Why this matters
Diets normally need structure, but that structure should never include guilt about what you eat or avoidance of the inherent pleasure of food.
[Read time: 10-15 minutes]
I came across this research paper the other day and found this statement to be quite powerful.
So the ones that obsess about the healthiness of their food the most, also have the lowest levels of health? Huh. Curious.
Clients often list to me all the things they can claim to not eat as a badge of pride, and it’s usually females And rightfully so. They’ve been told: “These are bad, bad, bad, naughty foods! And you must not eat them. They are responsible for fat gain.” Suzanne Somers will tell you that she felt her life flash before her eyes, as the insulin surged after the debacle she made of herself ordering french fries and ACTUALLY EATING THEM! The horror!
Look, we all know that not being allowed to have something makes it more attractive right? Or you craft stories in your head to support this alternate reality you must believe in about food in order to function on a diet that deep deep deep deep down inside you fucking hate.
Changing your diet should not be a hateful experience. Either against food, or against yourself.
We’ve forgotten that it’s OK to like food, and you can operate by a different framework for dieting that allows you to reach your goals and have a life too where food is not a burden to endure and secretly crave, but instead enjoy and put to use.
Chocolat is one of my favorite movies. Nestled within this lovely movie are lots of lessons about pleasure, mindset, and change. Several characters go through life-changing moments, prompted unknowingly by exposure to the mindset and life of Vianne Rocher, who moves to the tiny, conservative village to start a chocolate shop. While she does that, she proceeds to disrupt everyone with her freedom of thought, expression, and attitude towards pleasure.
While I won’t describe the whole film, contemplate this picture of the character Comte de Reynaud, for a moment. It will make sense in a minute.
Pleasure is a force of its own, and denying the pull of pleasure is a lot of work. And food IS a great pleasure; it always has been! There is a way to both enjoy food and not overeat. But before we find that “balance”, we have to setup the mental framework that is required for it!
Food is not your enemy. Any food. Even the “junk” food. Even the “rich” food. Even the “sweet” food. I don’t care how fat you are, it still applies!
How can we harness pleasure for our purposes in dieting? Well, it starts with eating enough food (no crash dieting, even when you have fat to lose) and being willing to remove and replace any guilt, avoidance, or shame associated with types of food until they are completely gone. If that takes some trial and error, so be it.
What do you think your Actual output and mental clarity can be if you aren’t even hitting baseline energy needs (1,200 is not the magic number for fat loss)? Where do you think motivation and consistency come from? Your brain? And your brain needs you to stay fed enough before you either get improvement in any parameter.
Besides physical functioning, you also need calories for things like:
- Thinking: goal setting, motivational thoughts, planning, wondering, questioning, strategizing, understanding, grasping, filtering, deciding, remembering, encouraging, contexting (not a word, I know, I made it a verb; the act of remembering context for proper judgement), connectioning (another made up word), engaging, debating, exploring, trying on perspectives, asking. All that stuff called “engaging in the process.”
- Attention: learning exercise, hearing cues, understanding cues, hearing instructions, filtering instruction, and making necessary connections.
- Focus: sticking to a task, remembering what’s important, not getting distracted, putting in work.
- Productive internal dialogue: an integral part of change is switching out damaging thought processes for better ones (like not calling yourself disgusting and horrible). Replacing them with a new mental-virus, one that we want. This is energetically expensive to the body, especially to keep it up. You know, that “consistency” thing.
All those things that are needed for progress.
One of my favorite books is Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcer’s, by Robert Sapolsky. It’s a book about stress. Stress = anything that happens/is happening in your life psychologically or physically (stress isn’t just negative). I pulled this quote from this article.
Now that’s more scary.
When eating chocolate cake for breakfast one morning would no more break a sweat on your brow than if you had had your usual smoothie and eggs and been “good,” then you are doing it right. Not because one should eat chocolate cake regularly, but because the “right” or “good” choice allows for those moments to happen.
You found the balance between need and pleasure. Need and pleasure will start to become more one and the same. You don’t want a massive gulf between what you like to do and what you will do. You want to start wanting to make excellent choices for yourself, because your self-worth and confidence is built on something stronger than the type of food you ate for lunch. There is no way you will have repeated binging and guilt-fests with that attitude! Neither will you adopt a self-limiting and depriving belief system around food that makes you uptight about anything related to food, and makes everyone else feel guilty.
I would wager it physiologically impossible to binge, crave, and worry about food to a great extent when your choices have been built around what feels good, does good, and therefore IS good for you on a literal level (oh look I’m leaner!).
Wouldn’t you like to want to make great choices, rather than feeling like you have to, yet…..never really making enough of them in a row to matter and feeling like you must resolve, stiffen, be more restrictive and “gooder”?
There are no good or bad foods. Only good or bad choices. And how you make a choice is dependent on what you view as important. If not eating carbs is the “rule” you judge your goodness by, your definition of good is flawed. Restriction without need is a bad choice. Accepting unearned guilt is a bad choice. Relying on negative and repressive emotional strategies to stop your desires is a bad choice, and one that usually backfires.
For Comte Reynaud, his misery peaked and then exploded, when he climbed into Vianne’s chocolate shop window to binge. In the end, public, yet delicious, humiliation was what was needed to snap his eyes open to the fact that he was a self-righteous prick who was making life miserable for himself.
You don’t want to wait for something to force you to “surrender.” That’s usually called binging, but even then it can be much more subtle. The Comte learned……
And food, my friends, is goodness. We must construct our mindsets around a positive, pleasurable, and happy framework, especially when it comes to dieting. This will make YOU more sane, more motivated, more consistent, more excited, which in turn, will mean one less person who is prone to obesity, diabetes, metabolic damage, eating disordered tendencies, or even just basic frustration and chronic stress that is so tied into the “diet world”.
Pleasure is not synonymous with “lack of self-control.” That is disrespectful to the word!
Denying food as a pleasure can be just as damaging as the other extreme. Where it is no longer a pleasure, but a compulsion. Is this what we worry about? That by allowing pleasure, we also allow for excess? But clinging to obsession to avoid pleasure is just the same as too much “pleasure” without any discipline.
Obesity is an obvious problem. Other people can see it and it’s easy to point to them and say: “Well, they enjoy food TOO much.” Maybe, maybe that’s not really the biggest issue, there’s more to obesity than just eating too much, and that’s why all these ideas still apply to those who do need drastic changes in their diet. Their problem is just more obvious. But on the other side, people can’t always “see” the mild forms of disordered eating that gnaw away at health and stress levels slowly, and/or doesn’t support the health of your body properly, including psychologically. The enjoyment of your life is basically a big factor, no? As in, you want FEWER things to worry about? And what if worrying LESS about very specific food choices, and MORE about building a pleasurable and positive relationship with food with some useful habits, would actually benefit you way more? And you’d get to like food again without guilt.
How did the Comte feel after his chocolate binge in the window of Vianne’s store?
When I asked one of my former clients how I had helped her during our diet coaching, she said. “You gave me permission.”
That’s powerful. I gave her permission to let go of some of her restrictive beliefs and trust someone through the process.
I give you permission to like food. It’s OK. It might make you uncertain about how you will make choices, but then I encourage you to keep the happiness in your food, and evaluate your habits guilt-free. What you are aware of you can change if you choose. But to be aware, you must let go of limiting beliefs like “good” and “bad” foods.
Consider this scene:
Look at the adjectives used. What idea do you get? They were doing something naughty yet they couldn’t resist! If you had asked each of them, they most likely would have said “I wish I didn’t eat it”. Why? In this case, eating the chocolate could not be a bad thing, it was only bad in their head. Yet they were COMPELLED to do it anyway.
We are striving for the elusive idea of “moderation” and “balance.” Balance includes extremes, it does not rely on them.
- Food is pleasurable, you are allowed to eat yummy things.
- Under-eating is not a badge of honor, and overeating will make you gain fat. How you act on this statement needs to be in concert with the first.
- Exercise is not strictly to burn calories. Exercise is also a pleasure, not a punishment. Exercise is not a punishment for eating.
- Eating enough is as important as not eating too much, but on a longer timeline. Chronic undereating can lead to metabolic adaptations and consequences. Women need to hear this.
- Do you measure your “goodness” in your diet by what you don’t do? Is your sense of self-worth revolving around what you avoid, resist, endure, and don’t give in to?
The most resistance I get from women is on the matter of diet. Some of them have fat to lose and need to develop better habits. But the majority are very controlling, confused, or terrified of food. They are scared of the pleasure they get from eating and what that means (I will balloon up! I will gain weight rapidly! I will give in and binge!). Binging, in my experience (casual, not medically-concerning), is a call for relief; relief from diet dogma that wants to convince you that food is out to get you. For a lot of my health-conscious clients, they are wasting mental energy – and, in turn, physical energy – on stuff that doesn’t matter. I care about that. It’s the epitome of a self-limiting belief. A useless one.
For those who struggle with their weight and have fat to lose, dieting takes a different form, but the principles remain. Attempting change in yourself from a position of guilt, shame, and avoidance is self-defeating, even if it works as a short-term strategy. It’s a constant swing between two extremes, with no real long-lasting change. But at the end of the day, even if you have lots of fat to lose, you still need to eat enough to fuel your body properly and support all the processes for healthy fat loss.
This is not to say that a structure is not needed for diet; it usually is. But the intent with which you build that structure should not include guilt, shame and avoidance of pleasure.
You gain nothing from holding on to useless beliefs. You are losing, in both pleasure to be had and progress to be gained.
For those who are relatively fit, but not “lean looking,” food is huge for progress. You can’t increase your work capacity or output without supporting it with food, even if you are trying to look “leaner”. Your body may be at the point where staying in a deficit is totally working against you from a getting leaner and performance standpoint. This is a common theme you hear often. What you can put OUT, depends on what you are putting IN. And that includes beliefs!! Beliefs are the food of your brain. They can starve you, shut you down, and make life harder and more confusing. And they are an idea! But that idea directly controls what goes in your mouth.
- Stress helps keep you fat.
- Stress directly contributes to other things that help you gain fat.
- Eating is not either a vice or virtue. It is both and neither.
- Guilt is stressful. See point 1.
- Unnecessary and mis-directed restriction is stressful. See point 1.
- Unexamined beliefs are a stress factory. They make you confused about why you want one thing and do another. You are acting on a belief? What is it? Do you know?
One of your biggest assets to fat loss or body composition improvement is keeping the experience of food pleasurable and positive.
It is a psychological fact that loss pulls on us stronger than gain, it is a stronger motivator by far.
What would motivate you more to instant action? Losing the health you have now, or being able to improve the health you have now. If you start thinking, you might find that you can easily rationalize your state of health now, especially if its pretty good. But what if I told you that unless you started exercising today, you would get cancer? Bet you’d start.
Why do think we all hate dieting? Our framework for it often comes from a place of “loss”:
No naughty foods
No eating out
No night time snacking
Nothing your grandma couldn’t recognize
No packaged stuff
Now, maybe some of those things you DO NEED to do in the right context. But how you approach what you need to do can make all the difference between actually doing it, or just dipping your toe, stirring shit around, and then letting it settle back down till the next diet “cycle/push” comes around for you.
I like the little talk Vianne has with Josephine in the movie. Josephine is deep in domestic abuse and has been for a long time. She does not see how life could be different than it is, and believes there is no way out. Vianne’s answer to her is perfect:
Don’t accept unexamined beliefs about food. Especially when they could be useless and damaging.
Because it’s worth repeating, one more time, I will close with this: