Like the 1,001 stories Scheherazade told King Shahryar in order to prolong her life day by day, we have conjured up thousands of diets through the years in hope of keeping alive our images of beauty and health. The sad part of this story is that, in contrast to Scheherazade – who would eventually become Queen -- diets usually don’t survive the test of time for most people. Even with the strongest motivations, we have a hard time sticking to a particular diet.
There are a number of intervening factors at work here. One of the most hardwired processes in our brain is the formation of habits. Just like Pavlov’s dogs salivating at the sound of a bell, our primordial neurological structures get conditioned to the sight, smell, taste, and texture of food from early life. It is hard not to take a whiff of the baked goods dispersed by cooking ovens while we go walking down the street or past a shop in the mall. They may bring up memories of mom’s or grandma’s cooking along with the associated feelings of warmth, love, and caring.
Our emotional connection to certain foods can be very challenging to override, particularly in times of stress or despair. The soothing experience we often experience with certain foods, particularly the smooth, creamy, types that melt in our mouth, either warm or cool, that cover the tongue with a silky texture may satisfyus emotionally. Here is where our desires, or “needs,” overtake our will.
Even after having made a commitment to follow a dieting plan, a small slip can lead to the “what the hell” effect when we throw all good intentions to the wind. This phenomenon was first coined by Janet Polivy and C Peter Herman, two dieting researchers, to account for the behavior observed in many dieters after lapses in their intention to follow a diet, any type of diet. We also encounter the “what the hell” effect at work with other types of behavior-change experiences involving tobacco, alcohol, etc. Once we have lapsed – eaten that cookie we argued we shouldn’t, eaten taken that extra serving of potato salad with mayo, or had that larger slice of cake -- we feel that our determination has been lost. We broke our vow and therefore think…”The hell with it!”
These setbacks often create a downward spiral effect because we feel bad about ourselves, about our failure. Since we tend to eat what we shouldn’t eat to soothe our distress (because now we feel distress), we may sink further down towards the bottom repeating the behavior we pledged to change. As a result, we will return to our old habits because that is what we are used to, that is what has “worked” for us in the past, even if temporarily.
Researchers have combed through all the work on diets and dieting, particularly those based food and calorie restrictions and found that they simply don’t work. Either the loss of weight achieved during the diet is regained, or worse, we end up pounds heavier that before starting the diet. Also, this “yo-yo” dieting often results in higher blood pressure, higher cholesterol levels, a suppressed immune system, higher rates of heart attacks, stroke, diabetes, and overall higher mortality rates. In addition, because being on a diet tends to tax your willpower system, you may find yourself, or those around you who are dieting, more short tempered, less patient, and more impulsive.
Just like the concept of trying to ignore the pink elephant in the room, when you are trying to get the images and ideas of forbidden foods -- or addicting substances -- out of your head, you will encounter a consequent rebound effect and end up thinking of, and craving, those particular foods even more, draining further your resources and willpower. Researchers have found that people who are asked not to eat a particular food, particularly when recurrently tempted with it, will tend to eat twice the amount later on when the suppression is no longer in place. The preoccupation for the food will keep knocking in your mind until you feed that gremlin!
Suppressing thoughts about particular foods may work initially. But as time goes by, that effort wears us down and then. Ultimately, due to the failure to suppress them any longer, we end up feeling worse for failing. We end up surrendering to the temptation and relapsing, just to relieve the suffering. And… there we go… from sin, to penance, to more sinning. Such is the never-ending loop of failed dieting.
This is ot to say that dieting is impossible, however. Quite the contrary, by accepting thoughts of temptations, recognizing, acknowledging them, and knowing that we don’t have to act on the thoughts, feelings, and impulses, as well as keeping the long term goals we have set in perspective, we have a better chance to succeed. Indeed, experiments with these types of strategies have shown that people are better able to control their impulses if they just acknowledge the fact that they are tempted than if they just try to suppress them. Battling with your thoughts and impulses, and arguing against them makes them worse.
Ignoring the pink elephant in the room will get you nowhere. Acknowledge the thoughts and temptations, don’t try to distract yourself, realize that even though you may not be in control of your thoughts, the cravings and desires are temporary, and you don’t have to act on them. Instead of suppressing the thoughts of temptations, develop goals of what you want to achieve. Think of how you will achieve them, and see yourself doing those things that will lead to the goal; feel yourself engaged in those activities which will lead to that change.
Of course, if you put the temptations right in front of you when you open the refrigerator, you are setting yourself up for failure. Don’t buy the foods that will be tempting you. For example, instead of walking into the bakery section of your local store, think about the dish you will be preparing later on, think of those healthy ingredients. See yourself preparing the food and smelling those aromas associated with the healthy food. Imagine tasting that healthy food, how it will make your body feel. Project yourself into the future when you will feel lighter and healthier without the heartburn, stomach ache, or the bad night’s sleep. Reinforce the good feelings about having made the right choices. Remember your long-term goal.
Towards tis end, make a list of the foods you should eat on your diet, foods that create health and provide pleasure. Get cook books which have recipes for those foods you want to consume n your path to healthier living. Also, identify and make a list of other things that will improve your health, such as exercise, relaxation techniques, meditation, etc. (meditation has been shown to reduce stress and help reduce cravings). Focus on what you will do, and not on what you won’t; like a magnet, those positive goals and expectations will attract success.