If this is your idea of a frozen treat, you might need to chill out! (Photo: Corbis/Daniel Smith)
Like most people who care about eating healthfully, at one point or another, you’ve probably tried to stick to super-strict guidelines that effectively eliminated all pleasure and flexibility from your diet. How’d that work out? Chances are, not well. Unsurprisingly, joyless eating isn’t sustainable.
At least not for me. I’m a hungry girl — and I have to eat at regular intervals, without a million rules telling me what I can’t have. And research backs me up, suggesting that the restrictive laws people adopt are usually impossible to keep, so they set themselves up for failure. So when I began writing my new book 20 Pounds Younger, I was searching for a better way to shed those unwanted (and unhealthy) extra pounds—and I found it.
The idea that losing weight equals torturous sacrifice is perhaps one of the biggest food fallacies. The truth is, the relationship with eating that we all wish we could have — knowing when to stop and when to indulge without a shred of guilt — is possible and can help you lose weight. Psychologists have coined a term for it: flexible restraint. “Weight management really should be about focusing on healthy foods that you like, rather than trying to stay away from foods that you like,” says Katie Rickel, PhD, a clinical psychologist and weight-loss expert in Durham, North Carolina. Did you catch that? You should try to find good-for-you foods that you love and enjoy them, rather than obsessively condemning your favorite, but less-healthy, foods.
So instead of adopting rigid rules about what you can’t have — no chocolate! no pasta! — you need to create a set of flexible guidelines for what you will eat. In a Journal of Consumer Research study, women who said, “I don’t eat that,” rather than, “I can’t eat that,” were much more likely to adhere to their eating plans. “I can’t” signals deprivation, which makes you more likely to cave, whereas “I don’t” signals determination and empowerment, making your refusal more effective, according to one author of the study, Vanessa Patrick, PhD, of the University of Houston.
What do these easier-to-follow rules look like? As an example, Dr. Rickel often encourages clients to eat only at meals or planned snacks, but not in between. “That’s a somewhat rigid guideline, but within that guideline, there is flexibility,” she says. How can the two coexist? Simple: Her clients aren’t saying “I must eat grilled chicken and asparagus” every night for dinner; they’re just establishing a framework for when they will eat and then planning, say, to consume one source of lean protein, one vegetable, and some healthy fat at each meal. “People do better when they have guidelines around what they’re going to eat, rather than being very specific about what they’re going to eat,” she explains. See the difference?
Although I try not to vilify foods (forbidden fruit is always more tempting), I absolutely know that some foods are better for you than others. And as the Editor-in-Chief of Yahoo Health, I implore readers to eat foods that are nutritionally dense and will fortify —not compromise—their bodies.
Related: 9 Secrets to Lasting Weight Loss
That said, I also believe you need to practice forgiveness if you don’t always follow your pre-determined guidelines 100 percent. For example, if you’re at a work conference and your food of choice isn’t available, you should survey the snack table and settle on an alternative that will satiate you. Then you can enjoy it, instead of beating yourself up over every bite, because flexibility is all part of your plan. “People are much more successful if they allow themselves to loosen up over a meal, or during a particular day, than if they try to white-knuckle through it,” says Dr. Rickel. People who practice flexible restraint have been shown to be less prone to out-of-control eating and to have a lower average body mass index (BMI). And I’ll add, less likely to go crazy trying to eat clean!