Deprivation is not my friend. Although I have tried to make use of it in past diets—depriving myself of particular foods I deem off-limits or forbidden—it always comes back to haunt me. Most people who have tried to restrict their calories or change their diet will say the same thing—they end up eating more than if they had not tried to cut down in the first place. It is the rare person who can sustain deprivation for any length of time, and even those who can (such as Anorexics), often become bulimic or overweight when they can no longer endure the physical and emotional fatigue that accompanies scarcity. It is for this reason that diets do not typically work.
When we are told (or when we tell ourselves) that we cannot have something, we want it all the more. I experienced this recently with my two year old. She wanted to chew on a greasy, filthy kitchen sponge, and my best efforts to talk her out of it only intensified her interest in doing so. If I had a greater tolerance for germs, I might have avoided a power struggle by letting her chomp away. But my squeamish nature got the better of me and I vied it from her hands once it became clear that she wasn’t backing down (you can imagine how this ended up).
I often think of the classic psych experiment in which participants are told not to think of a white bear. These instructions result in one thing: participants inevitably think of a white bear. Thought suppression does not eliminate the unwanted thought. It is the same with that temping chocolate chip cookie or that slice of cheesecake in the fridge: if you tell yourself you can’t have it, they you will want it even more. There is great appeal in things that are forbidden.
If you find yourself obsessed with a particular food that you’re trying to avoid, or if your diet of the month is not paying off, here are a couple of things to try.
Give yourself permission to eat the forbidden food.
Sometimes this strategy is enough in itself—the desire decreases and no longer holds you hostage. You may find that you go overboard in the initial stages by eating more than you intend to. This is natural and expected. It’s like a teenager coming off a weekend of being grounded—he flirts with danger by pushing the limits and exercising his new-found power. Similarly, the excitement of being able to eat a forbidden food may feel like being let out to pasture after months of confinement in a crowded stall. But eventually, things will even out and that forbidden food won’t be quite so enticing any more.
Change your thinking.
If you’re trying to ditch the deprivation mindset of a diet, try changing your thoughts. For example, instead of telling yourself, “I can’t have that (doughnut, cookie, etc.,),” try “I can have it and I know what the result will be.” The result, or consequence, might be weight gain, low energy, feelings of guilt, or a glucose spike that is potentially dangerous if you are diabetic. If you remind yourself of these consequences before indulging, while simultaneously giving yourself permission to do so, the urge might just diminish.
You may be using this approach already with your children: “You can choose to leave your toy on the floor, and you know what the consequence will be” (e.g., not being able to play with the toy for the rest of the day). This tactic works because it helps kids understand the relationship between cause and effect, and it gives them power over the outcome. As a result, there is no power struggle with mom or dad since the child is able to make a choice and therefore retain some control. If you adopt this mindset for your own dealings with food, you’ll free yourself from resentment and deprivation. The compulsion to rebel against strict food rules will disappear, since you are permitting yourself to eat once-forbidden foods while consciously accepting any consequences. It boils down to taking accountability, which is hard to do but empowering when you do it.
Now if only I’d remembered this concept when a certain blue sponge was the object of temptation…