The concept of dieting is simple: Stick to this food list, consume this many calories, and exercise this much. But executing this "simple" plan is much tougher because once you're on a diet, everything that's temporarily forbidden takes on a new luster, and what was previously just another snack in your cabinet has now become that one thing that you really, really want.
We're convinced that are we're going to die if we don't eat that cookie into our mouths right this instant. As a rational adult, you know this is absurd thinking, of course. But in those moments, we're not rational adults. We've regressed to cranky toddlers on the verge of throwing a tantrum if we do not get what we want.
Why All or Nothing?
We’ve been brainwashed ourselves to believe that dieting has to be painful and torturous for it to work. Upcoming wedding? Juice cleanse. Beach season around the corner? Marathon sessions on the treadmill, duh. First date? Fast for three days straight.
There's a temptation to go all out when you decide you want to shed some pounds. You think that drastic measures will elicit drastic results. While this can be true to an extent, what’s the point of dropping 10 pounds in a week if you’re only going to pile it all back on right away? What’s fun about watching your bodyweight fluctuate wildly from day to day and week to week, only to land right back at square one?
Dedicating yourself to making drastic changes can give you a (temporary) surge of hope and energy. The curse with this approach, however, is that you can’t keep it up. But whether it comes six weeks or three months later, you will most likely come to a point when you revert to your old behaviors.
This is what’s called “counterregulatory eating,” or what’s more colloquially known as the “what-the-hell” effect. This phenomenon describes what happens with dieters when they set too-strict rules for themselves. All is well as long as they’re abiding by their rules, but when they slip up, all those rules go out the window. Now that they’ve crossed the line, there are no more rules to guide them anymore. “So what the hell, might as well eat the rest of the pecan pie, right?” You messed up, so you’ll start tomorrow. Or Monday.
The what-the-hell effect is demonstrated in an experiment conducted by Kathleen D. Vohs and Todd F. Heatherton, in which chronic non-dieters were instructed to watch a clip from an emotional movie. Half of the group was told to try to suppress their emotions, while the other half was told to let their feelings flow. When presented with ice cream to consume ad libitum -- they had the liberty to indulge if they felt like it -- afterward, the researchers discovered that those who had stifled their emotions had a more difficult time controlling their appetite and consequently ate significantly more ice cream than the other group.
Which brings us back again to the what-the-hell effect. To relieve the stress of self-control, it’s natural for dieters to decide to perhaps loosen the rules a little bit and have “just one bite” of those M&Ms. But then all hell breaks loose, and they end up inhaling a large amount of food in one sitting.
The bottom line: Going all out wears most people down. It’s not the most sustainable approach.
Why does it have to be only all or only nothing? Why are we so good at swinging wildly from one extreme to the other? Why do we have such a hard time settling somewhere in the middle?
The Moderate Approach
In a time when immediate gratification and results are expected, adopting a moderate approach can seem ineffective at first glance. The idea that incremental behavior changes and seemingly effortless fat loss can actually work seems far too good to be true.
But what sounds better to you: staying lean 365 days of the year or vacillating between love handles for 10 months and looking photo shoot-ready for two?
Stop striving for perfect and instead aim for better. Consider following the 80/20 rule, meaning that 80 percent of your food choices should come from whole foods, while the remaining 20 percent can be treats. You can use a 90/10 rule, if you’d like. The point is that if you're being responsible with what you eat most of the time, you'll be happy all of the time.
What’s important here is that you’re not setting any food item strictly off-limits. Saying “I will never eat chocolate again for the rest of my life” may not be a realistic rule to abide by, and in fact, it might make you crave the sweet even more.
Does this mean that you will always be able to eat whatever you want? Sometimes, as there are days when you're really, really craving some lean beef with a side of jasmine rice and steamed broccoli. But there are also times when you want nothing more than to inhale an entire box of Lucky Charms cereal and you obviously can’t do that and still stay lean.
Ultimately, however, you're sacrificing just a little in return for a lot. This is a way of eating that you can see myself easily maintaining in the months and years to come.
Delegate Your Energies
If you’re too busy nitpicking over the finite details of your fitness program, you may exhaust yourself before you really give yourself a fighting shot at success. For example, should you try intermittent fasting or spread small meals throughout the day? Calorie cycle or use the linear approach? Carbs in the morning or strictly in the evening? Bodypart or upper-lower split? Fasted cardio or no cardio at all?
That’s a lot of decisions to be making. Having too many choices can become overwhelming surprisingly fast.
So pick your battles.
You may choose to make meeting your macronutrient goals – i.e. percentage of fat, protein, carbs -- your top priority. Then comes nutrient timing and food choice. After that, mix in your training. Try not to overthink any part of your fitness journey. If you eat at 6am one day and 10am the next, don’t sweat it. If you don’t quite finish your entire workout because of time constraints, don’t beat yourself up over it, because you know that nutrition is king at the end of the day. Do what you need to do, and let the details take care of themselves.
Do some research, pick a program and stick with it. If this means hiring a coach to take the guesswork out of everything for you, then consider it a worthwhile investment.
If you’re not having fun, then change what you’re doing. The greatest predictor of success of any kind is consistency, with fun being a close runner-up. If you genuinely enjoy what you’re doing and feeling fulfilled with the method you are implementing to get you to your final destination, then it's all good.
If something is fun, it should feel effortless. For fun, effortless decisions, you should tap into your willpower stores very little or not at all to execute the task -- which is great, because the more willpower you use, the weaker it gets -- the opposite of what we want.
There will, inevitably, be moments when you feel unmotivated, when you want to throw in the towel, when you just want to give it all up and drag your feet home.
But by and large, you should be having a good time. If that means throwing in a Zumba class once a week -- then have at it. Who cares that it’s not the “right” way or the “best” way to sculpt buns of steel? Do you smile at the thought of your next training session? Do you look forward to your post-workout ice cream -- with a side of whey -- every afternoon? Then keep doing what you’re doing.
That’s really all there is to it. It’s simple and may look boring on the surface. After all, there are no magic fat burners, no secret supplements, no new innovative exercise moves that will miraculously get you the body of your dreams. Say goodbye to the all-or-nothing mindset. Moderation is here to stay.
- American Psychologist: If at First You Don’t Succeed: False Hopes of Self-Change
- Journal of Personality; Restrained and Unrestrained Eating
- Psychology Science; Self-Rgulatory Failure: A Resource-Depletion Approach
- Appetite; Resistance Can Be Futile: Investigating Behavioral Rebound
- Psychological Bulletin; Self-Regulation and Depletion of Limited Resources: Does Self-Control Resemble a Muscle?
- Journal of Personality and Social Psychology ; Making Choices Impairs Subsequent Self-Control: A Limited Resources Account of Decision Making, Self-Regulation, and Active Initiative