On Valentine’s Day, I surprised Joanne by baking her a carrot cake. Just over one week later, I realized half the cake was still in the refrigerator. Although we liked it, we both felt like we had had enough. The cake was getting old and we did not want to take up freezer space with it, so we pitched the remaining portion.
In posting this, I risk the inherent danger of misunderstanding, so let me be clear: Moralizing foods or eating behaviors is a harmful practice that I do not endorse. Carrot cake is not “bad” or “unclean” or a “guilty pleasure,” nor did I “fall off the wagon” when I baked and ate it. We are not “disciplined” for leaving some, nor would I have been “good” if I had never made it in the first place.
Our carrot cake exemplifies a nutrition strategy that Joanne and I oftentimes use with our patients. We often hear people tell us about their trigger foods, i.e. foods they feel must be completely avoided because a little inevitably turns into a lot. They are addicted to these foods, they say, or perhaps they blame themselves and cite a supposed lack of willpower.
The presumed solution is to abstain from these foods at all costs, but the downsides of this approach include missing out on favorite foods, a low likelihood of long-term success, and reinforcing the notion that these foods are taboo, which only serves to make people want them more.
We find that doing quite the opposite works better: Keep large quantities of said trigger foods on hand at all times and give ourselves permission to eat them whenever we want. Patients sometimes bristle when we raise this idea. If we believe a food has control over us, then having it available in abundance feels scary. Furthermore, giving ourselves permission to enjoy it whenever we feel like it sounds ridiculous and counterproductive to the pursuit of health.
I know, I know, we’re crazy, but think about it: Granting ourselves unconditional permission to eat a particular food does not automatically mean we are actually going to eat it regularly or in vast quantities. We may be surprised to find how sharply our desire for a previously-taboo food can drop off once we give ourselves unconditional permission to consume it.
We couple this approach with building intuitive-eating skills, which involves learning to ask ourselves questions about how hungry we are, what food do we really want at the moment (what temperature/color/texture/flavor/etc. do we really feel like), and what quantity of the identified food do we truly need to feel satisfied. If we ask ourselves these questions in a neutral, open-minded, and non-judgmental fashion, the answer is only sometimes going to be the previously-taboo food.
When it is, then we eat it slowly, enjoy it without guilt, and get on with our day. We stop when we have had enough, not when we are overly stuffed, because we know we can have more if and when we want it. The food, in essence, is demystified. Cookies are just cookies. Potato chips are just potato chips. Bread is just bread. We only experience their power over us when we operate in a paradigm that gives them power. When we remove moralization, judgment, and strict rules from the model, the sham of power is exposed for what it is and supposed addictions resolve. The carrot cake is forgotten as it blends in with all of the other foods in the fridge.
Joanne and I keep lots of play foods on hand, much of which we never touch. We have apple crisp ice cream that I bought this past fall in our freezer and Halloween candy in our pantry. We have unopened trays of Newman’s Own cookies and stashes of frozen pastries I made from scratch. We still have Valentine’s Day candy – from last year’s Valentine’s Day.
And none of that makes us “good” or indicates “willpower” or “discipline,” nor are we “bad” or “weak” or “guilty” when we do enjoy these foods. By having play foods on hand at all times, we find that we actually want them less. Remember, carrot cake is just carrot cake. Sometimes it hits the spot, but other times we might just want, well, a carrot.
In the 1970s, one of my relatives took part in a bunch of research studies into weight loss done by a big, well known obesity research group in a major US city. Some of the stuff they did was borderline insane.
My favorite was the “how to deal with cravings” diet. The theory was that if you craved something you would constantly overeat until you got the food you craved. So, the thinking went, you should obtain a lot of the food you’re craving and eat nothing but that food until you were completely sick of it. The theory was that this would somehow stop you from overeating when a craving hit.
It went about as well as you would expect.