Falling Off The Food Wagon - How To Stay Strong

We’ve all been there. You’ve been calorie counting and maintaining your willpower [1] for months. You’ve been doing well. The weight has been coming off, and you feel like you’re making progress. Then, for whatever reason, you break your diet. Just once, just a little bit. Maybe you have something on your personal ‘restricted foods’ list. Maybe you go over your daily calorie limit. However you do it, you take a minor tumble from the wagon. And then, rather than clambering back onto the wagon, you look around yourself, say “What the hell, if I’m going to fail, I may as well do it in style!”, and run off to the nearest all-you-can eat.

It’s a really common phenomenon. A couple of years ago, in the UK, the BBC ran a programme on finding diet styles which worked [2]. During this, they did an experiment with their volunteers. The volunteers were split into two groups. Each were given slices of exactly the same cake. However, one group was told that the cake had a small amount of calories, while the other was told that it had an enormous amount of calories. Logically, you would think that the group who thought they were eating more calories would eat frugally for the rest of the day, in order to compensate for the cake calorific excess. In fact, the opposite occurred [3]. The group which thought themselves to be still ‘on track’ diet-wise by and large refused second slices of the cake when offered. The other group, however, without exception took an extra slice, and went on to overeat throughout the day. When told the truth, the second group abashedly admitted that, having already ‘failed’, they thought they may as well just give up for the day. The other group, meanwhile, wanted to maintain their ‘winning streak’.

Needless to say, allowing yourself the occasional indulgence and then climbing back on the diet wagon is far preferable than giving up the first time you break your calorie limit and blowing your diet to pieces. Yet so many of us fall at this very simple hurdle. Why? And what can we do to combat this problem?

It’s pretty simple, really: don’t expect perfection. You are going to fail sometimes. That’s inevitable. It doesn’t mean that it’s game over for you. It just means that you’ve had a slip up. It’s really important if you’re going to adapt to and incorporate your slip ups without completely losing the dietary plot that you learn to practice self-compassion. You need to understand that the odd failure is to be expected, to forgive yourself for it, and to get yourself back on track. As with any kind of major life change, it helps if you surround yourself with supportive friends [4] who will neither make you feel awful for temporarily breaking your diet, nor tempt you down the road of full calorie relapse. If it helps, allow yourself ‘cheat days’ in which you can break your diet without feeling guilty. There’s even some evidence to suggest that this can actually be beneficial [5] when it comes to weight loss - but mostly this kind of thing prevents you from getting into the guilt/’What the hell?’ cycle which leads to seriously blown diets. Overeat one meal, then back on the wagon the next.

If you really struggle with this mentality, try thinking of your calorie goals in weekly rather than daily terms. Assign yourself a set amount of calories to eat per week. That way, if you overeat a little early in the week, you won’t feel too guilty as you can shave off the excess by eating less later in the week. This is the principle upon which the 5:2 diet is based [6] and, while that particular format may be rather too rigid for many, if you’re sensible about it (don’t, for example, blowout to extremis early in the week and then starve yourself for the last few days!), working with weekly rather than daily goals can be a good way to eliminate the guilt-related diet blowing a lot of us fall prey to.

[1] Keri Glassman, “Relying on willpower to lose weight? Why it’s better to create new behaviors”, Today, May 2016

[2] BBC iWonder, “The test: What’s the right diet for you?”

[3] Misce Thoughts, “What’s The Right Diet For You? (2015) - Part 3/3”, Mar 2015

[4] Destiny Lopez, “Compassion: An Essential Ingredient of Recovery”, Recovery.org, Jul 2015

[5] Justin Caba, “The 90/10 Rule: Cheat Meals Actually Boost Metabolism And Help You Lose Weight”, Medical Daily, Mar 2015

[6] NHS, “News analysis: Does the 5:2 fast diet work?”, Jan 2013

Melissa Davis

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