Why is dieting so hard? The simple answer, because it sucks. It sucks to be told what you can and can’t eat. We are all defiant little children inside, wanting the exact same thing that we are told we can’t have.
As soon as you start the latest hot diet (you know, the one that’s sure to have you in your high school jeans by the end of the month) the Hershey’s kisses on the reception desk at work turn into little pieces of manna from the gods and you can’t help but grab one…or a few…or let’s be honest, half the bowl, as you walk by. The dessert menu that you typically don’t even look at now begs you to drool over it’s decadent offerings.
You become obsessed with food– and more importantly this new restriction from it– making you want all the things that you can’t have.
It’s Not Just Mental
Why does this happen? Are we all really that mentally immature? Yes and no. It is human nature to strive for the unattainable, to want what you can’t have, to lust after forbidden fruits. Heck, it’s the premise of the American Dream. And when it comes to food, it’s proven that restriction leads to obsession, binging and emotional eating. More often than not, when we impose restrictions on ourselves, we begin to place a higher value on those items that we have deemed off limits.
But beyond that, many diets deprive us of nutrients our bodies need. Hunger and nutrient deficiencies lead to cravings and desires for foods to fulfill those needs. During my first, and very unhealthy, competition diet for a figure show, I found myself absolutely mad for peanut butter, something I had never really thought much about previously. When I grilled chicken, normally I would avoid the little fatty chunks at all cost, but I was scarfing them down, almost uncontrollably.
Why? My diet was dangerously low fat (we’re talking no food sources, just a few fish oil capsules a day) and very low calorie. My body was screaming to me how badly it needed to be fed and it wanted fat.
Cravings can be as simple as childish rebellion or they can be an important cue from your body that it’s not getting what it needs. Regardless of the driving factor, diets – especially diets that are not properly designed – suck and make you do crazy things. Even more, they set you up for failure and a good likelihood of gaining back any weight that you lose.
Stop the Madness
So what is the solution? Everywhere you will read “abs are made in the kitchen,” and “you can’t exercise away a bad diet.” While these statements are very true, the solution is not another cookie cutter meal plan and list of rules. Instead, the answer is a mental shift from dieting and deprivation to managing your food intake and developing good habits for a balanced, healthy food intake, which includes plenty of room for the foods you enjoy.
I like to explain managing your food much like managing your bank account. Granted, most of us suck at both, but that’s also why the analogy works. Think about your daily calorie needs like your pay check. You only have so much to spend. Everything you eat has a cost, or a caloric value. Some foods are cheap (think green vegetables). Some are very expensive (think Snickers bars). Some are a good bang for your buck and some a total waste of money. But ultimately, you decide what is worth it, what you can afford, and what you refuse to spend money on. You have to set your personal budget and learn how to live within it.
Invest in Yourself
The best way to figure this out is to start tracking what you eat and learning how many calories you need and how many calories are in different foods and their nutritional make-up. This includes learning how much fat, carbohydrates, and protein each food contains. I recommend creating a My Fitness Pal account and starting to journal what you consume. It’s the same as checking to see how much something costs. Just like in the grocery store, when you have an idea of prices, you’re not as shocked when you check out.
In this monetary analogy, the essential nutrients you consume everyday are your bills. You shouldn’t be deciding whether or not to pay them, or which ones to pay. They all are necessary for survival. You need your water and electricity to function, just like you need a certain amount of protein, vegetables and fruit, and good fats. These should have caloric priority and be on “autodraft” from your food bank account.
But the rest of the money, you can decide how you spend. If you want to blow all your remaining calories for the day on beer, that’s your call. But just like with money, some purchases will leave you wishing you had bought something else.
Getting Out of Debt
If you’re overweight, it is going to be harder at first, because you’re essentially trying to get out of debt. You can’t spend as much, because you have to pay off your credit cards first. But it’s important to still work in some “fun money” so you don’t give up on the process, get a new credit card and go crazy at the mall (ie: say screw it and eat an entire box of Krispy Kreme donuts).
In this analogy, exercise is like working overtime. It can allow you to spend or eat more, but it’s a lot easier to spend the money than it is to make it. Just like an overtime paycheck always seems to be less than you expected, so is the calorie burn of most activities. For those who don’t like to workout, it means a smaller budget. For those who love it, it gives you more fun money or more caloric freedom. And the same financial principles apply, you shouldn’t spend money before you make it or depend on overtime or extra income to support your daily spending habits. In other words, don’t binge with the mindset of paying it off later with hours on the elliptical, and don’t commit yourself to so much exercise that other elements of your life suffer.
Finally, just like spending, when you go over budget, there are consequences. If you do decide to blow your remaining calories on something not as substantial, you’ll often find yourself hungry and eat more, essentially putting yourself in debt. And just like with finances, eventually you have to pay them off or live in an uncomfortable level of debt, or in this case, body fat.
Manage Your Nutrition Budget
This may not sound fun, just like living on a budget is not a whole lot of fun, but it’s ultimately the way to dieting freedom, just like a budget is the way to financial freedom. It’s a different way of thinking about dieting. There is nothing you can or cannot have, but there are decisions to be made and benefits to keeping your money in the bank at times.
Good spending habits are just like good eating habits, after time they will both become easier. And sometimes they just go hand-in-hand. For me it’s saying “sorry Starbucks, but your sugary lattes are no longer worth the five dollars or the five hundred calories to me!” (Just look at the nutrition information for venti pumpkin spice latte!)
Unfortunately, unlike some purchases, there are no refunds for things you eat that weren’t worth the calories, so be careful what you buy.
With the holidays approaching, just remember – you don’t have to be a Scrooge, but you also don’t want to spend all of 2021 in debt. Watch your spending, work a little overtime and be sure to enjoy yourself too!