So you decide to get on board with a new diet that says you can’t have food X, you can only have food Y every second Wednesday, and food Z is off limits unless of course it’s whole grain/sugar-free/fat-free/dairy-free/gluten-free. Sounds about right when it comes to sticking to a pretty restrictive diet, right?
A recent study found that when people try to force themselves to follow such a strict diet, they’re basically sabotaging themselves before they even start. But it’s not the types of foods in the diet itself that dooms it to failure — it’s the struggle people have to endure to try to resist what they really want to eat while forcing themselves to eat what they know isn’t very satisfying or enjoyable to them.
Isn’t a diet supposed to be restrictive? Maybe it is in a traditional sense since the obvious problem with including reasonable amounts of those so-called “forbidden” foods in any diet is that it involves a certain level of self-control in order to stick to smaller portions and less frequent indulgences.
For the study, 542 participants were asked about what sorts of specific rules they use when they go about deciding what to eat and what not to eat. A large percentage of the participants listed rules that involved restricting foods and avoiding certain foods altogether.
There was a link between restrictive diets and those who had trouble reaching their goals — exhibiting low self-control. On the other hand, participants who were more successful at reaching their goals — those with higher self-control — had a tendency to list rules involving strategies that they should use in a positive way and foods that they could consume.
The researchers were able to identify a distinct mindset difference between the low self-control participants and the high self-control participants. When all participants were asked to consider what they thought was healthy to eat, those who possessed lower levels of self-control focused more on healthy foods they didn’t like to eat (like Brussels sprouts) whereas those who had higher self-control focused on healthy foods that they did like to eat (such as berries).
This is a perfect example of how positive motivation is so much more effective than negative motivation when it comes to long-term goals. You’re far less likely to succeed at a goal by focusing on what you want to avoid. Focusing on what you want to gain will help keep you on track.
In light of the study findings, the researchers recommended that people wishing to lose or maintain their weight by following a healthy diet would be better off incorporating foods they actually like to eat rather than trying to adhere to a diet plan that involves less appealing foods and uncomfortable restrictions.
So, what can you do to follow these recommendations? Here are a few good ideas to get you started:
- Create a list of all the healthy foods you enjoy eating and would eat anyway even if you weren’t trying to manage your weight.
- Create a second list of all the unhealthy foods you enjoy eating and would struggle to give up even if you tried.
- Next time you go grocery shopping, stock up on all the foods from your healthy list so that 80 to 90 percent of the food at home is healthy.
- Keep your unhealthy foods tucked away out of sight and out of reach, taking up no more than 10 to 20 percent of your total food at home.
- Focus on eating the healthy foods you actually like, and allow yourself to indulge in small portions of your unhealthy food when cravings strike.
This is a much gentler way to shift your eating habits, and over time, you’ll probably find that your tastes change in ways that allow you to easily improve your diet even further. Like the research shows, the truth of the matter is that relying on willpower to keep fighting against what your body truly wants rarely creates lasting change.
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