Don’t be Good. Feel Good!

By Michelle May, M.D.

Bad List“Be good or Santa won’t bring you any presents!”

Does this threat actually work to change behavior long term? Probably no better than, “Be good! You have to weigh in next week!” Although it’s been 15 years since I’ve been on a diet, just writing that made me cringe.

The entire conventional system of managing eating and exercise behavior is built on compliance with a predetermined set of guidelines. There are even guidelines for how to get around the guidelines during the holidays!

Be Good or Else!

It is an outside-in approach with a threat built in: “If you’re not good…(fill in your favorite dreaded threat here: you’ll never find a partner…you’ll die…or worse, you’ll gain weight)!” (Please read with sarcasm.)

Back in my yo-yo diets days, the holidays were an endless minefield of threats. I was still practicing medicine back then, so about mid-morning after half-dozen urgent visits for colds and flu, I’d finally let myself sneak back to the break room to see what goodies had shown up. That is how I discovered Almond Roca.

To this day, that round pink container filled with gold-foil wrapped chocolate and almond covered toffee makes my heart race! (Reminder to self: Salivation is NOT a sign of hunger!) But back then, it went something like this:

I’ll just have one piece instead of the apple I brought for my snack. Let’s see…how many calories is in one of these things? Oh, wait, it says a serving size is 3 pieces. I’ll have three since that’s easier than doing the math.

One hour and three patient work-ins later: “Looks like lunch is going to be late, if I even have time! I’ll just have a few more pieces of Almond Roca to tie me over…oh no! I’m not the only one who loves these! They’re almost gone! I better take a few extra but I won’t eat them now.” Which of course I did, but it didn’t matter because another container or another platter of goodies would take their place the next day. And each evening I would think, “I feel gross! Why was I so bad today?” On and on this went for all of December.

At some point, I’d make the decision to just start fresh in the new year. Come January, I denied, deprived, then eventually defied my way through the next year. Until December, when I just gave up completely.

Why Feel BadWhy Feel Bad?

In the fifteen years that I’ve been teaching people how to break this cycle through Am I Hungry?, I’ve heard stories like that too many times to count!

So I ask you, why spend all of December bloated, full, and tired, and then spend January feeling hungry, deprived, and obsessed?

Feel Good!

Threats don’t work with children, so why should they work with adults? They don’t. Fear is a short term motivator, intended to protect us from immediate danger. In fact, the physiological state induced by chronic fear and stress leads to long term health and psychological consequences. External and internal threats to “be good or else” are actually counter-productive to good health.

Motivation for sustainable change comes when the choices you make feel good. Eating the foods you love in moderation, moving your body, and practicing self-care all lead to positive feelings that reinforce the choices you are making. Am I Hungry? is a comprehensive approach to eating and self-care that focuses on changing thoughts and feelings first, so changes in behaviors will last.

Seeing that pink container of Almond Roca is no longer a trap. It is simply a favorite holiday treat that I’ll enjoy mindfully if I choose. Each piece brings me pleasure without a plan to pay penance. I don’t experience any urgency to have more than two or three pieces; why ruin the pleasure by feeling bad because I’ve eaten too much?

And that feels good!

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