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The Good-Girl-Bad-Girl Diet Dilemma
Recently I tried to give up some of my favorite foods for a week. Just one week. An apparently simple challenge.
What do you think happened?
Did I discover newfound joys of tofu treats? Did I revel in the thrill of a blood-chocolate level below the legal limit?
No. I most certainly did not.
Instead, I became obsessed with the things I was trying to deny myself.
People’s heads began to resemble chocolate bars. Foods I could previously eat in moderation suddenly became as compelling as a skin-tight, low-cut, leopard-print mini to a Kardashian. I ate way more of these foods than I usually do.
And I promptly gained 6 pounds.
What the hell happened?
Suppressing Thoughts Of Chocolate
I really should have known better, as I’ve been through this before.
As a psych student I’d had to complete a behavior-modification project involving learning theory (you know, that positive reinforcement stuff). I chose to reduce my chocolate intake. The idea was to reduce my chocolate consumption over several weeks, rewarding myself along the way for this behavior change.
But instead of the results I expected, pretty soon my chocolate-related behavior became disturbing (um, rampant). My data made no sense from a learning-theory perspective.
So I went to see my lecturer. Being cool and smart, she suggested I undertake a different assignment – to make sense of my data using other psychological theory and research.
Writing that make-up paper blew my chocolate-obsessed mind.
I discovered that denial and deprivation are super-powers. Far greater than self-discipline and motivation. Able to leap regular willpower in a massive, single bound.
For example, one study showed that when people were asked to not think about chocolate, they ate more chocolate. (They didn’t know their chocolate intake was being measured.) Why?
First, not thinking about something is hard. Don’t think about Borat in a mankini. See?
Second, the act of thought-suppression is also mentally exhausting. You’re left with depleted willpower resources for resisting what you don’t want to do.
Third, like a pool noodle held underwater, suppressed thoughts are poised to resurface with a vengeance as soon as you stop trying to hold them down.
It all adds up to a potent psychological cocktail of self-sabotage.
Catholic Girls And Forbidden Fruit
To be honest, I suspected the counterproductive superpower of self-denial long before my failed learning theory assignment.
Thirteen years of Catholic girls’ school taught me that nothing is so appealing, so irresistible, as the thing you shouldn’t have.
The forbidden fruit may not always taste the sweetest, but it’s the one that makes your mouth water most.
And just quietly, it also has the highest cost in Our Fathers and Hail Marys. 🙁
The Good-Girl-Bad-Girl Diet Dilemma
Psych papers and confession penance aside, here’s how I now think of self-denial.
It’s as though you have a pair of twins living in your head. They always stick together. You cannot have one without the other.
When you try to resist something, you summon the good twin – she helps you to cut out alcohol, avoid carbs, abstain from pepperoni pizza.
But beware. The bad twin is right there with the good one, going wherever she goes, reversing everything she does. And unfortunately the bad twin is more powerful. Not only does she cancel out the good twin’s efforts, she overcompensates and does more damage. You start out out trying to eat less chocolate and end up eating more!
Leaving you bewildered by your apparently feeble self-control. Your lack of willpower.
Not Everyone Gets It
I don’t think everyone suffers from this problem.
Some diet and fitness gurus for instance seem to find it incomprehensible that a person could want to not eat something and yet eat it anyway.
Where is your motivation they chastise. Don’t you want to lose weight they admonish. Put down that donut and eat your celery sticks, they chide.
Perhaps they didn’t go to Catholic school. Perhaps they haven’t developed interesting food issues like many people (women?) have. Perhaps their twins were separated at birth. Perhaps they talk the talk but secretly binge on Big Macs and Tim Tams every night. Who knows.
What I do know is that every real person I’ve ever discussed weight and food with (hundreds, as research for my weight-loss program) is confounded by the good-girl-bad-girl diet dance.
Overcoming The Good-Girl-Bad-Girl Diet Dilemma
So what’s the solution?
There’s only one way to deal with the good-girl-bad-girl twins: don’t play with either one. Avoid eye contact. Do not engage.
How do you apply this to dieting?
Well for a start, don’t ever diet. Putting yourself on any form of denial- or deprivation-based eating regime is a fantastic way to get both twins wasting your willpower. And making you feel demoralized.
Instead, aim to eat well most of the time, take steps to avoid overeating, and splurge strategically:
- If there’s a bad-girl food you love, then have it, but only when you really want it. Save your calories for when they really matter.
- If there’s a bad-girl food you can take or leave, then always leave it. Save your calories for the really good stuff.
I don’t think there’s any other way. You can’t have good girl without bad girl. They’re a twin set.
In this post I’ve used ‘girl’ for simplicity, as most of my readers/customers/commenters are female. I do hope this isn’t off-putting to my male readers. I value you guys just as much, but I don’t know how to convey the idea gender-neutrally. Good-girl/boy-bad-girl/boy is cumbersome and good-person-bad-person lacks the connotation I want.
What’s Your Take On The Good-Girl-Bad-Girl Diet Dilemma?
Do you relate to the good-girl-bad-girl diet dilemma?
Do you eat more or overcompensate when you try to diet?
Have you found a good way to deal with this challenge?
I’d love to know what you think!
4 thoughts on “The Good-Girl-Bad-Girl Diet Dilemma”
So totally relate to this. I was just thinking about this the other day and I really had no idea why I do this. Still frustrates me no end. It does not stop at chocolate, it stops at nothing really. And what is really ‘bad’ is that when I am going really well, people seem to give me stuff or bring ‘bad’ food over to my house and then I have to eat it, and usually when I am trying to be good.
Story of my life, in fact! I’m sure once upon a time (in a galaxy far far away) I had willpower, but as an adult I’m pretty rubbish.
Sometimes I think “oh, I really should lose weight, I’m heavier than I’d like to be”, but then in the next sentence I’m all “but you only live once (to my knowledge) and I want to enjoy myself and eat delicious meals”.
And yes, a couple of weeks ago I thought I’d ‘try’ to eat more healthily and ended up putting on weight. I very rarely weigh myself but thought it’d be a good measure of my healthy eating success – fat chance! (all puns intended).
So I think sticking to aiming to eat well most of the time is about as good as it’s going to get for me whereby I get to avoid the pain of deprivation. Or I should just be taken out and shot.
I KNOW this is true, don’t you? My friend’s always said that it’s important that you shouldn’t cut out types of foods altogether. Eat what you like best, but learn to eat to satisfy, not fill. I know that, if I try not to eat carbs, a blowout is ahead in which I eat every carb I can find. I now tell myself, “Do you want to have all you can eat of this healthy food, or would you rather eat half of something you’d really like to eat?” It is a choice I must make, and I am free to do either one. If I binge, I try to make it the healthy stuff. Probably the reason I am binging in the first place is because my body NEEDS the nutrients, so it works. If I choose to eat half, I get to enjoy that delicious meal a second time….providing I’m hungry. It’s still not easy, but I believe it’s the only way.
this is so true. when I decided to deprive myself of chocolate mud cake from Michels, that’s all I wanted. Since I decided to allow myself to have a piece when ever I want, I no long focus on it. In fact, I haven’t purchased a piece of mud cake from Michel’s at all this year. I have had the odd piece of chocolate cake and stuff at morning teas and/or cafe outings, but they are occasional not an every day occurrence.