Remember that exercise in psychology class where the teacher tells you not to think of a white bear? The first thing that comes to your mind is that darn white bear. This is how it works with food too. In our society, we hear a lot about foods that are off limits. These messages offer much more harm to our health than help. Let’s explore this some.
Can you think of the only food that society tells us are the good foods? Some specific foods may come to mind, but more broadly vegetables seem to be the guilt free food. Even better, organic vegetables! Now think about what would happen to your physical and mental health if you only ever ate vegetables. We life in a society that doesn’t guilt us for eating vegetables, but will guilt us for eating almost anything else. This guilt is all done in the name of health but, if you only ever ate vegetables, malnutrition is sure to follow. And being malnourished to avoid food guilt doesn’t seem healthy, right?
I was in a spin class early last Saturday morning and the instructor started talking about food. I thought, Oh boy, here we go with some food guilt. She said, “The average person has about 5,000 calories on Thanksgiving and we aren’t open on Thanksgiving. You better come here Friday to start working some of that off.” I eye rolled so hard I almost fell off my bike. I thought, who cares?!? It’s only Thanksgiving once a year. If a person overeats with family on a holiday that comes once a year, why is that so bad? And why should we have to feel bad about it? Also, this trainer thinks that we should feel so bad about it that we need to rush to the gym to “work it off.” It also made me think more about a question that comes to mind frequently, especially when counseling clients, what if we changed the way we talked about food and our bodies?
We need to stop talking about food and our bodies so destructively. When we tell ourselves, we are not allowed to have certain foods, we will start thinking about that food more and typically where there is one food rule, there are more. No donuts and no pizza turns into, no saturated fat and no sugar turns into, no carbs and no fat and, at times, can lead to no food. Additionally, research shows that when we restrict foods, we are more likely to binge on those foods. This happens when we can no longer follow strict food rules. We get to this what the hell point after spending so much time and energy avoiding those foods and binge on these same foods that were just off limits. This leads to guilt and low self-confidence and can become an endless dieting cycle.
But what if we just allowed ourselves to have the foods we love and crave? By satisfying cravings and eating food we find enjoyable, we can in turn avoid over eating. Think about how you feel after having a salad with only vegetables. Now think about how you feel after having a salad with vegetables, crotons, dressing, cheese and protein. You are much more likely to be able to go on with your day after eating the more satisfying salad. (Also, you are also absorbing the fat-soluble vitamins in your salad by adding fat to it.) When we eat foods that are satisfying, we have less thoughts about food and we are less likely to overeat. And if you are less likely to overeat or binge, avoid guilt and lowered self-confidence and stop obsessing about food, doesn’t that seem better for your mental and physical health than the endless diet cycle?
My dietitian advice would be: If you are craving candy, have it. If you want a slice of pizza with friends after you had dinner, do it. If you want to have a few extra bites of something that tastes good, do that too. And if you don’t want to, then don’t do it. But listen to your fullness and hunger cues and don’t let food guilt stand in the way.