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The Paradox of Freedom and the Allure of the Diet Plan

Posted Mar 15 2013 12:09pm

Are children free? On the one hand they have to do what they’re told. They can’t just skip school if they don’t want to go. They have to eat what they’re given, go to sleep at their bedtime, and do their homework. That may seem very restrictive. On the other hand they’re free to be…well, kids.

I can recall vividly standing at the bus stop on the way to school when I was around ten and watching as adults would get in and out of their cars to do things they were free to do, as they wished. I remember how envious I was of the freedom they had to make their own choices and lead their own lives.

Now as an adult, I imagine that the adults I was watching back then were probably looking at me waiting for the bus and thinking how nice it must be to be a kid with no responsibilities. After all, kids don’t have to worry about taking care of themselves, support a family, or deal with responsibilities at work. All of that is done for them, and all they have to worry about is doing their homework, where they’ll go for their next playdate or when their next little league game will be.

The reality is that both adults and children have their own set of trade-offs between self-directed options and externally dictated obligations. The difference is that the freedom adults have is the freedom to make choices. That freedom carries with it certain inherent responsibilities. You have to use your accumulated wisdom and good judgment that, as an adult, you’re now expected to have.

When you have to use that wisdom and experience, you’re expected to make the right choice, and you’re responsible for the consequences if that choice doesn’t turn out well. Sometimes it might feel like that’s the kind of independence you might prefer to live without.

The freedom that children have is freedom from choice. They don’t have to bear the burden that you have as an adult of making the right choices or dealing with the fallout if those choices don’t work out as you expected. I believe that this type of freedom from choice is the real allure of rigid diets.

When a new diet book comes out and the author says, “Just follow exactly what I tell you and you’ll lose a lot of weight in a very short time,” it’s very understandable to think, “Wow, no more deciding what to eat, how much to eat, when to eat it…just follow directions?! Where do I sign up?” That’s the freedom of the child: “just tell me what to do and I’m free from having to choose!”

But that’s not autonomy. We’re programmed with the need to make our own choices even when that feels burdensome. If we try to avoid that burden and agree to give up some of our freedom, we will soon feel a need to reclaim it. That’s how diets fail.

The fact that a choice we make doesn’t work out as we hoped doesn’t mean it was the wrong choice. It just means that given the fact that we can’t foretell the future, we must make decisions with incomplete information. As long as we use all the information that we can reasonably gather, and make as informed a decision as we possibly can, the choice is a correct one even if it doesn’t work out.

It’s just like playing poker – betting on a good hand is still a good decision even if it turns out that someone else has a better hand. As long as you have used all the information available to you, right down to your opponent’s “tells” to see if he’s bluffing, you may lose some money but you’ve made a good bet.

To lose weight without losing your autonomy, you have to accept responsibility for making choices about eating and activity. Even using good judgment and the information available to you, there are factors operating that you aren’t aware of, like how your body will respond to those choices or the possible emotional rebound of self-denial. The outcome of those choices won’t always be perfect.

One of the consequences of having that freedom and accepting choices that are less than optimal is that the weight will come off more gradually. You won’t experience the child’s need for instant gratification because that number won’t go down every time you step on the scale. That’s the burden of being an adult.


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