healthy, and finding your ideal weight. Forget about your short-term good behaviors — the yoga class, and the salad you ate for lunch.
Focus on where you want to go in the long term.
6. Avoid people that sabotage your best intentions
Willpower is contagious; unfortunately, so is obesity. According to Framington studies, a person’s risk of obesity increased 171% when their friends became obese. When one person started to drink more, the behavior spread throughout their network.
Luckily, good habits such as exercise are also contagious. Humans are wired to connect with others and to track what they are thinking, feeling, and doing.
Our mimicking instincts can prompt us to want the same foods, and feel the same emotions as those around us. We also eat more with others than when we’re alone and spend more when shopping with friends.
What those around you eat influences your own normal behavior. In Dan Buettner’s remarkable book, The Blue Zones Solution, the longest-lived people have strong support circles. They walk, enjoy meals, and encourage one another in life.
I live in New Orleans, a city that beckons indulgence at every corner — fried oysters, soul food, rich, saucy Creole cuisine. Often people tell me they gain 5–10 pounds since moving to New Orleans. Our culture fosters guilt-free indulgence.
Over time, I’ve found a tribe that veers toward healthier habits, and it helps me not to feel like a freak for preferring tofu over boiled crawfish.
The Fix: Look at your own actions. Do you tend to eat more when you are with certain friends? Do others in your social network share your desire to eat well? Find partners in your healthy habits. Some places to find healthy-minded people are yoga studio and gyms.
7. Stop expecting quick results
Let’s face it — dieting sucks. We all want quick results. But quick weight loss isn’t as effective and usually results in weight rebound.
Have you tried a juice fast? I have, and although I lost weight, I regained it within six months. Severely restricting calories can have reverse consequences; your body thinks it’s in a famine, so it gets better at doing more with fewer calories
The fix: Chill out and enjoy the journey. Long-lasting changes require patience. Think of your new healthy eating as a lifestyle rather than a diet. Spend time planning, shopping, and preparing a few meals. Find recipes that resonate with your tastes. Your changes will become part of a fulfilling way to think about food.
Change your mindset, and find a healthier path.
Stop throwing your money away on diet books. Stop focusing on what you can’t do. Focus on how you can accept yourself.
You can find a healthy eating approach that is palatable for the long term. When you’re aware of your innermost desires and thoughts, and you can accept them, it’s much easy to make the right choices.
Listen to your intuition. Hear your own voice.
It’s waiting to be heard so that you can be healthy and happy.
Let’s do this, shall we?