If you’ve ever found yourself wrestling with the question of how to stick to a diet, you probably think you need a way to strengthen your willpower. But relying on willpower to resist progress-destroying cheats and binges is a recipe for failure.
On the other hand, a trick that completely prevents cheating and the total failure it can lead to is simply planning your meals ahead of time. Cheats and binges are caused by a loss of control. Planning works by putting control back in your hands—even if you decide to break your diet.
The start of a diet is normally accompanied by a flood of extra willpower that makes it feel like we could eat broken glass to get lean if we had to. But then comes the inevitable crash back to reality. In the face of busy lives mixed with the hunger and fatigue of dieting, that inexorable willpower becomes a sad husk, and couldn’t resist an extra lettuce leaf let alone a donut.
(See here for more details about how to set up a diet.)
Willpower has to be shared between everything in life—making ourselves get out of bed in the morning, clean our teeth, and all other decisions and chores. It erodes as the day goes on. You know the story: you sleep badly, drag yourself to work and have a bad day. You’re tired and ravenous when you get home, you probably should make a salad and have some lean meat, but you end up shoveling in a pizza instead.
Planning Trumps Willpower
Dietary adherence is far more likely when you’re not relying on willpower to choose wisely as you eat. By planning ahead of time, you give yourself a clear map, and maintaining a decreased caloric intake becomes automatic and thus infinitely easier.
Take the scenario above. You get home from work tired after a taxing day, but this time you know exactly what you’re going to eat, and can relax into robot mode. Is that pizza on the plan? No, therefore you don’t eat it, and willpower wasn’t required for the choice—the decision was already made.
But I Need Pizza!
A diet plan can be as flexible as you like, and you can change it on the fly if you want to. Smartphone and online applications make it extremely easy these days (I use Myfitnesspal).
To illustrate, again we can return our example scenario. Bad sleep, bad day, you see the pizza and just have to satisfy your cravings instead of having your planned meal. The difference is now you’re plan-based, so you take thirty seconds to substitute in the energy equivalent amount of pizza on your phone app and the job is done. You stuck to your diet and satisfied cravings.
The Catastrophic Binge
Binging after a small dietary slip is extremely common. A spontaneous treat opens the floodgates to thousands of calories of high-energy food, and can even start a chain of overeating lasting days or weeks. It’s a funny mental trap: you feel like you’ve cheated your diet with the first small slip so you might as well go wild.
If you step back, it makes no sense. Perhaps that first “cheat” was a couple of hundred calories. Sure, not ideal, but nothing compared to the damage done by the unrestrained gluttony that followed. But we tend to employ black and white thinking, and in our minds a small slip is equal to a huge binge simply because they’re both off-diet.
Planning Shifts the Power to You
The first “cheat” is the problem. The following binge is much less likely If we eliminate that cheat, which is exactly what meal planning does. Even if your planning is last minute and you insert an extra 5000 Calories, that extra food is now part of your plan, so by definition you haven’t cheated on your diet.
It might sound like a semantic game, but it works. If you suddenly decide to eat more than you were initially planning, proactively deciding a limit before you eat maintains your control and makes unrestrained binging far less likely. It almost doesn’t matter how much you decide to eat (within reason of course), the important part is maintaining that feeling of control.
On a practical level, you could enter extra portions into your phone app, or if you’d rather not be the person managing their meal on their phone at a social event, you can do it in your head. Perhaps allow yourself three extra portions of your favorite dessert, for example. The main thing is being being conscious of your intake and following the guidelines you set for yourself.
From Diet-Wrecking Feast to Managed Free Meal
To illustrate: you’ve been dieting for a while, metabolism has slowed, and you’re at your wit’s end with hunger. You’ve had to go out with friends to an event with unlimited delicious food as far as the eye can see, willpower is at zero, and you just have to let loose.
You have two choices. You could decide to “cheat”, and go on an endless loop from dish to dish, sampling a huge plateful of everything in sight till you feel physically sick and disgusted with yourself. The next day you continue to binge, after all you’ve “cheated” your diet and now it’s ruined, right? And so it goes till you eat yourself back to square one or worse in the following weeks.
The better choice is on-the-fly planning. You make a decision to allow yourself a certain amount over what your diet normally calls for, but you decide exactly what your limits will be. You are feeling extremely depleted, so you decide to indulge a good amount. Therefore, you elect to have one plate of high-calorie savory food and three desserts.
Now you look at everything in front of you in a different light. Food energy content is in mind, and instead of sampling everything in sight, you’ll choose only your absolute favorite things. You just turned a disastrous progress-ruining “cheat” into a planned mini diet break, which will have minimal impact on your progress (if not actually help it—sometimes these types of free meals can spur progress). You’re still in control, and the next day you simply continue on with your program.
How to Stick to a Diet: Take-Home
- Choosing amounts and types of foods requires willpower.
- Willpower is a limited resource shared by all of life’s demands and it erodes as the day goes on. Because of that it can’t be relied on for wise food choices on the fly, and its role in your dieting and fat loss endeavors should be carefully managed.
- Planning your food intake ahead of time means you don’t have to rely on willpower for on-the-fly food choices. This results in an automaticity that makes eventual success much more likely.
- In our minds we tend to categorize “cheating” on our diet as one thing, regardless of extent. This all-or-nothing thinking is what leads to binging after a small diet slip.
- If you ever need to go off-diet, proactively planning to do so and establishing firm limits before you eat makes “cheating” technically impossible, and thereby prevents the all-or-nothing thinking that causes the binge in the first place.