How to outwit the most common diet-derailing excuses
"But I deserve this chocolate"
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You also deserve to be happy, healthy, and comfortable in your body! "Rewarding yourself with food is a dangerous habit that is often started in childhood by well-meaning parents," says Susan Albers Psy.D, psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic and author of But I Deserve this Chocolate. "Caregivers tend to reward things like good grades with ice cream and special meals. A real reward is fitting well into your pants."
Also, if you reward yourself with food, you're more likely to use it as punishment too (you missed your deadline, so no dinner!).
This sets a bad biological precedent, says Darryl Bushard, a sports nutrition specialist and certified weight loss coach for Lifetime Fitness. "The ‘reward cascade’ involves the release of serotonin, the feel-good neurotransmitter. So when you reward yourself with junk food, what you are doing is programming a good emotion around bad foods."
“I’ve ruined it anyway, so why not go all the way?”
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"Everyone has plenty of slip-ups throughout their lifetime," Bushard says. "It isn't a matter of whether or not you've made a mistake but rather whether you let that mistake snowball or choose to just get back on course."
Remember that each bite is a choice. There is a lot of "grey area" between perfect and ruined, Albers adds. "Think of your actions to be on a continuum instead of all or nothing. Just skipping a few bites can make a big difference in the long run."
"I ran 3 miles today so I earned this splurge"
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"Research indicates that people actually underestimate the amount they eat by about 40 percent if you are overweight and 20 percent if you are at a normal weight," Albers says. It's true that exercise does give us a little more leeway to splurge, but keep in mind that a three-mile run (at a quick pace—10 min/mile) will take you 30 minutes, and you'll burn about 307 calories (based on a 135 lb. woman). That's about the equivalent of a grande Green Tea Frappuccino.
Bushard adds that this strategy can actually hurt your workouts, saying that "by splurging (normally with sugary foods) you’ll increase inflammation and slow down recovery."
"Chocolate is full of antioxidants"
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Albers agrees that some chocolate has healthy properties. According to a recent study by a Yale researcher, 1oz of dark chocolate (at least 60 percent cacao) can have health benefits and boost your mood, she says. The problem is that we tend to eat cheap chocolate mindlessly, popping it into our mouth without much thought. "Buy the most expensive chocolate you can afford," Albers says.
Bushard adds, "Choose 80 percent cacao dark chocolate or more to reap the health benefits, otherwise you are just consuming chocolate-flavored sugar."
"I'm super stressed!"
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"A study published in the journal Appetite found that foods like chocolate make us feel less stressed for only three minutes and then the feeling completely fades," Albers says.
Stress eating also increases your stress in the long run. The stress hormone, cortisol, makes you crave sugary, fatty food. When you eat sugary treats, your blood sugar spikes and then drops causing you to be more irritable.
"The good news is that you can reduce cortisol in natural ways without any calories whatsoever—sipping black tea, exercise, yoga poses, self-massage, and soothing music," Albers says.
"Life's too short. Eat what you want!"
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"Life can be even shorter if you aren't eating healthy foods," Albers says. "Remember that obesity is the second leading cause of preventable death after smoking. If you find yourself falling for this line, consider whether you are depriving yourself too much. Balance healthy foods with small portions of yummy snacks. You're right—life is too short to give up good foods. Instead, savor small portions of the treats you love."
Delicious food can be in the eyes, er, tastebuds of the beholder, Bushard says. "Fresh, healthy foods taste much better than junk if you take just a little time to learn what those foods are and how to prepare them."
"I'm addicted to Diet Coke! I can't give it up!"
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Diet drinks have been linked to obesity and a higher risk of stroke, and the artificial sweeteners in them can increase sugar cravings and actually warp your taste buds, Albers says. These artificial sweeteners are sometimes 300-600 times sweeter than the sugar we find in natural foods.
"The good news is that our taste buds are very malleable. They can change in short periods of time. If you feel 'addicted' to any food, it's likely that it's partly the chemical properties but also the psychological effects you're getting from the food. Try stepping away from diet coke for two weeks. Notice what happens emotionally and physically." Albers suggests. "You might be hooked on the caffeine and the super sweet taste. Giving it up briefly can make you crave it less in the long run."
Brushard offers alternatives: "Drink coffee or green tea if you need a caffeine boost or try sparkling water if it’s the carbonation you enjoy so much."
"Guys will think I'm one of those girls if I only order a salad"
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"So you mean a smart girl?" Bushard laughs, pointing out that you can set a good example. "Take pride in the choices you make and stand up for your health!"
Also, women have to be careful of matching men bite for bite, Albers adds. Research indicates that we tend to unconsciously match the way our eating partner eats, but your boyfriend and guy friends have higher caloric needs.
"Salad is a great option. Beef it up with a high-quality protein, steak, chicken, garbanzo beans, etc.. It's likely that you are more judgmental of what you eat than he is," Albers says.
"I can't let it go to waste"
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"Do you want it to go to waste or to your waist? Imagine carrying around a trash bag full of the extra bites you've saved," Albers says. No one wants to throw away perfectly good food, so focus on preventing waste as you are cooking and ordering rather than after the fact.
"Cook just enough food for everyone to have a portion—no extra. Or box up the leftovers for lunch the next day. Think strategically," Albers says.
"I have PMS"
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"It's true that you can feel very uncomfortable during your period. What you are likely seeking during your period is comfort and soothing. Use a hot water bottle, wear comfy clothes, relax, take a hot bath. In the long run, this will be much more soothing and comforting to your body than feeding it extra calories," Albers says. "Plus, overeating can add to bloating rather than reduce it."
Bushard is a proponent of food as medicine. "Eating cruciferous veggies such as broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, and kale will encourage estrone (the bad sex hormone) detoxification and help alleviate cravings and your discomfort."
“I eat a lot less than some people/my friends”
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Albers points out the huge flaw in this thinking: "Research indicates that we are 57 percent more likely to be overweight if our friends are overweight. We are highly impacted by our friends and the people that we eat with."
So even if you feel like you're eating a lot less than those around you, it can still be a skewed sample. Ask your doctor for a recommendation on what is a healthy weight for you.
"It's okay if I eat it. It's mainly vegetables"
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This one can apply to a wide range of healthy foods gone horribly wrong (vegetable tempura, spinach and artichoke dip, and even many salads).
"Even the healthiest foods can be turned into something unhealthy by the way we prepare it," Albers says. "If you are craving pizza, go for the veggie or the whole-wheat version. But be honest with yourself. If pizza is what you love and crave, that is okay. Just eat mindful portions. Recent research indicates that "accepting" rather than pushing away cravings helps to reduce them. It sounds counterintuitive but fighting with yourself leads to poorer decisions."
"Licorice is fat free!"
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Albers dismisses this claim, saying that while many fat-free products make us feel better about eating them, a study out of Cornell found that we fall for what is known as the 'health halo.' When we think a food is 'healthier,' we tend to eat more of it and ultimately end up taking in more calories than we would from foods perceived as less healthy.
"This study makes a good case for being even more careful of your portion sizes when you believe the food is 'healthy.' Check the back of the package to make sure it is truly nutritious, not just a marketing ploy."
Bushard adds, "Don't be afraid of fat! We need to consume more good fats. These fats are crucial to keep our metabolism healthy."
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"Convenience food can be one of our biggest downfalls. First step is a kitchen makeover; clear out all processed foods. Foods that can last months in our cabinets have so many preservatives they'd probably also survive a nuclear holocaust! Do you want that in your body?" Bushard asks.
To avoid mindless overeating, focus on this mantra from Albers: "Eat food with purpose, on purpose. In other words, pinpoint what function this food has—filling hunger, looks fun to eat, is part of a healthy meal."