Want to change your diet? Eliminate words like “bad” and “cheat”
As a coach, persuading a client to commit to a workout plan pales in comparison to the monstrous challenge of convincing someone to change his diet.
Being blunt, time and time again, I run into clients who train hard in the gym each week, but they refuse to change their diet. As a result, they struggle to make the progressions they want.
Sometimes these people even—gasp—lie about what they’re eating. I can see the guilt in their eyes when they tell me what they have eaten in the last five days.
At least part of the reason people lie is that they feel shame and embarrassed.
They feel this way at least partially because we have been trained to label foods as “good” and “bad,” and we use words like “cheat meal” and “cheat day” when we eat “bad” foods. This means they start to feel judged for “cheating” by eating “bad” foods. They already feel ashamed enough for failing so miserably, so they lie.
Does it have to be this way?
Registered dietician and professor Jennifer Broxterman doesn’t think so. She has had success helping clients change their diets by steering them to eliminate words like “bad” and “cheat” when they think about and select foods to eat.
“I don’t use the word cheat because it sets up the idea of failure. Imagine trying to be a good parent most of the time but you can cheat on Saturdays and scream at your kids,” she said.
“If they’re in that perfectionist, cheat mentality, they’ll be yo-yo-ing for years and years. And when they cheat they’ll feel like their day is ruined.”
Let’s be honest: Food is delicious. While there are some (perhaps lucky people) who aren’t that interested in food, and who eat only because they know their body needs food to survive, most people enjoy, look forward to, and even crave delicious-tasting food. Not only that, but food is such a big part of our culture. We’re social beings; sharing meals together helps us connect with other human beings in the process.
The point is, you’re never going to escape food, so you might as well find a way to make it a more positive part of your life.
Thus, Broxterman warns its counter-productive think of food in a black and white, good and bad, right and wrong, kind of way.
“This sets up a dichotomy between perfection and failure, which doesn’t work for behavioural change,” she explained.
Instead, be gentle with yourself. Eat whole unprocessed foods most of the time, yes, but let go of the guilt and the shame you have wired yourself to feel when you stray from perfection. After all, there’s no such thing as perfection.
Broxterman put it best when she said: “Your best will vary. Your best as a parent is different when you’re well rested and your kids all well-behaved than when you’ve barely slept and your kids are throwing fits. You would never tell a parent to cheat. And I don’t use the term when it comes to diet either.”