A participant in one of my Am I Hungry? workshops said, “Those 100-calorie ice cream bars are really good! I ate four.” We all had a good laugh, then talked about how portion-controlled snacks and “guilt-free” treats often backfire.
Diet-culture promotes a rigid, guilt-inducing, good-food, bad-food approach to eating that often has exactly the opposite effect from what was intended. The “experts” tell you to substitute, earn, cheat, or indulge in order to eat what you love.
Most people underestimate the power food has over us when we are encouraged to deprive ourselves of foods we enjoy. Don’t underestimate the power of the words used to describe your eating!
A non-diet, mindfulness-based, weight-neutral approach teaches you to be the expert instead!
Words like “indulge” and “cheat” send the wrong message
We often hear diet-advice about “how to indulge in sweets and stay on your diet” that sounds like this:
- It’s OK to indulge yourself once in awhile.
- Exercise more so you can have a treat.
- Treat yourself every now and then.
- Don’t beat yourself up when you cheat; just start over.
- Plan a cheat day so you can eat what you want.
- Give in to your craving for chocolate with one small square every day.
- Eat dark chocolate instead; it’s better for you.
- Splurge on a special occasion then get right back on track.
- Substitute a guilt-free snack like fruit instead.
This seemingly permissive advice is loaded with restrictive messages!
Believing you are “indulging” in sweets can backfire!
Consider the underlying meaning and possible implications of the words used in the phrases above:
Indulge: spoiled, too lenient
Exercise more: earning, conditional
Treat (noun): childish prize for being good
Treat (verb): scarce reward
Cheat: sneaky, dishonest, deceptive, shameful, bad
Start over: this is a game, not a lifelong process
Give in: surrender, concede defeat, weakness
Better for you: justification, rationalization
Splurge: excessive, gluttonous
Back on track: eating what you love is “off track” and therefore bad
Substitute: you can’t eat what you love
Guilt-free: If you eat certain foods, you should feel guilty
Diet-y messages lead to paradoxical overeating and guilt
Even though some expert gave you “permission” to eat a limited amount of a favorite sweet like chocolate, these diet-y messages feed unconscious feelings of judgment and deprivation that may lead to paradoxical overeating.
The perception that you are “cheating” when you eat sweets makes it more difficult to stop once you start. Since “they” gave you an inch but you took a mile, you’ll feel out of control and guilty. This reinforces your belief (and theirs) that you need to be limited or even prohibited from “indulging” in your favorite “bad” foods.
Learn to trust your inner expert
Don’t allow external experts to set artificial and arbitrary boundaries around eating your favorite foods. Instead, learn to trust your internal expert to eat what you love and love what you eat.
Here are five mindful eating principles that help you learn to trust your inner expert:
- Awareness: Notice when you use diet-y words and phrases like those in the list above. Don’t judge or shame yourself. It’s a habit you’ve likely practiced for a long time, so it may take time to break the pattern.
- Curiosity: How often do you say or hear phrases like those above? How do you think or feel when you hear them? Does it help or make things worse?
- Nonjudgment: Instead of using judgmental words like “indulge” or “splurge,” just say “eat.” Don’t “cheat;” just choose. You take the power back when you simply choose to eat certain foods.
- The middle way: All foods can fit in a balanced diet. Let go of “good-food, bad-food” thinking.
- Compassion: When you feel physically uncomfortable after eating, don’t beat yourself up and add to the discomfort! Instead, be gentle with yourself and see what you can learn about the situation.
Learn more about a non-diet, mindfulness-based, weight-neutral approach that teaches you to be the expert instead!
This article is updated from a previous version.
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