The Heartbreaking Story of the Joyless Splurge

by | Oct 6, 2014

Photo by Kalexanderson

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?

Originally published September 16, 2013.

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26 Responses to “The Heartbreaking Story of the Joyless Splurge”

  1. michele says:

    Well said! I think we’ve lived somewhat parallel lives in this food-diet area;)… I think you’ve come to such a fantastic conclusion. Thank you!

  2. Sarah says:

    I’m anticipating one tomorrow. Mandatory work lunch barbecue. There will likely be chicken and a sad iceberg salad (with ranch or thousand island), so that’s what I’ll have. And I’ll have to continually remind myself that those cookies are the epitome of a squandered splurge, but it still won’t be easy to resist. Le sigh.

    • Annie says:

      Can you take a little bottle of your own salad dressing? Maybe contribute a fruit salad or another sweet that you enjoy?

      I hate being held prisoner to a meal that I don’t want to eat so I feel your pain! I’ve also learned to just eat a small amount of something and feel okay about throwing out the plate with food still on it. People without weight problems do this all the time. I was raised always to clean my plate so it goes against the grain to waste food but it’s better to waste food than for me to eat something that I don’t want to put in my body.

  3. Pam says:

    I’ve had many joyless splurges. However, I’ve gotten a better handle on those in the last year or so, thankfully. A couple of days ago I had a very joyFULL splurge … a whole (5 oz) bag of TerraChips Sweet Potato Chips. I enjoyed every one of those salty things. It’s not likely I’ll repeat that splurge for, oh, another six months or more. So, it’s all good.

  4. Flarkus says:

    Joyless splurge: I’ve gobbled up a whole 150g bag of potato crisps and felt ill afterward.

    I’ve been trying to pass on the message that eating well is a major cornerstone of basic good health. That includes both being aware of the foods which your body is happiest and healthiest with and taking an approach which doesn’t place one under stress, or cause feelings of guilt.

  5. This is something that I have tried. If you have a craving or splurge for something that’s tempting to eat I wait 15 minutes and the temptation seems to go away. All Foodist give it a try, Lawrence

  6. You always make so much sense. My joyful splurge is always dining out. I love to try new restaurants and I write about them. I, too, love a good hamburger, but I can pass up the fries. I only want pancakes about twice a year and I can bake for everyone’s birthday and not even desire a bite. I can’t refuse meat and believe it or not my number one favorite food is salad with my own dressing of olive oil and vinegar. Some weeks I cannot get enough kale or broccoli or cabbage and I don’t like cookies except every blue moon.This article makes sense to me because in the past I’ve been on a lot of diets which made me crave sugar. Now I actually don’t like sweets, and I prefer apples as my snack. My body/brain have changed and I have a good habit.

  7. Ashley says:

    Excellent post! I was thinking about the low-fat era just a couple of days ago… about how I was probably doing so much more harm than good falling for that diet. Not enough healthy fats, cravings all over the place, etc. And yes, when splurging, it was totally worthless. Now, being satisfied by yummy, more nutrient-dense foods has totally tweaked my brain into not craving empty calories like sugar. Splurges are now are a LOT different – hellloooo guacamole!

  8. Musetta says:

    Thank you, thank you ,thank you for this! This describes me and my failure at gaining control over my weight so perfectly. This explains why the one time in the last 25 years that I completely forgot about “dieting” and ate what I wanted when I wanted was the one time I lost 36 pounds in one month! I attributed it to being in NYC and all the walking I was doing, but the walking was fairly the same calorie expenditure as the exercising I had done previously with dieting. It wasn’t the walking. I was happy, content, sated! My mind is blown and I am reordering my thinking immediately! Thank you.

  9. MalibuBetty says:

    I used to but in the last year we made the change to go full fat and minimally processed. So now I find that I don’t feel as guilty but eat less because I’m actually fuller from a smaller amount… and the flavors are amazing with full fat milk, cheese, ice cream…and real butter. Hmmm I guess this was mainly a dairy thing but it made a real difference in how much I appreciate what I am tasting and am ok with having a little of it.

  10. Fantastic post! In my practice I spend a lot of time teaching the principle of “worth it splurges.” I think allowing yourself to find pleasure in eating is crucial for long term success. I love the term “joyless splurge.” For me, being picky about sweets really helped me combat my sweet tooth. There are few things I love more than a freshly baked cookie or brownie, but chips ahoy any candy bars are easy for me to pass up.

  11. KimberlyAZ says:

    Lovely post! What I find interesting and puzzling is *what* exactly is going on in my brain when I’m subject to these “joyless splurges”, because it’s not all the time. I actually had a great stretch of peace with food after reading “Foodist” earlier this summer. But following a week’s worth of birthday celebrations and another week of vacation, I found myself again reaching for the Hostess Ho-Hos. The first one probably *was* joyful. The next 7? Not so much. Then afterwards, I remember, “oh, yeah…the last 150 times this happened, I was sick for the rest of the day.” If I bark my shin on the coffee table ONCE, I remember to give it a wide berth the next time I pass by. Wish I knew why my food-related memory doesn’t seem to be quite as effective!

  12. Kate says:

    “Joyless splurge” is a terrific term. I will keep that in mind for the future!

    I just did this in an airport during a three-hour layover a few days ago. I had a relatively healthy lunch and then made my way to my gate, already bored and a bit cranky and coming down with a cold….and there was a fancy candy boutique stand RIGHT next to my gate. As in, staring me in the face.

    So yeah I sucked down some overpriced candy that wasn’t that great and felt gross and overfull and, well, pretty joyless.

    What really annoys me is that moments before I had dismissed the idea of spending a few bucks for one of those chair massages that probably would have improved my mood and perked me up way more than the candy.

    The only positive I can take away from my joyless splurge is that at least I didn’t finish the candy -I realized partway through I wasn’t really enjoying it and tossed the rest.

  13. Jackie says:

    I’ve spent the last four months retraining my brain when it comes to eating – working towards items that are natural, adding more veggies, curbing any refined “white” items and steering clear of sugars. I wouldn’t call it a diet, because I never felt hungry, just a redirection to better nutrition. I’ll admit, the first week without white bread and sugar in my coffee was a little rough. But to my surprise, after the first week, it got really easy to continue, because I could feel my body reacting badly when I ate badly. The more wholesome my diet, the better I felt and the less likely I was to desire over-processed, greasy, sugary foods. I think that’s what you call the opposite of a downward spiral.

    I started the journey just trying to feel better after eating and wound up losing 15 pounds in the process. I can’t say enough about the benefits of eating more natural foods that don’t come with fancy packaging and a long list of ingredients that can’t be pronounced.

  14. gigi says:

    Due to some special circumstances a family member has been delivering take out food twice a week for the past couple of months. We’ve had lots of different types of food;thai, indian, mediteranean along with the traditional pizza and Chinese take-out. Sounds like a wonderful treat but, I’ve actually gotten a little tired of it and always feel a bit “hungover” from the food binge. Today, I finally decided I had enough and declined. Which was very unsettling to the family member who loves take out and believes everyone else feels the same way. Why do people have such a hard time accepting other people’s food choices? Why is the decision to eat healthier seen as some kind of threat or insult?

    • Darya Rose says:

      It’s because they view it as a negative judgement on their own behavior. I have an entire chapter of Foodist dedicated to that subject and how to deal with it.

      • La says:

        I couldn’t agree with you more! People are self-centered by nature (as in, how is this thing going to affect me/my life), so when people are critical of our choices, they are really just defending their own (different) choice. It comes from a belief that two opposing choices can’t both be “right.”

  15. Amy R. says:

    Thank you.

    BTW – I just started your book Foodist and since you quoted and referenced two of my MOST favorite authors Michael Pollen and Carol Dweck (I am a high school choral teacher who spent most of my career trying to figure out the growth mindset in my students and my children) I am totally in!! Thanks again.

  16. Romi says:

    I’ve had more joyless splurges than I could ever recall. I used to snack on half a protein bar in the afternoon at work (I work out during my lunch break), and occasionally when my willpower was flagging I’d eat the whole bar, and on occasion even half of the next — and I didn’t even like the bloody things! And my memories of the low-fat days are of gobbling those chemically-sweet Weight Watchers desserts, or those awful dry cookies, trying to get some satisfaction from them…

    I’ve noticed that my inclination is to indulge if I’ve ‘allowed’ for it, even if I’m not enjoying it. On the rare occasion that I ate hot chips, my rule was that I’d leave half the serve. And I would, irrespective of whether the first half of the chips were delicious and crispy or bland, floury, limp or greasy. Now, I’m more likely to have as much as I want of a serve of awesome hot chips – and feel comfortable having only two or three if they’re not any good. I was surprised to find they’re usually not great!

    The biggest change since working on a mindfulness habit and reading Foodist has been the eradication (well, minimisation — I’m still working on it) of guilt for a splurge I’ve enjoyed, and the realisation that I don’t enjoy feeling really full. It seems totally crazy to me now that I used to feel quite proud of myself for being able to feel full eating within my allowed calories every day – though I felt bloated and tired, and was just setting myself up for repeating the pattern with more calorie-laden foods the next time the urge struck.

  17. I love what you’re saying here. It seems odd for those of us who have been slaves to our food in our ‘larger’ days only to become a different type of slave to our diets, with food ruling our life just in a different and often more ruthless guise. A great piece of advice here which I agree 99.9% with (that’s because I love leek soup! Ha ha).

    Mari x

  18. Melissa S says:

    Very well said Darya! I have been slowly coming to terms with this myself, and while I am not quite at the point of completing letting go of my restrictions, I am getting closer and closer to it. I’m slowly learning to trust myself a little bit more each day.

  19. Kathy says:

    I wish I had you in my pocket! Thank you for your insight! I will definitely be following your blog on a regular basis. I could benefit from counseling on the topics you discuss!

  20. Jennifer says:

    this is sort of a crazy thought to me because now that I thought about it a few weeks ago and I dont really like bread that much unless its in a sandwich… but if im dieting I will down that stuff like its candy… and I actually hate frosting on cake but again I just eat it because it always seems like its gonna taste so much better than it actually does.

    but some things I really do love are like loaded salads with peas and beans and all kinds of other veggies but it MUST have ranch dressing or I just cant do it!

    I’m thinking of making a list of things I could actually do without that I eat a lot and things I could totally eat forever and ever XD maybe even healthy foods I dont mind as well then I could mix and match healthy foods and unhealthy foods I love

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