Back in the early 90s I was offered a choice. Actually, that isn’t quite right, because at the time it didn’t feel like a choice.
At an age when I was way too young to be thinking about these things there seemed to be two paths I could follow. One promised beauty, confidence and happiness. The other seemed boring, average and all around disappointing. Without hesitating, I swallowed the blue pill.
From the outside the dieting path seemed so glamorous. With my natural inclination toward perfectionism, the most seductive illusion––and the one that’s been hardest to break––was that of control. The myth I believed was that if I could restrict my eating enough, then I could control my weight and appearance. The confidence and happiness I envisioned stemmed directly from this control.
The sad irony is that dieting does the opposite of what I believed, and in fact robbed me of control. As humans we are not hardwired to withstand indefinite restriction and deprivation, particularly when it comes to food. The more we try to restrict and deprive ourselves of the things we crave, the harder it gets to hold onto the reigns.
But that doesn’t stop us from trying. For the truly dedicated dieters who still believe restriction offers control, we dig our heels in deeper and hold on with all our might. This manifests as some terribly odd behavior, like bingeing on foods we don’t really like.
For me it started in the low-fat era, with those nasty rice cakes and fat-free Snackwell’s cookies. If you’d asked me if I liked those products I would have said “not really,” but I couldn’t stop myself from eating an entire box, completely convinced that I didn’t deserve better. It never even occurred to me to eat things I actually enjoyed.
Very little changed when I switched to low-carb in the early 2000s. For me, one of the most appealing promises of the high-protein, low-carbohydrate diet was that it was supposed to curb sugar cravings. Finally I’d get that control over my eating that I so desperately wanted. But while my sugar cravings did subside a bit, that didn’t stop me from overeating the new “good guys” like eggs, bacon and cottage cheese at all hours of the day.
Don’t even get me started on the amounts of leek soup I used to eat in 2004. Just thinking about it makes me cringe.
It wasn’t until I found my way out of the Matrix that the depth of this tragedy became clear to me: I didn’t have control. I wasn’t at my ideal weight. And my ignorance wasn’t the least bit blissful.
Letting go of the dieting illusion wasn’t easy, but it was the only way I was finally able to reign in my eating habits.
My problem was that I had the order of operations backwards. I believed that I needed to have control before I could be happy. But the truth was that I needed to eat things that made me happy in order to gain control.
One of the reasons it was so difficult for me to make the switch was that after a decade and a half of denying myself, all foods were such a source of stress for me that I had no idea what I actually enjoyed. Training myself to embrace food and pleasure took a lot of soul searching.
It turns out I really like a good hamburger, but can pass up pancakes without thinking twice. Wine is high on my must-have list, but I only want pasta a few times a year. A good croissant is impossible to resist, but I’m usually happy to share it.
Whether you’ve spent your life dieting or not, the act of consciously identifying the foods that are worth an occasional splurge for you personally is a powerful exercise. Would you rather have the seasonal pumpkin spiced latte or the pizza from the lunch cafeteria at work? Birthday cake with your kids or fast food at the airport?
Only you can decide when special trumps health or convenience. And only when your decisions are based on values instead of restriction will you get control of your habits.
Have you ever had a joyless splurge?