Many of us have been there before. You’re implementing good nutritional habits – getting your veggies in, paying attention to your protein, and listening to your hunger cues. Then, a small misstep somehow turns into a binge. One cookie, which wouldn’t have been a big deal, becomes three cookies. Then you think you’ve “ruined” your diet so you might as well eat whatever you want. What is going on in our brains?
This thinking pattern is referred to as the abstinence violation effect. When you feel like you’ve broken a rule you might pretend like it doesn’t matter if you’ve broken that rule by a little or a lot. Where your nutrition is concerned, this couldn’t be further from the truth – a few cookies won’t impact your health or progress as much as a 5,000 calorie binge will.
How can we make sure that a dietary slip doesn’t turn into fall? Gretchin Rubin, author of Better Than Before, suggests setting up safeguards to protect the habits that are important to us. When coaching clients, I spend lots of time helping clients build safeguards into their routine. Here are three strategies that have helped some of my clients out recently:
- Anticipate & minimize temptation: temptation is everywhere, but there are definitely ways that we can reduce it. A big part of this is first knowing yourself and what foods are the most tempting for you! So, if you find you can’t resist getting fast food on the way home from work, you may want to try driving a different route. If you have a hard time keeping away from the ice cream in the evening, you could stop buying it altogether. If you’re tempted by the kid’s snacks in the cupboard, try storing them in an opaque bin in a hard-to-reach area. As Brian Wansink explains in his book, Slim by Design, proximity and convenience are two major factors that influence both what we eat and how much we eat. If we can make the temptations less proximal and less convenient we make our lives a little easier.
- If-then planning: though this might sound pessimistic to some, it can be the difference between a stumble and a fall. Consider the scenarios in which you’re bound to have difficulty sticking to your good habits and decide what you will do in those situations. An example might be, “If our hockey team goes out for drinks after the game, then I will have just one drink,” or “If we go out for dinner this weekend, then I will order a salad with protein.” Writing these down or saying them out loud is an excellent idea. If the situations arise, you’ve already got a plan which makes it much easier to resist temptation.
- Practice self-compassion: if you do mess up, whether it’s a little or a lot, don’t beat yourself up about it! A common thinking error is that feeling guilt and shame will help deter you from making that same mistake again, when the opposite is true. Those who show self-compassion actually get back on tracker quicker and fall of track much less often! Rubin notes that the poetic justice of bad habits is that “guilt and shame about breaking a good habit can make people feel so bad that they seek to make themselves feel better–by indulging in the very habit that made them feel bad in the first place.” One easy way to practice self-compassion is to talk to yourself they way you would talk to a friend. You would never say to your friend, “Wow, you really screwed up. You suck at this!” but you would say, “Don’t feel badly! Mistakes happen. You’re human. We’re going to wipe the slate clean right now and give you a fresh start.” This might take a little practice, but it’s truly effective.
Struggling with a habit, particularly a new one, is just part of the process. It’s not a sign of failure, weakness or laziness!
Weaving these strategies into our lives act as little safety nets for our habits. It’s true that in order to create really strong habits we need to stumble as little as possible, but at the end of the day catching ourselves and getting back upright is much better than a complete wipe out.
Do you have any nutrition or dietary safeguards in place already? I’d love to hear about them – comment below!