When January comes to an end, New Year’s resolutions often do as well – especially if it’s a resolution to diet. Although you’re sincere in your commitment to lose weight, if you’re on a diet you may find that with each passing week, you’re increasingly likely to come up with reasons to make an exception. For many, that exception becomes the rule.
After years of doing psychotherapy with people who struggle with emotional eating, I’ve heard countless stories from my patients about their experiences on diets, and why those didn’t work. They usually can recall some incident that made them feel that they’ve just blown the diet, and they might as well give it up.
After hearing this theme repeated often enough, I’ve been able to identify the five most common explanations for why people decide to go off their diet. If some of them sound like lines you’ve used to explain your own behavior while dieting, then this list may be a useful reality check for you:
“It was a special occasion so I felt it was okay to make an exception.”
Your intention is not to give up on your diet because that would make you feel like you failed. So instead, you only go off it on “special occasions,” and that doesn’t really count as cheating.
The reality is you want it both ways: to tell yourself that you’re still on a diet without having to follow it. The only way to do that is to set a very low bar for declaring a special occasion. When any opportunity can be considered special enough to go off your diet, the words ‘special’ and ‘diet’ lose all meaning.
2. “I feel down and bored and thought it would make me feel better to eat.”
Your intention is that when you’re feeling down, eating something that tastes delicious will make you happy. It’s as if comfort food can be like edible therapy.
The reality is that after eating it, you quickly realize that the food didn’t help and now you feel guilty, out of control, and in a much worse mood than you were in before. That’s because being on a diet may be a big part of why you feel depressed. It controls you, deprives you, and reminds you that you can’t be trusted to make good choices. When you decide to break the diet, it gives you a brief thrill of doing something “bad” which helps you feel back in control, until the regret sets in.
3. “I’m restarting my diet tomorrow so I’ll never eat this again.”
Your intention is that this is just a temporary, one-time detour from your commitment to lose weight, so what’s the harm? After this, you’ll commit to the diet again and you’ll stay on it.
The reality is that your body doesn’t care when you resume the diet, so there’s no difference between starting tomorrow or next Monday or right now. The real reason you want to postpone restarting your diet is because once you’re back on it, you believe that you’ll stick with it. Until then, you have this window of opportunity for one last all-you-can-eat buffet.
4. “I’ve already ruined my diet by having that cookie, so it makes no difference what I eat now.”
Your intention is to be brutally honest about your behavior, so you tell yourself that you’re either on the diet or not. That cookie you just ate put you in the “not-on-a-diet” category, so you blew it and now you’ll have to start over again the next day.
The reality is that while you may see your diet as an all or nothing affair, your body doesn’t work (or think) that way. Instead, it tracks how you eat over time, not cookie by cookie, and it gradually adjusts your body fat accordingly. When you try to lose weight quickly, your body fights back to protect you. It wants to make sure you’ll have enough fuel stored up so you can survive what seems to be a sudden shortage.
5. “I lost a few pounds so I deserve to reward myself.”
Your intention is to give yourself encouragement to keep up your hard work. Rewarding yourself periodically will help you maintain the morale you need to stay on the diet.
The reality is that the ability to eat something that you enjoy should be part of your regular diet. A desire for something becomes a craving when it’s perceived to be unavailable. That’s called the scarcity effect. Dieting creates an artificial sense of scarcity because you feel like you can never have what you want. That makes it more likely that you’ll try looking for an excuse to eat something whether you really want it or not. If dieting makes you miserable, and eating is your idea of a reward for putting up with it, that’s a sure sign that the diet isn’t working for you.
The bottom line is that starting a diet feels virtuous and makes you feel good about yourself. It allows you to believe that you can control your animal instincts. But that’s exactly why they fail: when you’re on a diet, you feel pressured to go against your most basic survival instinct, which is to eat what you want, when you want it, as long as the food is available. If it’s not, you’ll want it more and will seek it out. That’s how we survived as foragers. And that’s why we blow off our diets – because they make us feel that the food isn’t available.
So, what’s the alternative? Use your judgment to make reasonable decisions.
You may not trust your judgment, and worry that if you stop dieting, you’ll end up eating everything in sight. The reality is that you have that history because diets make you feel miserable. After a while, you quit because you hate the deprivation, and you may even binge to make up for it.
But when everything is back on the menu and available, you can choose to eat only what you want and only when you want to, because there’s no diet to rebel against. That could save a lot of misery and unwanted calories too, from all those exceptions that end up blowing up your efforts to diet.
And you won’t need any excuses to eat like that.