Why diets and deprivation fail
Updated: Mar 31, 2021
I recently learned of an interesting study wherein researchers were attempting to quantify the impact of food marketing on consumption. We'd all like to think that we aren't influenced by advertising, but the simple truth is that we humans are highly susceptible to marketing. I'll save my rant on the manipulative tactics for another day since the most interesting (and to my mind, more than mildly disturbing) finding of the study was that dieters, or restrained eaters as the study called them, ate 4 times as much as non-dieters or unrestrained eaters. 😲 As the study summarized: restrained eaters are more sensitive and reactive to food cues than are unrestrained eaters. The food cues appeared to generate an appetitive urge to eat in restrained eaters.1
As a former yo-yo dieter, and someone intimately familiar with the cycle of restriction that results in intense cravings and ultimately leads to overindulging, this should come as no surprise, however it still felt like a punch in the gut. Extrapolating further based on my own experience and that of other yo-yo dieters and emotional eaters, that long history of diet mentality has entrenched automatic thought patterns of restriction or deprivation. The result: even when we aren't actually dieting or limiting calorie intake, our mind believes we are and we end up behaving like restrained eaters despite technically being a non-restrained eater. Ouch! Does this mean we are doomed to a lose-lose situation? How can we combat this mentality and still improve our health, make choices that serve us and find a healthy weight over the long term?
As much as I'd like to give you a magic pill or a silver bullet, no such thing exists. However, in the same way that we've ingrained unhelpful thought patterns, we have the ability to unravel these and replace them with more helpful ones. Here are 3 mindset related ideas to play with. These have been helpful for me and others that I've worked with.
Repeat to yourself, ad nauseum if necessary, I can eat whatever I want, as much as I want, whenever I want. As Mark Twain said, "There is a charm about the forbidden that makes it unspeakably desirable". When something is no longer forbidden it loses its allure. If you have a package of Oreos and tell yourself that this is the last time you'll eat them, that after today, you're not going to eat them again, how many are you going to want to eat? Probably all of them! This is the last time you're ever going to have them so it's only natural that you're going to want to have as many as possible. Whereas, if you let go of the belief that you should never have them (no food should be on the never list), and instead tell yourself "If I want, I can have more tomorrow, and the day after that, and the one after that, …", they will become less special, less tempting and ultimately less desirable. This will take time; the craving and desire will not dissipate immediately, and you have to honour your word by allowing yourself to have Oreos every day for as many days as you want them. Rebuild the trust with yourself by proving that you really can eat what you want, when you want, as much as you want. As you let go of the belief that certain foods are forbidden, and know this to be true to the very core of your being, the power that food once held over you will disappear and you will no longer experience craving or intense desire at mere thoughts or images.
Connect to the bigger why. What's the deeper reason you want to lose weight? When that why is connected to your values, what you believe in, and what's important to you, then suddenly it's not: I can't have Oreos because I'm on a diet, but rather, my family is important to me, I enjoy spending time with them and I want to be able to go skating so I'm filling half my plate with veggies and will have an Oreo for dessert. Need some help articulating that bigger why? Reflect on these questions: What makes you come alive? What are your innate strengths and how can you use them? What do you love most? How do you want to be remembered?
Choose a mindset of abundance over one of deprivation. Instead of focusing on what you might have to reduce or give up, appreciate what you like and enjoy. Make two lists. The first is a list of foods you already like, that are nutritious and support your goals. This list is proof that you have an innate and instinctive desire for health and well-being. Each time you eat these foods, acknowledge and celebrate this fact. The second list is of foods that you're curious about; ones you know are good for you, that you might like to try or are appealing for one reason or another. Then, embrace a mindset of abundance as you try these new foods. Each time you experiment with expanding your diet and pallet (even if you don’t end up liking it), acknowledge and celebrate your sense of adventure and natural desire for health and well-being.
Changing long-held beliefs and ingrained thought patterns is challenging and takes some time. What ultimately works for one person will end up being different than what works for someone else, and often it's a combination, not one single thing that works. The key is to keep trying, be willing to experiment with ideas and techniques until you find a combination that works for you.
1. Fedoroff IC, Polivy J, Herman CP. The effect of pre-exposure to food cues on the eating behavior of restrained and unrestrained eaters. Appetite. 1997 Feb;28(1):33-47. doi: 10.1006/appe.1996.0057. PMID: 9134093.