Feeling Guilty For Cheating On Your Diet Makes Matters Worse
“The door to good health is always wide open- it is only our perspective that creates the illusion that it is closed.”
So you blew it. You went off your diet completely and ate something that you shouldn’t have. What should be your next course of action? Should it be an extra hour of cardio to burn off the offending calories? A resolution to eat less tomorrow to make up for today’s overindulgences? Or should you just sit and contemplate how much of a miserable failure you must be for not having the willpower to stay on your diet? The correct answer to this oft-asked question is none of the above! Crime and punishment, guilt and penance may have some bearing in other parts of your life but it has no bearing whatsoever as far as food is concerned. In fact the more you beat yourself up over eating the wrong foods- the more likely you are to keep on eating it!
Guilt \ˈgilt\: noun
1 : the fact of having committed a breach of conduct especially violating law and involving a penalty; broadly : guilty conduct
2 a : the state of one who has committed an offense especially consciously b : feelings of culpability especially for imagined offenses, sin or from a sense of inadequacy : self-reproach
3 : a feeling of culpability for offenses
In many ways, food has become the new sin. Once upon a time we ate with little thought to waistlines and Body Mass Index but today the act of eating is often thought of as an immoral action. One that so many use to justify self flagellation and lower self esteem. Like so many iniquities, it always seems to start innocently enough with the best of intentions but you slip anyway. Be it the extra slice of chocolate cake, the glass of wine at the company party, the apple-pie at the family holiday dinner or the bag of chips while you’re watching television at home unwinding after a long day. Yet, as much as you hate yourself in the moment, like most transgressions there’s no mistake that you do enjoy it. Whether we like it or not, rich, fatty, salty and sugary food appeal to us on a biological level and they indeed feel sinful for lack of a better word. Nevertheless, after blowing your diet, you feel absolutely guilt ridden afterwards. For many, this feeling of guilt can be overwhelming. But as legitimate as this guilt may feel, is it really helpful? -or does it do more harm than good? Thankfully the answer is resoundingly negative. In fact, from what we know of behavioral psychology, the more you beat yourself up about eating something the more likely you are to keep eating it. It’s a vicious circle and one that traps many in a pattern of indulgence followed by self loathing.
Why Do We Feel Guilty After Eating The Wrong Foods
The first step to understanding the harm that guilt inflicts upon us when we associate it with food is to objectively understand our behavior with regard to food consumption. It is said that if you know your enemy and know yourself, in a thousand battles you will never be in peril. These words written by a Chinese sage thousands of years ago apply to the strategies of war just as well as it does to the inner battles we fight to eat better. Behavior modification can only happen if we have an intimate and nonjudgmental understanding of ourselves and what we are up against. Most simply make the resolution to eat healthy with little thought to the subconscious mechanisms that keep us from achieving our goals. As valiant as it may seem to draw a line in the sand one day and declare that you’re not going to eat junk food anymore, this approach is almost always unsuccessful in the long term. If it were that easy, then weight management wouldn’t be an issue and we all know that this most certainly isn’t the case.
Punishing Yourself After Cheating On Your Diet Only Makes Things Worse.
To change the way we eat requires far more than a resolution. There must be instead an unrelenting commitment to a very real change in lifestyle- one that includes the possibility that we will from time to time slip and fall while on the path. To change the way we eat we have to first divorce ourselves from the destructive perspective that we must in some way atone for any failures on the path of change. It is human nature to believe that when a ‘wrong’ is committed that some form of guilt is required. In most cases, we feel that this guilt needs to be paired with some form of penance to make things better. As natural as this may seem to us in a predominantly Judeo-Christian society, it doesn’t make things any better with regards to our eating habits. The association of ‘wrongdoing’ with our foods has no positive outcomes. It can be the starting point for lifelong eating disorders because one of our most fundamental acts as human beings is defiled by what we perceive as a lack of willpower. Over the course of my career as a personal trainer, I‘ve seen so many men and women suffer needlessly and tremendously from this way of thinking. Sadly, our society as a whole plays a large role in reinforcing feelings of guilt and failure in those who struggle to control their weight. We commonly associate not being able to control your weight with some sense of moral failure. When people yield to the temptation of eating the wrong foods, they tend to fall into a downward spiral of self hatred and disgust. This self inflicted form of flagellation is followed by a resolve to either exercise more, diet harder or employ some extreme method to compensate for the ‘damage’ done by their indulgence. Sadly, this is an all too familiar refrain for most people today.
Physiologically speaking, there isn’t anything you can do to make up for a slip in your diet. No amount of cardio or starving yourself after the fact can change the reality of what has already been done. Any thoughts to the contrary fall neatly into the realms of magical thinking as the universe doesn’t have a rewind button. What is done is done so you just have to move on. And so we must simply move on. Wallowing in guilt and trying to make up for our bad choices with hours of exercise doesn’t bring you any closer to the body of your dreams. If anything, it only pushes you further away from your intended goal of a healthier lifestyle. Instead, we must learn to see our slips for what they are: learning experiences that teach us more about ourselves. Every slip holds the information we need to help us avoid a re-occurrence. Far from being a time to reflect on how much of a loser you are, it’s an opportunity to see what triggers make you stray from your intended path. Is it people? Is it places? Or is it a reaction to stress? Each time brings the opportunity to figure out just what you need to look out for in the future.
Guilt Makes You More Likely To Keep Eating The Wrong Foods
It’s a bit of a Catch 22 situation when you resolve to no longer eat unhealthy foods. While you might believe that this affirmation will change your behavior, on a subconscious level it can actually work against you to reinforce your original habits of eating unhealthy foods. It sounds counterintuitive but behavioral psychology confirms what many of us learn the hard way: that the very habits that we seek to change resurface because our trying hard to forget them keeps them from being forgotten. When we want to change a behavior, both the new and old ways of thinking will co-exist within us as opposing impulses. Impulses that will always be in competition unless we understand what is going on and take active steps to disarm our undesirable attitudes. Consequently, the more you beat yourself over the head for eating that piece of cheesecake, the more you are helping yourself recall the image of you eating the cheesecake. Which then makes it much harder to forget about eating cheesecake… which ultimately is what you need to do.
So, how do you forget the wonderfully decadent foods that you shouldn’t eat? As impossible as it may sound, it can be done and be reassured by the fact that people do it all the time. But it doesn’t happen overnight and it does require some patience on your part. What needs to happen is a gradual shift in your eating patterns over time where new healthy foods replace the old unhealthy ones foods. As time goes by, the new healthy foods will stay at our primary level of consciousness and the once almost uncontrollable desires for the old unhealthy ones simply fade away. It’s a very subtle shift- one that often goes unnoticed until one day you realize that you just don’t feel like eating junk food anymore. You can’t get this from fad diets, pills and powders as it is a very private process that you have to personally work towards. It’s a journey that leads to a true definition of health; one where you really want to eat the foods that are good for you as opposed to avoiding the bad foods because you know you shouldn’t eat them. Such a state requires fundamental change in perspective, as it is only when you are able to enjoy the foods that are good for you that you will be able to break the cycle. In the meantime, do your best not to eat the wrong foods, but if you do -just keep going. Whatever you do, don’t beat yourself up if you slip here and there.
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Kevin Richardson is an award winning health and fitness writer and one of the most sought after personal trainers in New York City and the creator of Naturally Intense High Intensity Training™. Get a copy of his free weight loss ebook here.