Recently I explained how restrictive dieting makes losing weight harder than it needs to be, not easier. But one reader wondered how my advice about limiting sugar and processed foods jives with this concept:
You say that mainstream diets encourage nutritionism and cut out groups of food like fat, gluten and sugar. However, much of what you discuss also encourages limiting sugar. How do you differentiate the two?
Am I a hypocrite or trying to pull a fast one? Is this just a matter of semantics? As usual in biology, the truth is more complicated.
The issue here is that we are not robots. For humans with all of our beauties, faults and nuances, health is more complex than filling up our gas tanks. Yes, certain foods are healthier than others, but that is rarely why we choose to eat them.
Unhealthy but tasty foods like sweeteners and flours highlight the differences between physical health and mental health. Yes, sugar can be dangerous when consumed in large quantities (which most of us do). Yes, we are all better off when we eat less of it (regardless of body weight). But no, it is not good to live in a state of constant deprivation. No, you couldn’t live that way forever even if you wanted to. And no, smaller more sensible amounts of these foods do not doom you to a life of ill health.
The physical-mental divide is the reason getting healthy is so difficult. The secret of success is learning to navigate it.
Step one is understanding your mental limits, which is what my post about dieting was addressing. Strict eating plans backfire because they ignore the realities of how our brains work and what they are (and aren’t) capable of.
Step two is using this information to devise a set of guidelines for your behavior that optimize your health. If attempting to deprive yourself of chocolate or chips ultimately results in overeating, which we know it does, then it does not optimize our health and should not be our goal. It’s much better to develop strategies that are known to reduce (not enhance) cravings, even if it means making room for foods we know to be less-than-healthy.
In Foodist, I describe an experiment where people who tell themselves they can “have it later” end up eating far less than people who attempt to deprive themselves, and even less than people who don’t restrict their eating at all.
Similarly, tactics like mindful eating and using smaller plates and serving utensils encourage eating less without the perception of deprivation. Other tactics include improving the quality and enjoyment of the healthiest foods (e.g. buying fresh, seasonal ingredients), so that the relative appeal of an unhealthy treat isn’t as great and requires less willpower to resist.
Step three is understanding your personal values when it comes to food and health, and making sure your choices optimize your happiness. Does Grandma’s apple pie whisk you back in time, filling you with a Proustian bliss of nostalgia and joy? Then it is probably worth the 450 calories and subsequent spike in blood sugar. Are you eating donuts during your meeting because you ate a chalky energy bar for breakfast instead of something good? Then it probably isn’t worth the 200 calories, and you should consider re-engineering your mornings to avoid this situation in the future.
All sugar isn’t bad, but lots of sugar is certainly bad. Cutting down on unhealthy foods is a good idea. Eating more healthy foods to replace them is a great idea. Completely eliminating things you love is a horrible idea.
Making value-based decisions when it comes to indulgences is easy when you build a healthstyle around habits you enjoy. Good habits make all the hard decisions for you without using up willpower, so when a special occasion or treat comes along you know exactly how both your brain and body will react. You get to enjoy the things you love and guilt never enters the equation. It’s like having your cake and eating it too.
A version of this article originally appeared on Darya Rose’s website, Summer Tomato.