Self-control can sometimes feel like it’s all or nothing, especially when you’re trying to stick with a strict eating plan to lose weight. The moment you veer off course with one indulgence, it’s easy to feel like you’ve failed, which makes it that much easier to throw in the towel. But, in reality, you haven’t failed, and it’s not all or nothing.
“Our typical understanding of self-control can be problematic in that it’s often viewed as the need to be in total control,” says Paul Davidson, PhD, a behavioral psychologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. “This sets up a vicious cycle of feeling like you’re either in control or out of control, and with the many temptations and stressors we face in a given day, it is easy to feel control slip away.”
However, it turns out self-control doesn’t actually work like that. What’s more, shifting your mindset can help you take back control and have your chocolate cake, too.
THE SCIENCE BEHIND THE SELF-CONTROL MYTH
When it comes to healthy eating, self-control is all-too-often presented as the ability to say no to generally unhealthy, feel-good foods high in sugar and fat. This sets you up for a trade-off no one can stick to 24/7: Either eat ‘good-for-your-health’ foods and maintain self-control or eat ‘bad foods’ for pleasure and lose control.
The problem with this definition of self-control is you don’t have to sacrifice feel-good foods in order to have control, argue the researchers in the Journal of Consumer Psychology. According to their definition, you lose self-control when what you’ve done hurts progress toward your long-term weight-loss goals and you regret it.
In this sense, if you understand treating yourself to some chocolate is within your daily calorie goals and keeps you from feeling deprived or overeating, it’s ultimately a healthy, supportive choice — not a loss of control.
“A little cake at times makes it easier to have carrot sticks most of the time,” says Davidson. Recognizing that you can have smaller amounts of a less-healthy food as a treat is reasonable — and doing so can help you stick to an eating plan that’s healthy and balanced overall, he says.
Rather than viewing self-control as something you either have or don’t, think of it as an ongoing decision process where your goal is to have the benefits of a choice to outweigh the cons, suggests Davidson.
HOW TO TAKE BACK YOUR SENSE OF SELF-CONTROL
1. DITCH THE GOOD/BAD LANGUAGE
Any good dietitian will tell you there’s no such thing as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ foods. “When you see foods as ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ you can start to view yourself as ‘bad’ and ‘out of control’ every time you reach for a less-than-healthy food,” says Davidson. Make this switch: Think of foods as either ‘less healthy’ or ‘healthier’ (doughnut = less healthy, vegetables = healthier). And know that it’s OK to include both food types in a healthy diet. This way, when you have a less-healthy meal every now and then, you’re OK with it.
2. SCHEDULE TREATS
If you know you could never give up ice cream for good, don’t. Making the decision to enjoy ice cream is much more sustainable than trying to cut it out forever (and then eating the whole pint when you invariably ‘lose control’).
In general, rather than trying to avoid less-healthy foods, aim to gradually shift your eating plan to include a majority of healthy foods, says Davidson. If your diet’s packed with healthy foods you love, you might not wind up craving the treats as much (but if you do, no biggie).
3. TRACK YOUR PROGRESS
Keeping a food diary with an app like MyFitnessPal can show you just how much control you have when it comes to sticking with your calorie limit, opting for healthy portion sizes and gradually working toward your weight-loss goals (even and especially when you feel like you’ve fallen off the wagon). It’s research-backed, too: Tracking your efforts and results is linked with weight-loss success, notes Davidson.
4. KNOW THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN LAPSES AND RELAPSES
There’s a big difference between a lapse (a temporary decision that might not best serve your weight-loss goals) and a relapse (a complete return to problematic eating habits), says Davidson. If you go over your calorie goals one night out with friends, that’s normal. Lapses are to be expected and don’t mean you’ve lost all self-control. If you feel like you can’t get yourself back on track, reach out to a doctor or registered dietitian for extra support, suggests Davidson.