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Abstinence Makes the Waist Grow Larger

Posted Nov 05 2012 12:00am

I want to elaborate on a point I made in a previous post about trying to achieve perfect restraint when dieting. In that post, I was trying to illustrate how the word “control” is more appropriately understood as managing or directing your behavior rather than restraining or overriding your impulses. Here, I want to demonstrate how an all or nothing approach to weight loss impacts behavior and can actually lead to weight gain.

Instead of approaching weight loss as a process of dynamic self-regulation, many people diet by dividing food into good and bad categories, and then try to abstain from the “bad” foods. Ironically, the likelihood of gaining weight with that approach is much greater. The reason, as I explained in the previous post, is that when perfection is the goal there is only one way to succeed and a million ways to fail, so failure is virtually guaranteed.

I’ll illustrate this with a simple, but realistic example that I often hear from new patients. Assume your diet goal includes abstaining completely from cookies. There are only two possible outcomes: one is to maintain absolute control and have no cookies, and the other is to lose control and have one or more. If you eat even one cookie, then by your definition of success you’re no longer in the “in control” category. By default, you’re automatically transferred to the only remaining category, which is “out of control.”

If that happens, it would be reasonable for you to ask, “Now that I have officially lost control, what difference does it make if I eat one cookie or the whole box? I’ve already failed at my goal, so I’ll have to start my diet all over again anyway (tomorrow, Monday, New Year’s, or whatever your idea of a new start might be). Meanwhile, I might as well have the rest of the chocolate chip cookies!”

Yet the reality, of course, is that your body will count all those calories the same regardless of what your rationale is for eating those cookies. So let’s count it up: if you stop after two cookies, you’ve only consumed about 120 calories. If you eat the whole package, you will have had about 1800 calories, or about the daily caloric intake for an average adult male. Even if that happens just once a week and you stay in absolutely perfect dietary control every other day, you’ll gain around 25 pounds in a year. That’s a lot of dieting effort over the course of a year only to end up 25 pounds heavier!

Clearly then, when it comes to eating, maintaining control is not about absolute restraint; it’s about using your judgment and practicing moderation. You have to decide when to eat, what to eat, and when to stop, rather than simply override the urge to eat something that you feel should not be allowed on your diet. Therefore, if you recognize the obvious reality that one cookie is not the same as a hundred, and you apply that to your behavior, you can begin thinking differently about food. Everything is back on the menu again, and it’s all good.

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