I think we’ve all been there. Making the decision to eat better. Whether it be to lose weight, have more energy, help with our digestion, or any number of other reasons. Sometimes it’s just cutting out a single item: no more pop, coffee, or chocolate. Other times it’s an entire food group: we’re cutting out gluten, we’re going dairy-free, or we’re giving up sugar. And so it begins.. telling ourselves what we can’t have. Depriving ourselves.
I’ve done it.
I’ve been through many of these attempts over the years. New Year’s resolutions to give up fast food, removing dairy from my diet while breastfeeding, and completely cutting out sugar as part of a “re-set.” But the one I distinctly remember is when I cut out gluten.
I decided to do it to try to help my digestion, and the second I made the decision that I would no longer be eating gluten my mind went into overdrive. “But what about Christmas time?! What about my favourite cookies that Grandma makes?! Can I use the new bread maker I just bought?! What about the Teddy Grahams?! HOW WILL I LIVE WITHOUT THE TEDDY GRAHAMS?!”
As soon as the panic settled and I had a moment to reflect, I realized something; I hadn’t eaten a Teddy Graham in probably 5 years. Nor had I thought about Teddy Grahams or in any way craved one. So why in the world did I just have a miniature meltdown at the thought of never having one again? Simple. Because I’d told myself “I can’t.”
Don’t think of a pink elephant (or a white bear)
Most people have had someone try this out on them, right? You’re told not to think of a pink elephant, and what inevitably pops into your head? A pink elephant of course! This is called the Ironic Process Theory, where its been shown that when you try to suppress certain thoughts they’re actually more likely to surface.
Your mind doesn’t focus on the “don’t” part of the sentence, but only on the “pink elephant” part of the sentence. That’s why, when you’re learning to write goals you’re taught to always put them in a positive tense. For example, if a football player has a goal to not miss any tackles, his mind would actually be focused on missing tackles! If instead his goal is “I will make all of my tackles,” he’ll focus on making tackles.
When you tell yourself you’re not eating dairy, your mind thinks of every delicious thing you’ve ever had that contained dairy! And you already feel deprived, before you’ve even begun your journey.
A study published in Comprehensive Psychiatry found that when you try to suppress thoughts about food:
- You may think about it more often
- You may consume more of that food after the suppression period is over
- Women with a binge eating disorder may binge eat more frequently
- Weight cycling may occur, when you lose the weight but gain it all back
So what’s the solution?
As with anything in life, there’s no single solution. But there are a couple of ways that you can cut things out of your diet that you no longer want to consume. Whether it’s temporary or forever, you can still make it an enjoyable process instead of a chore.
Don’t do it all at once
I remember clearly when I decided to cut out gluten from my diet. I got home, removed every single gluten containing thing from my fridge and pantry, and gave them to my roommate. Immediately I found recipes for gluten-free meals that could replace the gluten containing meals I loved. Next I went to the grocery store and stocked up on gluten-free cereals, snacks, and flours. I was ready to begin! And I felt great about it (remember, the initial panic of a life without Teddy Grahams had subsided..). And then, about a week later the excitement of starting something new and challenging myself wore off, and I was struggling to motivate myself to continue eating this way indefinitely.
So why do we think that we need to change ourselves overnight? We seem to have this idea in society that the faster the better. The more extreme the better. It’ll yield better and quicker results and so that’s the way to go. And it probably will. But it’ll also lead to us burning out and giving up faster.
Limiting instead of eliminating. Make it a lifestyle change instead of a fad. Tell yourself that it’s okay to take a week, a month, maybe even a year to completely eliminate said food from your diet. Sure the results won’t be a dramatic and the health benefits won’t happen overnight, but wouldn’t it be better to make a gradual change that you can stick to forever, than a quick change that doesn’t last?
Of course this only applies if you’re making a change because you want to, and not because you need to. If you discover you’re lactose intolerant and you need to cut out all dairy to be able to function, then overnight (or at least quicker than a year) is a better option.
Make it a choice instead of a “statement”
The difference between saying “I can’t have that” and “I don’t want that” may not seems like a big deal, but psychologically it makes a big difference in our mindset. If you’ve made a decision to cut out sugar because of the health benefits, that’s a great thing! But as soon as you start thinking that you’re not allowed something because you’ve made a commitment to not eat it, instead of that you don’t want to eat something because it doesn’t align with your health goals, you’ve lost sight of the long-term benefits. It has become about doing something just to say you’ve done it, or to tell the world “I don’t eat that,” instead of about the benefits it’ll have on your body.
Think about these two scenarios: you see a cupcake that you know contains a high amount of sugar and think “I can’t have that cupcake.” Your mind wants it more.** But when you say “I don’t want that, because it doesn’t promote my optimal health” then you are empowered! You are choosing not to have it, in that moment. It’s not a decision that has been made for you, months ago, when you told yourself you couldn’t. And you can walk away from that cupcake feeling like you’ve just improved your health, instead of like you’ve just deprived yourself.
Focus on saying “I can”
When you decide to give up something in your diet there’s a lot of things you can no longer eat. But what if instead, you focused on all the things you can still eat? And better yet, looked at it as all the things you’ll now have room for in your diet because of what you’ve eliminated. Say you’ve decided to cut out dairy and throughout a day you’d normally have milk, yogurt, and cheese. Well you’ve got to replace those things with something. So think of some other awesome healthy foods that you can replace dairy with. And get excited about those! Try coconut milk, incorporate more nuts and seeds into your diet, make a “cheesy” sauce with nutritional yeast. Instead of spending half and hour on Facebook, spend it looking for new dairy free recipes to try!
Rome wasn’t built in a day
Well it applies to healthy eating as well. Changing your diet doesn’t happen overnight (at least not sustainably) and it’s unrealistic for us to expect it to. How many times have you started a diet, stuck rigidly to it for a few weeks, or maybe even a few months, and then gone back to your same old habits? And when you go back to those same old habits, how many of you feel bad and beat yourself up about it? I’m guessing most of you! So what if instead you accepted that healthy eating is a journey? You allowed yourself to set reasonable and attainable and sustainable goals. And when you had a setback, you looked at it as a learning opportunity, praised the progress you’ve made, and then stepped back on the right path. Wouldn’t that be a bit more fun?!
I know in today’s day and age we often want change to happen overnight and we don’t always have to patience for anything other than that. But sometimes we have to look beyond the short-term and think about the future.
Think big picture
I don’t analyze my eating or step on my scale every day. And I don’t compare today to yesterday or tomorrow. But sometimes I stop and reflect on how my habits have improved compared to 6 months ago, or a year ago, or even 5 years ago. And that’s when I realize I’ve truly made amazing progress and produced awesome, sustainable habits.
I continue to work on them everyday, with the understanding that I might take one step forward and ten steps back. Then fall down and get back up. Then wander off the path for a day or a week and find the path again and stick to it for many months and so on and so on. And the point is to enjoy every step of the journey, and know that we learn the most lessons when the path is windy or we wander off it for a bit.
Know that you’ll find your way back to it with new knowledge and resolve. And be kind to yourself during the process.
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Until next time, stay happy, healthy and hungry for improvement!