“I can’t believe you let me do that,” she said to me, blushing.
“You seemed to enjoy yourself quite a bit,” I said with a grin.
“Well, yeah, but I feel kind of bad now,” she said. “I’ve been really bad with you recently.”
We’d just had lunch together, as I often do with colleagues. I brought some guacamole I made and I had it with my leftover chili and some fruit salad. She had some too with the lunch she’d brought and she really liked it. But she felt “bad” about it.
Raise your hand: Have you ever felt “bad” about eating? “Bad” in this context refers to feelings of guilt, shame, or both? Have you ever said, “I’ve been really bad this week,” with the spirit of guilt and/or shame in your statement? Do you know others who speak like this about food and eating?
I do. In fact, in this past week alone, I’ve heard it dozens of times. Many people have told me they were “really bad” in the last few weeks “over the holidays”.
This is so common, this guilt-based, shame-based framework for talking about and relating with food and eating, that it hardly goes noticed in many circles. The way we form our beliefs about ourselves and the world around is a function of many complex factors. The prevailing beliefs that run through a society are one big factor. When we look closely at the cultural underpinnings of the United States, we see the deep Puritan roots that run through the fabric of many of our institutions. In particular, we have a certain allergy to enjoyment, fun, and pleasure. And we a strong conviction that restraint, abstinence, and delayed gratification are of utmost importance. If we keep free of the lures of pleasure, the belief system goes, good things will come our way in the future. One area of life where this stands out is food and eating. I witness, all the time, people feeling “bad” (guilty/shameful) about food and eating. I witness this particularly with women. That’s not a judgement, but an observation. I hear women call themselves “bad” about food all the time. I hear men say it occasionally, but not very often.
Acculturated to feel “bad”, I witness many women, logically, seeking to feel “good” through eating. Following this Puritan ethos, a lot of women go on detoxes. You know, to get all the bad stuff out. Yes, men go on detoxes too, but according to an ABC News report, women consume 85 percent of the weight-loss products and services purchased in the United States. Feeling “bad” about food and eating, and responding with detoxes is particularly common among women.
Detoxes, like their close cousins cleanses, diets, and fasts, are primarily about exclusion and restriction. Most detoxes come with a firm list of what not to eat: the “bad” foods. No sugar. No milk. No soy. No meat. No this and that.
There’s a big problem here: We’ve evolved over millions of years to relate with food as something to eat, not as something not to eat.
In those same millions of years, we also never received a single message, not one, that the pleasure of food was to be limited or squelched in any way. It goes completely against our genetics in every way to limit our eating and keep ourselves from food.
“Watch any plant or animal and let it teach you the acceptance of what is. Let it teach you Being. Let it teach you integrity—which means to be one, to be yourself, to be real.”
Very interesting things happen when we try to avoid things. Consider mountain biking. When I first started mountain biking, I was a bit timid. There were a lot of big rocks and gnarly roots to crash into and land on. When I was riding, I would say to myself, “Be careful. Don’t fall down. Watch out for the rocks.” What do you think happened? I hit my share of rocks and got my share of cuts and bruises. A more experienced rider got my ear one day and we talked about this. “You can’t think like that,” he told me. “If you focus on the rocks, your gonna hit the rocks.” It made sense and I adjusted my self-talk. I focused on what I wanted to do and where I wanted to go, not on what I wanted to avoid. “Nice and smooth. Ride through the clearings,” I’d say to myself and I’d ride a lot better.
This happens with eating bigtime! If you’re saying to yourself over and over, “No sugar, no sugar, no sugar,” you’ll start seeing sugary foods everywhere.
If you do a detox that has a list of restricted foods, off-limit foods, foods to avoid, foods to eliminate, or some other description of “bad” foods, you’ll start wanting those foods more.
This can be explained by the activity in a fundamental part of our brains called the reticular activating system, which can be thought of as a data filter. In any given moment, we’re flooded with “data” or “input” from the world around us. These are sights like colors, textures, and specific objects; sounds like music, machines operating, or specific people’s voices; tastes; smells; information; messages, etc. We’re exposed to up to two million bits of data at any given moment. A data filter is crucial. It filters out everything except what’s most important. If we had to tend to all of the input coming at us, we’d be paralyzed. How do our reticular activating systems know what to let through the filter? It lets through what we focus on.
A good example of this is when you’re in the market for a new car. You find a make and model you’re considering buying and, bam, you start seeing those cars everywhere, even in the specific color your considering. Before that, you hardly ever so those cars on the road. As soon as you focused on them, you noticed them all over the place.
Focus on sugar and you’ll see it everywhere. Same with junk food, carbohydrate, fat, or whatever else you’re avoiding. Just like when I tried to avoid the rocks and kept running into them on my mountain bike.
This effect is magnified by the prohibition principle or what I sometimes call the teenager principle. Tell a teenager, “Don’t be late. Be home by 10, or else,” and what happens? They often test their parents and come home at 10:15, or later. People don’t like to be controlled. We all know what happened when the United States government prohibited alcoholic beverages.
“A book whose sale’s forbidden all men rush to see, and prohibition turns one reader into three.”
For all of our existence as humans, food has been something to eat to satisfy our natural hunger and something to enjoy to the fullest. Restraint and food don’t go together well.
A very interesting study (1) reveals a great deal about this.
In one part of the study, subjects read a one-sided message involving either a positive message (“All sugary snacks are good.”) or a negative message (“All sugary snacks are bad.”). After reading the straightforward message, subjects were given a plate of chocolate-chip cookies while they watched a short video.
Being warned that all sugary snacks are bad would result in less consumption of chocolate-chip cookies, right? Being told “All sugary snacks are bad,” would remind us to eat less of these foods, right?
Being given the authority to eat sugary snacks would result in more consumption of chocolate-chip cookies, right? Being told “All sugary snacks are good,” would lower people’s guards and they’d go off the rails, right?
That’s not what happened:
Subjects who read the negative message at 39 percent more chocolate-chip cookies compared to those who read the positive message!
The researchers summarized their findings as follows:
“This research shows when and how food-related warnings can backfire by putting consumers in a state of reactance.”
“Across three studies, we demonstrate that dieters (but not nondieters) who see a one-sided message focusing on the negative aspects of unhealthy food (vs. a one-sided positive or neutral message) increase their desire for and consumption of unhealthy foods. In contrast, dieters who see a two-sided message (focusing on both the negative and positive aspects of unhealthy food) are more likely to comply with the message, thereby choosing fewer unhealthy foods.”
“Our research suggests that negatively worded food warnings (such as public service announcements) are unlikely to work—nondieters ignore them, and dieters do the opposite.”
Let’s elucidate the salient points made by these researchers:
- Programs that label food as “bad”, “avoid”, “eliminate”, etc. put people “in a state of reactance” (1).
- Programs that label food as “bad”, “avoid”, “eliminate”, etc. make people “increase their desire for and consumption of unhealthy foods” (1).
- Programs that label food as “bad”, “avoid”, “eliminate”, etc. make people “do the opposite” (1).
Making foods off-limits makes people want them more. Detoxes, cleanses, diets, and fasts really screw up this understanding of behavior change and habit formation in major ways.
Another interesting study specifically examined dichotomous thinking about eating and its effect on one’s ability to stay lean (2). Here’s what these researchers have to tell us:
“Results showed that eating-specific dichotomous thinking (dichotomous beliefs about food and eating) mediates the association between restraint eating and weight regain. We conclude that holding dichotomous beliefs about food and eating may be linked to a rigid dietary restraint, which in turn impedes people’s ability to maintain a healthy weight.”
Dichotomous means a division or contrast between two things that are or are represented as being opposed or entirely different. “Good” and “bad” foods or “avoid” and “include” foods in a detox program epitomize dichotomy. This study revealed that dichotomous thinking about food and eating “impedes people’s ability to maintain a healthy weight” (2).
Another interesting study specifically examined the relationship between restraint and binging (3). Here’s what these researchers have to tell us:
“Discusses the association between binge eating and dieting and presents sequence data indicating that dieting usually precedes binge eating chronologically. The present authors propose that dieting causes binging by promoting the adoption of a cognitively regulated eating style, which is necessary if the physiological defense of body weight is to be overcome. The defense of body weight entails various metabolic adjustments that assist energy conservation, but the behavioral reaction of binge eating is best understood in cognitive, not physiological, terms. By supplanting physiological regulatory controls with cognitive controls, dieting makes the dieter vulnerable to disinhibition and consequent overeating.”
Another study examined how rigid, restrictive approaches to eating compared to flexible, inclusive approaches (4). Here’s what these researches have to tell us:
“The study found that individuals who engage in rigid dieting strategies reported symptoms of an eating disorder, mood disturbances, and excessive concern with body size/shape. In contrast, flexible dieting strategies were not highly associated with BMI [body-mass index], eating disorder symptoms, mood disturbances, or concerns with body size.”
“These findings suggest that rigid dieting strategies, but not flexible dieting strategies, are associated with eating disorder symptoms and higher BMI [body-mass index] in nonobese women.”
Food is very simply meant to both nourish us and be a source of great pleasure. Simultaneously. You can’t put nature in a box. Nature must live and breathe. And in nature, that which we need most feels amazing. Nature brilliantly couples nourishment with sensory, sensuous, sensual pleasure. If you try to get nourishment without pleasure (e.g., living off detox potions), things go haywire. If you try to get pleasure without nourishment (e.g., living off junk food), things go haywire. Loaded messages about “healthy” and “unhealthy” and “good” and “bad” foods really mess with people.
“Adam was but human—this explains it all. He did not want the apple for the apple’s sake, he wanted it only because it was forbidden.”
–Pudd’nhead Wilson by Mark Twain (Book)
“So great is man’s hunger for forbidden food.”
–Metamorphoses by Publius Ovidius Naso (Poem)
Human nature isn’t new and we don’t need scientists to teach it to us, as these two writers from about 200 and about 2,000 years ago make clear. A lot of this stuff is common sense.
It isn’t only telling people to avoid “bad” foods that really messes with them. Telling people to eat “good” foods doesn’t work either as another brilliant penperson Geoffrey Chaucer warns as he reveals even more about human nature:
“Forbid us something, and that thing we desire; but press it on us hard and we will flee.”
–The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer (Poem)
Wrapping up today’s literature class, let’s return to the science, and explore the “pressing” Chaucer refers to.
In one study, subjects attending a conferenced were exposed to baskets of apples at the registration booth (5). One of three signs were placed in front of the apples and the signs were rotated unobtrusively every 20 minutes. All three signs had the following words: “Honeycrisp Apples. Developed at the University of Minnesota in 1974,” as well as additional content reflecting the experimental condition. The control sign’s additional content read: “Minnesota’s State Fruit” and had an image of the Minnesota state seal. The explicit health message included the words “A Healthy Choice” (instead of “Minnesota’s State Fruit”) and the same image of the state seal as the control sign. The subtle health message had the same words (“Minnesota’s State Fruit”) as the control sign, but instead of the state seal image, it had an image of a red heart with a white check mark on it. What happened?
“Participants were more likely to choose the healthy food when it was labeled with the subtle health message than when it was labeled with the explicit health message, which itself was not more effective than the control message.”
Being told directly that the apples were “a healthy choice” didn’t increase their consumption over the control condition. But the subtle message did. The researchers concluded:
“Explicitly—as opposed to subtly—labeling a food healthy may inadvertently license people to indulge, imply that the food tastes bad, or lead to reactance.”
When you teach people to eat food because it’s “healthy”, “good for you”, or anything like that, people hear “It must not taste good.” People don’t like to be sold to. And with food, and its inherent link to our taste buds, when you tell someone to eat something for it’s down-the-road wellness benefits, they think it must taste lousy, and you push them away from it.
In the world of behavior change and habit formation, this can be understood by the contrast between experiential benefits and instrumental benefits.
Experiential benefits are the benefits you get right away when engaging in an activity. For example: “Wow, I love these blueberries you picked. They’re so delicious. Let’s put them in the fruit salad.”
Instrumental benefits are the benefits you get at some point in the future as a result of engaging in an activity. These benefits can be a reward and/or the avoidance of a punishment. For example: “Thank you for bringing me these blueberries. I’ll put them in my smoothie tomorrow. Did you know eating blueberries increases longevity and prevents dementia?”
In either case, if you eat blueberries (and other whole, natural, real food) regularly, you’ll help yourself live longer and prevent dementia, but you’re much more likely to eat blueberries (and other whole, natural, real food) when you’re seeking experiential benefits.
As we see in this apple study, motivation via instrumental benefits usually backfires. People don’t like to be told to eat something “because it’s good for them”.
Another study examined what happened when the same foods (various foods were used in the study) were labeled as “healthy” or “tasty” (6). What happened?
“Imposed healthy eating signals that the health goal was sufficiently met, and thus it increases the strength of the conflicting motive to fulfill one’s appetite. Accordingly, consumers asked to sample an item framed as healthy later reported being hungrier and consumed more food than those who sampled the same item framed as tasty or those who did not eat at all. These effects of healthy eating depend on the consumer’s perception that healthy eating is mandatory; therefore, only imposed healthy eating made consumers hungrier, whereas freely choosing to eat healthy did not increase hunger.”
Amazing, right? “Imposed healthy eating” (6) made people hungrier and led to greater consumption later in the day. Telling people what not to eat because it’s “bad for you” and telling people what to eat because it’s “good for you”, doesn’t work
Eating is a natural activity and trying to force it, control, restrain it simply doesn’t work. Since it’s messing with a person’s nature, it’s also pretty cruel. The science we’ve discussed here makes it clear that restraint is unnatural and ineffective in a myriad of ways.
Free from our shackles, how do we move forward? How do we learn to eat naturally, free of harmful neuroses?
The way I teach people to eat well is called Goot’s Not-a-Diet. I can’t describe it fully in an article because it’s personalized to each individual who uses it. As the name makes clear, it’s not a diet. Nor is it a cleanse, detox, or fast, or anything like that.
Goot’s Not-a-Diet is based on inclusion and nourishment, not exclusion and restriction. In short, I teach people to approach each meal with a few simple, powerful guidelines:
- Eat a certain amount of veggies (personalized to their needs). This amount is a minimum. This includes all non-starchy vegetables. Starchy vegetables are considered carbs.
- Eat a certain amount of building-block foods (personalized to their needs). This amount is a minimum. Building block foods include meat, eggs, and/or vegetarian sources of the building blocks that make up each cell in our bodies.
- Eat a certain amount of carbs (personalized to their needs). The amount is a minimum. Carbs refer to carbohydrate-dense foods like sweet potatoes, fruit, and quinoa. I did not have this guideline when I started using this system 20 years ago. But I added it shortly thereafter when the low-carb craze took hold. Thriving people living active lives including exercise need some carbohydrate with their meals.
- Eat anything else you like in any amount you like. This means you can have more of the items described in these first three guidelines and you can have anything else you like. Anything at all. In any amount. As long as you’ve met the requirements for the minimum intakes for the first three guidelines.
It’s beyond the scope of this article to go into all the details of how this all works physically, emotionally, and mentally in its entirety. The take-home message for the purpose of this article is:
- This approach is based on eating, not on not-eating.
- This approach releases you from the grips of the prohibition principle/teenager principle. Because you’re not prohibited from eating anything nor limited in how much you can eat, you don’t have much desire to eat more than you need or eat junk food.
- This effect is magnified because you’re eating whole, natural, real food, that’s very nutrient-dense, giving your what you really need from food, with every meal.
- In sum, it frees a person to eat naturally and it frees a person from the torture of being “on” and “off” cleanses, detoxes, diets, and fasts.
- In six months or less, most people are able to fully adopt what I call attuned eating. This is eating based on your own bodies cues. It’s eating when you’re hungry and stopping when you’re full. It’s eating the foods that make you feel your best and thoroughly enjoying eating and doing so without any rules, but truly naturally.
Again, this is nowhere near a complete description of the approach I use to help people learn to eat well. I present the very basics as a way of letting you know there is another way besides the exclusion-based, restriction-based unnatural, harmful cleanses, detoxes, diets, and fasts. There is another way. There is a better way. This better way might sound crazy to you because it’s different from anything you’ve ever heard. That’s a good thing. Because everything you’ve heard and everything you’ve tried isn’t very effective. People are getting sicker and fatter at an astonishing rate around here. The status-quo methods aren’t working.
Outdated paradigms have a way of sticking around long past their due date.
“The most dangerous phrase in the world is, ‘We’ve always done it this way.”
Emerging paradigms always seem crazy when they first surface.
“All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.”
In addition to the sound reasoning I’ve shared with you, I’d like to leave you with some more information from some other sources to help you make the most well-informed decisions you can for yourself going forward.
In this WebMD article reviewing detoxes, the conclusion is:
“We’ve heard a great deal about detox diets in recent years. But it’s all hype with no health benefits.”
In this Berkley Wellness article (produced by the University of California, Berkeley School of Public Health) reviewing detoxes, the conclusion is:
“There’s no evidence that any of these detoxing methods actually rid your body of harmful substances. And if your goal is weight loss—a benefit promised by most if not all detox plans—evidence suggests that detoxing can actually thwart your efforts in the long-term.”
In this Harvard Women’s Health Watch (produced by the Harvard Medical School) article reviewing detoxes entitled The Dubious Practice of Detox and their follow-up article entitled Detox Diets, Procedures Generally Don’t Promote Health, the conclusion is:
“A seemingly infinite array of diets is available for detoxifying the whole body. However, studies have shown that fasting and extremely low calorie intake—common elements of detox diets—cause a slowdown of metabolism and an increase in weight after the dieter returns to normal eating.”
I’ll leave you with information from one last scientific study that sums things up concisely. In a study article entitled Detox Diets for Toxin Elimination and Weight Management: A Critical Review of the Evidence published in the esteemed Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics (7), the researchers conclude:
“Although the detox industry is booming, there is very little clinical evidence to support the use of these diets.”
(1) Messages from the Food Police: How Food-Related Warnings Backfire Among Dieters. Journal of the Association for Consumer Research, 2016, 1(1), 175-190.
(2) How Does Thinking in Black and White Terms Relate to Eating Behavior and Weight Regain? Journal of Health Psychology, 2015, 20(5), 638-648.
(3) Dieting and Binging. A Causal Analysis. American Psychologist, 1985, 40(2), 193-201.
(4) Rigid Vs. Flexible Dieting: Association with Eating Disorder Symptoms in Nonobese Women. Appetite, 2002, 38(1), 39-44.
(5) Brief Report: Effects of Subtle and Explicit Health Messages on Food Choice. Health Psychology, 2015, 34(1), 79-82.
(6) When Healthy Food Makes You Hungry. Journal of Consumer Research, 2010, 37(3), 357-367.
(7) Detox Diets for Toxin Elimination and Weight Management: A Critical Review of the Evidence. Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics, 2015, 8(6), 675-686.
Remember your mantra for today: NOURISHING MOVEMENT, NOURISHING FOOD, NOURISHING LIFE.
There’s a place below to share your feelings on this article if you’d like. I’d love to hear from you.