Have you decided to cut out your favorite food—say, pizza? It sounded like a great diet strategy—that is, until you caved and ate an entire pie in one sitting.
And, if you’re like some guys, you felt super-guilty about eating the forbidden food—scolding yourself for your lack of control, and vowing to start your diet again tomorrow.
It’s no surprise that this cycle of diet, pig out, feel like crap about yourself, diet again, isn’t good for your psyche or your waistline. But how can you stop—and still have some control over what you eat?
When is Restriction Bad?
“Denying yourself a full food group or even one specific food will make it more desirable,” says Sondra Kronberg, M.S., R.D., NEDA spokesperson, and director of the Eating Disorder Treatment Collaborative. “You’ll want it even more because it’s forbidden—and your body will physically crave it if you’re depriving yourself of a given nutrient.”
Some dieters (not all) tend to have an “all or nothing” mindset. One slip-up can make you think you’ve blown it for the day, pushing you to the other extreme: “You’re more likely to eat even more forbidden food, knowing that you’ll cut yourself off tomorrow,” says Kronberg. “Then, you’ll restrict to make up for it, trapping you in this cycle.”
In one study, Canadian researchers told one group of female students that they would begin a strict diet for a full week. Following the lecture about their diets, these students ate more cookies than the non-dieting control group, suggesting that they were stocking up in anticipation of their diet. But not just that—those who were already on diets ate the most.
Why Do Some People Feel Guilty?
They’re called Catholics. Kidding—it’s all about denying yourself what you like. The more you limit yourself, the guiltier you’ll feel when you give into a craving. A German study found that “restrained eaters”—people who were highly preoccupied with weight loss—were more likely to feel guilty after eating chocolate compared to controls.
The problem with feeling guilty is that it creates an unhealthy relationship with food. “We have this mentality that we need to cancel out bad food through exercise,” says Kronberg. “But this ‘trade-off’ mentality is the foundation of exercise bulimia.”Sure, working out is important. But it’s also important to see both exercise and eating as two healthy parts of your life—not as one canceling out the other.
“We don’t just eat for nourishment,” says Kronberg. “We also eat for pleasure, socializing, and mood stabilization.” We need to satisfy these other needs without feeling bad about them, she says.
Keep the Diet, Cut Out the Guilt
First, make sure you’re getting enough calories and meeting your nutritional needs—that “oh my gosh I’m starving” feeling will only lead to a binge, advises Kronberg.
Then, pick a favorite food that you’ve told yourself you can’t have. Ask yourself how many times a week you would, realistically, want to eat this “forbidden food.”
Of course, the process is gradual. If you have an all-or-nothing relationship with doughnuts, you shouldn’t start by buying a full dozen. Order one doughnut a few times a week to normalize the food. Then, you’re less likely to binge at the next breakfast buffet.
“If you give yourself permission to eat something, it’s less forbidden and you’ll want it less,” says Kronberg. “Some of my patients don’t even want a specific food after they’ve allowed themselves to have it.”
Other nutritionists agree. “Once all of the other nutritional needs have been met, 10 to 15 percent of your caloric intake can come from treats,” says Alan Aragon, M.S., and Men’s Health nutrition expert. (Just enough for a Boston crème doughnut!)