You know that your eating habits are the key to mastering healthy eating, but when it comes to changing your diet, most people self-sabotage with one (or more!) of these three mistakes:
You don’t consider inner obstaclesYou change for the wrong reasonsYou change the wrong things
You don’t hear many people talk about these, but that changes right now…
The Call Is Coming From Inside the House!
The first mistake: Not considering inner obstacles.
Let’s say you’ve had a long day, you’re exhausted and you don’t want to cook, and there’s a bag of chips you in the pantry… Or, it’s yet another random work celebration and someone brings cake into the office. It isn’t even a kind of cake you like, but you think, “It’s right here, I might as well have a bite.”
You planned on having some pizza tonight and wanted to stop after three slices. But then, after three slices, you have this strong urge to eat “just one more.” And then, after that one, you have a strong urge to eat another one.
These are all inner obstacles.
The obstacle is a thought, a feeling, or an urge. It’s like in the scary movies, when the call is coming from inside the house — we traced the obstacle and it’s coming from inside your head!
Don’t get me wrong, external obstacles are important to consider too. Logistical issues like sorting out when you are going to shop and cook during a stressful week. Or, if you need to go out to eat, sorting out where you’re going to get it and what to order. All of that stuff matters.
But, they’re also obstacles you’ve likely thought about before and have some experience with.
Inner obstacles are often totally overlooked. We rarely plan for how we’re going to feel on a certain day. Or what we’re going to want in a certain situation. If we don’t consider the inner obstacles, we often get surprised by them, and stumble.
Motivation, You’re Doing it Wrong
The second mistake: Changing for the wrong reasons.
People change for the wrong reasons. Actually, I use the term “wrong” loosely here. Maybe “ineffective” would be the better way to go. In motivation science (specifically Self-Determination Theory), there are four levels of motivation that we can work with:
Reward or punishmentGuilt or contingent self-esteemValues or things that matter to us that we have identified as importantValues that are integrated with our sense of self
Those four levels go from the most external (reward or punishment) to the most internal (integrated values).
The diet and fitness world usually teaches us to pull from guilt or contingent self-esteem.
Sometimes, if a program is really terrible, they’ll try and goose that a little bit with rewards or punishments.
When things are really hard, internal motivation (your values) can be more effective than external motivation strategies (guilt and contingent self-esteem). When you’re faced with a choice about stress eating, it’s unlikely that the prospect of a reward is gonna cut it.
Similarly, while guilt or contingent self-esteem are really effective for getting us started, they often start to seem less compelling as time goes on.They lose their power.
If you start your journey with guilt or contingent self-esteem that’s ok . It’s pretty normal, actually. You just don’t want to pull from that forever. You want to start adding in internal motivation, and learn how to make decisions based on what really matters to you.
Seriously, You Think Another Diet Change is The Answer?
The third mistake: Changing the wrong things.
Taking on a new set of diet rules is fairly absurd. They’re a toddler level approach to eating.
Think back to being a toddler: You remember when you were little, and your parents had a rule that you couldn’t cross the street without holding an adult’s hand? That made sense. You weren’t yet aware enough to gauge different kinds of streets or whether or not a car was coming.
That’s the way diet rules work — diets assume that you will forever be incapable of making adult decisions about eating.
So, instead, they make up an arbitrary ruleset for you to follow.
The problem is, at some point you may need to cross the street on your own.
If you’ve never been taught how to cross the street, you’ll get hit by a car. If you’ve never understood what the rules really mean, then they won’t save you from that birthday cake you don’t even really like.
Then, the diet gurus will tell you that it’s your fault for not holding their hands.
The thing is, you are an adult. You may need to learn a new skillset (essentially the “look both ways” of eating) to be able to navigate different eating decisions and situations. You’ll need a progressive system where you learn and practice.
It takes time and work, and starts with a lot of structure, and then peels that structure back as your skills develop. That’s the “being a grown up” of eating behavior change.
Plan for Obstacles Before They Happen
So here’s your new plan:
Look ahead to your week, and look for when you’re going to have unhelpful thoughts, feelings, and urgesExpect to have themHave a plan for what to do when you have them
Going back to the examples above:
Let’s say you know that there’s going to be cake someone brings cake in the office. You don’t really want the cake, it isn’t important to you to have the cake, and you’re actually working on not having stuff just because it’s there. But, you’ve now learned to expect the invasive thought of “you know what, I deserve some cake!”
You’ve sat with yourself earlier and figured out that feeling is normal, and you even predicted it. So when the thought pops up, you shrug it off, make some tea and go back to work.
Now you planned on having some pizza tonight and wanted to stop after three slices. You know from previous experience that after you have three slices, you’re going to feel a strong urge to eat one more. You expect that urge, you accept that urge, and you let that urge just float on by as you pack up the rest of the pizza and put it in the fridge.
In both of those examples, you’ve learn to accept that it’s normal to have thoughts and urges that go in the opposite direction of your goals and what matters to you. You’re making space for those natural human responses to be there and accept them yet don’t act on them. You’re practicing taking actions that are in line with your values, even in the presence of inner obstacles like thoughts, urges, and feelings.
Where to Pull From for Motivation
Even if you begin your eating habit changes with the external motivations of guilt or contingent self-esteem, you don’t want those to be the only things you rely on. For longer lasting changes, add in the values that matter to you. Add in understanding the kind of person you want to be.
Who is that person in regards to the appropriate eating choices for you. Maybe you want to be someone who is wise, connected, or compassionate. Maybe you want to be playful, conscientious, or curious. These are just examples. You’re trying to figure out the kind of person you want to be . The characteristics that really resonate with you.
Let’s try out using “wise” as a value, going back to the pizza example: If you know that three slices of pizza is actually enough, then it’s wise to stop at three even if you want more.
It might be wise to skip the cake you really didn’t want, but just showed up at work. At the same time, it’s probably wise to eat the cake you really like with your best friend. Or to get cake on date night. Or have cake when you bake it with your kids. If “wise” was a value you were working from, you wouldn’t need an “all-time” rule about cake, because it would be clear that it’s wise to eat cake sometimes and not others.
Skills Instead of Diet Rules
You don’t need more rules.
Instead, work on developing the skills to:
Eat when hungryStop when fullDistinguish hunger from cravings, stress, emotions, etc.Handle stress and emotions without eating
If that sounds difficult, it is! It requires learning an integrated system and practicing progressively.
So, it’s exactly the same as learning a set of movement skills.
For the cake example above, practice three things:
Put in a five minute pause before deciding about whether or not to have cakeIn that pause, check in with your stomach about if you are hungry, or if you just have a craving for cakeCheck in with your values, and see if this is a situation where it makes sense to have cake
Track how many times you pause before having a snack or having dessert. Just practicing the pause will likely be really eye opening. The next step would be to use that pause and check to see if you are really hungry or just a bit stressed out. Assess if it fits your values as well.
Most people assume that if they aren’t strictly following diet rules, then it’s just a free-for-all. That’s just silly diet marketing. There’s a lot of very useful tactics between being super strict and not caring at all.
The truth is, you really can practice skills such as pausing before snacking and checking in with yourself, track that practice, and progressively learn the best ways to stay on track without the strategies of guilt and fear.
Don’t Sabotage Yet Another Diet!
The cool thing about these three mistakes is that, if you know what they are, you can avoid them. Now, you know what to look out for.
If you keep getting caught by inner obstacles, take five minutes at the beginning of the week and see which ones you should expect. If you keep trying to motivate yourself with guilt or contingent self-esteem, start reflecting on your values. Finally, despite the sweet, sweet siren’s song of another diet, try doing the real work of practicing skills.
Build Skills that Last
Eating Skills is a coaching experience that will help you build sustainable skills around how you eat, giving you a healthy, non-dogmatic approach to food.