Thursday, July 26, 2012

Why I Don't Buy the "I Don't" Approach to Dietary Discretion


Not sure if you caught the LA Times last week and their piece on the utility of using the words, "I Don't", in place of, "I Can't", when considering a dietary indulgence. The crux of the piece is that when you want a cookie let's say, rather than tell yourself that you can't have one, tell yourself that you don't eat them.

The recommendations didn't come out of nowhere either, they came from a paper published in August's Journal of Consumer Research where researchers found that when it came to resisting cravings self talk saying, "I don't", was 3 times as effective as saying, "no", and 8 times as effective as saying, "I can't".

My issue isn't with whether or not the words, "I don't", are good ones (clearly they're better than "no" and "I can't"), my issue is whether or not blind restriction is a sustainable long term strategy.  My experience says that it isn't, and that blind restriction, the belief that if you're trying to manage weight or live healthfully you simply can't (or don't) eat nutritionally bereft but hedonically wonderful foods, is one of the reasons so many dieters ultimately fail.

Thinking you're going to live a life where you're not allowed to take pleasure from food? I don't think that's realistic and I don't think it's a good plan as I agree with the article, we're hardwired to enjoy the bad stuff.

As always I'm a broken record. It's about the healthiest life that you can enjoy, not the healthiest life that you can tolerate, and that means the smallest amount of bad-for-you indulgence that you need to enjoy your life, and that amount should definitely not be none.  Saying "I don't" every time you face the desire to take pleasure from food just means that you're on a diet - something that history has likely already taught you is a temporary state of being.  If you really want to say I don't, how about saying, "I don't diet", the next time you think that blind restriction is the way to go.

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24 comments:

  1. Well - I see your point. It's valid. But I also see us surrounded by continual strong temptation cues. And that's not been historically a factor.

    What counts as an indulgence? What's the "right" frequency of partaking in them?

    I confess that I'm probably somewhat biased toward using this strategy to some extent, because I eliminated food products (no whole foods did this to me) that I couldn't limit myself to single servings. The container ended up serving as the "serving size". Pint of ice cream, half gallon of ice cream, sleeve of cookies, pan of brownies, etc. I no longer eat anything with added sugar - I "don't", and my weight dropped and stabilized, while my nutritional punch from foods and my ability to appreciate sweet tastes skyrocketed.

    The best part is that I haven't sacrificed indulgences - it's just that what I consider the indulgences to be has changed.

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    1. I'm certainly not going to knock what is clearly working well for you....BUT...let me just mention another option that has helped me. I was also one of the "one serving = the container size" types for a long time, not to mention a frequent goodie-binger.

      I still eat goodies now, but only in very deliberately *small*, controlled amounts. Such as a batch only six cookies at a time. A good resource for mini-goodie recipes is the book _Small Batch Baking_ by Debby Maugans (http://www.amazon.com/Small-Batch-Baking-When-Just-Enough/dp/0761130357).

      That way, if I trip up and binge on an entire cake from a _Small Batch Baking_ recipe, I'm only having a 700-calorie binge as opposed to a 10,000-calorie binge from a normal-size cake. And actually, I haven't had the urge to binge in a long time using this way of eating.

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    2. Actually, let me clarify: if I make a batch of 6 cookies, I don't eat them all myself. I split them with my husband and maybe a friend or neighbor. So for the last few months, a 2-3 cookie "binge" once a week has helped me to feel indulged while also not leading me down to a full-fledged binge. At least, not so far!

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  2. Rebecca8:00 am

    I'm on the "I won't" diet, which is even more empowering (I'm a stubborn person!). As a vegan, when someone says, "Oh, you CAN'T eat this," I respond, "No, I WON'T eat that - I CHOOSE not to eat that." As I move towards an entirely whole foods diet, I find my indulgences change, too - now a treat is a huge bowl of fresh blueberries!

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    1. About 10 years ago my oldest stepson decided to become vegan and he was always saying, "I can't have..." and I would say, "no, you can have it, you just choose not to."

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  3. Anonymous8:47 am

    I use this all the time. However, I also cheat all the time. The strategy works for those day to day moments when you are tired and perhaps your resolve is weak.

    But you must break the tension once in a while, and I have no problem going out for a huge burger every few weeks. With ground turkey, whole wheat bun and a salad of course.

    I also will eat a tiny piece of desert when at a friend's house, just for the taste. But sitting there and sucking down 50 teaspoons of sugar is anathema to me. Your blog has had something to do with that :-)

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  4. While I agree that this idea of moderation is helpful for some of the population, I think you might be leaving out people who develop physiological addictions to certain foods. If I eat sugar in any form, I might as well just serve myself the whole cake because that is what I am eventually going to at least want to eat. Therefore, I cannot consume sweets of any sorts. As Portia mentioned above, though, my indulgences have changed. I had an artichoke last night and felt like it was the richest thing I'd ever eaten.

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    1. I have found that what you call "physiological addictions" (though I would dispute to what extent the "addiction" is physiological, psychological, or something else) can be treated effectively through the use of EFT (tapping). I didn't believe it until I tried it on myself and it worked to end crazy cravings for cheese that would go on until I ate so much I felt bad or ran out of cheese. It was not unusual for me to buy pounds a week. Now I only buy it to cook with.

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  5. I agree. I also find that the strategy of "distraction" is just a delay. I find that when I focus right in on what's going on with me (wanting to binge or graze...) and maybe even "give in" I am much more likely to catch myself sooner and stop because I allow myself to by hyper aware of the emotions surrounding the behavior.

    I also find the idea of restricting "because if I don't I will eat the whole thing" an excuse not to delve deeper, as well as a self-fulfilling prophecy. Is it the absolute truth? Using Byron Katie's, "the work": who would you be without that thought?

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    1. I have read Byron's book. What I discovered is that the thought I needed to get rid of was this one: "I can eat whatever I want and stop when I am satisfied." I can't when it comes to sugar. I don't. We cannot ignore the fact that some people develop addictions to certain foods. Would you tell an alcoholic that they can drink in moderation? That their belief that they are an alcoholic is a self-fulfilling prophecy?

      What I love about this blog is that Yoni makes it clear that there is no "one size fits all" approach to health. MY experience is that when I eat sugar, I crave more and eat more and I am powerless to that craving. So I have eliminated it. If that is not your experience, count yourself lucky. But please don't deny the experiences of those who truly struggle with a physiological response to certain foods. And please don't write our experience off as an "excuse."

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    2. In re-reading my response, I do see how harsh it is! Forgive me. I just broke one my own cardinal rules! I have often felt the same way (that I would eat the whole thing...and then some) and it has been my true yearning in life to get beyond that. I have been successful for long periods of time, and have "fallen off the wagon" so to speak. I want to believe that it's possible that I don't have to control food and that food doesn't control me. In my world, control is an illusion.

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    3. Wow, thanks for being so kind. I can see that I was somewhat emotional in my response as well. Sorry about that. Obviously, we have both found what works for us. They are different, but equally as valid.

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  6. The subtext (accidental, I'm guessing) of this post feels like you're saying little or no pleasure can be derived from healthy food.

    The best long term strategy is to find foods that you *love* (not ones you merely "tolerate") that are also healthful. And then when you have the occasional "unhealthy" treat, really make it count: Have the best french fries, ice cream, cookies, whatever that you can find, and truly, deeply, wonderfully enjoy them.

    As I'm fond of saying: Healthy eating doesn't have to suck! :)

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  7. I just wish there were an established "language" for healthy eating that was accepted as mainstream, without comment or explanation needed. Now the language of "food porn" -- describing the processed goodie you're about to eat with shameless, even self-righteous, delight -- is considered a fun and acceptable pasttime, but try to talk reasonably about food and you're a freak.

    Last night at a restaurant I told the waiter how I wanted my ground beef prepared and presented (sans bun) and that I wanted steamed vegetables substituted for the fries. He gave me this look like I'd made him swallow a turd. "So, are you one of those people who can't have gluten, 'cause we have a menu for you." "No, that's not it," I responded. He looked at me helpfully, "Well, whatever your medical condition, we have a number of alternatives."

    Isn't that odd? If you eat healthfully, you're presumed to have a medical condition. I found myself launching into an over-reaction wherein I gave the man way too much information about my food philosophies springing from my diet and weight history. Those over-reactions used to give me a kind of pleasure. I think it was the self-satisfaction of "educating" someone. Now these "educations" are as annoying to me as they are to the poor recipients, I'm sure.

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  8. I heard about this article but haven't read it and doubt I will, so going from your post I'll say for me - I CAN eat anything I want - I don't eat ____ fill in the blanks. But usually this is a choice between things like butter and margarine I can eat both - I don't eat margarine! I'll have friends say "oh I know you can't eat such and such" and I have to say actually I can, but I don't want to.

    So for me it's a choice between I can eat cookies, but that packaged fake sugar oreo, no thanks, I'd rather have a real cookie if I'm going to have one.

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  9. I doubt one can be happy eating healthy if they think not eating unhealthy things is a deprivation.

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  10. Anonymous5:13 pm

    I don't buy a few statements made in this post. But, rather than take up all of your bandwidth, I shall focus only on one. As a formerly obese person cum nutritionist (focussing on evolutionary nutrition), I have an extremely unique view of the matter; I know it from both sides.


    The point that I take the most exception with is, "we are hard wired to enjoy the bad stuff." No, we aren't. Now, most people out there have never had the opportunity to live and work closely with animals. But, this who have, know that animals will only eat certain things. For those lucky enough to have grown up on a farm... if you offer a marshmallow to a cow, will she eat it? I can tell you that the answer to this is a resounding, unabashed NO. Why not? Because she does not recognize the marshmallow as food.

    OK, now that we are through that, has anyone considered that like cows, we are merely animals as well? We are. So, how do we recognize what is food and what is not food? Now, there's a point to ponder. Here is the answer... we recognize the following tastes as food... sweet, fatty, salty. That is how we recognize that an item put in front of us is food vs. not food. Since I have too many characters to publish, this is Part 1 of my post...

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    1. Anonymous5:36 pm

      Cows actually do eat marshmallows. It's pretty common in cattle feed these days to find candy, marshmallows, cereal, etc. to supplement feed in place of more expensive corn. They tend not to eat out of human's hand which is probably why they will refuse it if you stick in their faces.

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  11. Anonymous5:14 pm

    Part Two...
    OK, but how did this go so far off the rails? Food scientists, food manufacturers and food marketers, that's how. They can take a piece of plastic, colour it, flavour it and sweeten it and make us crave it. Can anyone say "Fruit Roll Up"?? We are surrounded by these non-nutritive foods everywhere we go, at every turn. We eat them, get no satiety from them, so continue to eat. And eat and eat. No satiety, remember?? So, we are not hard word to crave the bad stuff.... the food industry has taken crap and made it resemble food, so that we are tricked into eating it.

    It should also be stated that there is a huge difference between satiety and satiation too, but that would make this response even longer. Perhaps a topic for another blog post, on another day, Dr. Freedhoff? This is important stuff that those who are dealing with obesity NEED to understand.

    And, as far as gaining control over eating habits, you may have to actually engage some willpower, at least in the early stages when cravings are rampant and the body is expressing it's dislike at your new ideas of "good food". Just like a smoker has to power him or herself through the early days with lots of, "no's, don'ts and cant's"... so will you if you want a new lifestyle change to stick. It WILL get easier, and your tastes will change. But it is important to recognize that certain foods are simply unhealthy, and that you are being tricked at a biological level to eat them (and crave more of them). Saying that and you don't eat them (or won't eat them) because you care about yourself will not seem like such a bad thing.

    "I don't smoke."
    "I don't do drugs."
    "I don't drive my car 180km/hr."
    "I don't eat unhealthy foods."

    You could easily substitute "won't" for "don't" if that works better for you in your mind.

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    1. Anonymous5:39 pm

      Can you please clarify how, if we aren't hardwired to enjoy the bad stuff that eating them is a result of being tricked on the biological level? If my body isn't hard wired to eat bad stuff, how does my body trick me into eating the bad stuff it doesn't want me to eat?

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  12. Anonymous5:15 pm

    Part 3

    It is articles like this that pander to the victim mentality that is becoming so prevalent among the obese and overweight. In the beginning, tough self-love is what may be needed. In the early stages, you CAN tell yourself "can't, won't, don't or shouldn't", as long as you have the justification to go along with it. Instead of saying, "I can't have a donut", try this... "I don't eat donuts because they are unhealthy for me."

    Take it one step further, and do some research into why donuts are so unhealthy, and why the consumption of one may easily lead to overconsumption of other similarly unhealthy foods in the days (yes, days) to come. Take an interest in your own health and do your own research, the information is all out there for anyone who chooses to seek it out. Educate yourself, take responsibility for your condition and stop being a victim, be victorious instead.

    As an aside, if anyone is actually interested in doing that, a good place to start is by reading the new book, 'It Starts With Food', by Melissa and Dallas Hartwig. It is a well written, informative and referenced to the nuts book that will get you going in the right direction rather than spinning your wheels and feeling powerless. And, no... I have nothing to gain by promoting it... :

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    1. Anonymous5:47 pm

      Plenty of obese people know what they are eating isn't healthy. Some obese people actually eat healthfully. Plenty have done the research and are interested in their health. The whole idea that if you just tell someone "hey being fat isn't healthy and you shouldn't eat sweets" will make them say "hey, I didn't know that, now I do and I love myself so I won't do it anymore" is rather simplistic.

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  13. I couldn't agree more.It takes more than semantics to change ones approach to food and eating--it takes a shift in philosophy. It's the difference between being a black and white thinker versus accepting the gray. But when you are stuck in the all or nothing mode,you can only see the "I can't" or "I don't". I prefer the "I can have this whenever I need it" or "I can always have this later if I'm still hungry". This represents a real shift in thinking, not simply a change in words.

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  14. Heather, RD12:00 pm

    It really depends on the person. Some people need that firm "I do not", while I prefer to use language that is more empowering. We all have a choice to choose whatever we want. When I hear my clients say, "Well i can't eat that", I disagree with them. I always remind them that they can eat whatever they want, but its what they CHOOSe to eat that changes the outcome. Sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn't. When someone questions my food preferences, I always say, I choose not to have those foods, or I choose the salad over the french fries. practicing this language, even when following a specified meal plan, can work wonders for the persons inner confidence and can often result in a wonderful snowball effect!

    It can also work when having their favourite treats. "I am CHOOSing to have 1 cup of ice cream today". And then there are no guilty feeling associated which as we all know, can lead to binging.

    Just some thoughts from my experiences. But there's no ONE way or ONE language that will work for every client.

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