I’m rubbish at dieting. Atkins. 5+2. High carb, low fat. High fat, low carb. Paleo. I’m done them and failed at them all.
Last year my boyfriend tried the 5+2 diet and told me it was great. But on the first day I tried it I was feeling sorry for myself (by 10 am) because I knew that for the next 14 hours I wouldn’t be able to eat. It was all I could see. The immediate effect of the diet was starvation, deprivation… and I hated it.
“But you can still eat 600 calories.” said my boyfriend helpfully, making me a thin crispbread with a slice of ham. No butter.
I munched it as slowly as I possibly could. Chewing the fibrous grainy cracker and tasting the salty edge of the ham with my tongue. It tasted quite a lot like sandpaper topped with flab.
“You can have four of these a day.” said my boyfriend in a voice which sounded as if he were imparting the holy frankincense to me, before he returned to work in the offices adjoining our home. Leaving me alone with my lack of self-control.
I thought, “What if I just eat them now, quench my appetite and then later I’ll just forget my hunger because I’ll be too busy when the kids get home.”
I finished all four. And then thought ‘fuck it‘ and made two big fat slices of toast. It was 10.30am. At 3 and a half of hours I had broken even my own – admittedly very poor record – of sticking to a diet.
Delayed gratification and self control are called the ‘master virtues’ by clinical psychologists (those bastards). But it has nothing to do with being a master, a guru or in any way superior to others. At least that’s what I tell myself.
It has to do with the ability to make more informed choices in the short term which contribute to our long term well-being. Dieting is one of those things where the idea of your future body form is the reward for depriving yourself of the short term pleasure gained by eating toast. Crumpets. Donuts. Scones with lovely lashings of strawberry jam with cream…where was I? Oh yes.
The ability to defer gratification is strongly associated with anxiety. The desire to quell anxiety will prompt an individual to seek immediate short term solutions at the potential expense of long term best interest. It will lead the individual to some truly bizarre behaviour – Obsessive Compulsive Disorder for example, is an example of a coping mechanism which does everything to help you self calm, but can eventually drive you mad (or did you really think that switching the light on and off 17 times was healthy). I’ve been quelling my anxiety in various ways for many years.
But how does it start? Why do some people have the willpower to pursue a diet whilst others… don’t? Turns out… it’s about trust.
Trust is about the extent of certainty you have in a belief that you yourself created (whether by conclusion or acceptance of someone else’s beliefs). It is confidence in an expected outcome. The more you believe in your success, the more your success is assured.
Do you really believe that you could look like Cameron Diaz after a month of dieting? Probably not. So it’s about not setting a benchmark that is too high or unrealistic. A benchmark you can really believe in.
But the more distrustful you are in general, the less you will believe in your own ability to achieve a goal that is after all rather nebulous, no matter how able you really are. And the ability trust is one of those mental models created at our mother’s knee. The more responsive your mother was to you as a baby or a toddler, the more robust your mental trust model will be as a grown up. She came when you cried. She was always there to return to after you’d crawled around licking stuff off the floor. Ideally still loving you and nurturing you. Kind of the opposite of what happened to me.
As a child you sought immediate gratification through your limbic system (or the emotional brain) and as you grew, your pre-frontal cortex developed and gave you the ability to override this instinct by reasoning and rational thought. As your mother was there time and again to help you develop, so by reinforcement you learned to trust in your surroundings. You were safe. If you grew up in a hostile environment, then your ability to self-control like mine, is probably very poor.
Delaying the Consumption of Food
Delayed gratification is a relatively simple matter when applied to elements such a money or material goods. Invest in the bank and get more money (well until recently). But money is much more abstract a concept. If it is not directly tied with a need NOW, then it is easy to make a decision about future benefit. We have a more complex relationship around food. At the very heart of our survival is a need to eat.
Every few hours we must stop and refuel. Seeking high calorie food conveys a clear evolutionary advantage as does immediate consumption (in case that wildebeest eats it first). When I feel worried, there’s nothing like a cup of tea and toast to make me feel better. It makes me feel as if – no matter what – I will be okay. If nothing else, I will still be fed.
Advertisers take advantage of our basic biology and bombard us with 24/7 availability and food porn. If you’re on a diet, the greatest strategy is simply not to watch them. It’s why you never go into a supermarket hungry. Because the more you think about food, the less impulse control you will have around it. Distraction and avoidance are both reactions known as ‘cool’ strategies of self regulation – that is to say, strategies emanating from the pre-frontal cortex as opposed to ‘hot’ strategies of self-regulation (emotional, impulsive and automatic) which come from the limbic system. That would be why you won’t find cake, biscuits and even at one time butter in our house (the toast was very dry that week and I didn’t eat much of it).
Avoidance has been a good strategy for me. But even as psychologists say it’s a great strategy to exert self-control, they’re not quite correct. Avoidance does nothing to help me master self-control because I only ever employ it for an hour when shopping. Then I grumble during the week that there is ‘literally nothing to eat in this house’. I don’t exercise my self control…because I don’t have to.
When you’re on a diet, you are constantly thinking about food. How much you’ve eaten. How much you’re going to eat. How much you can’t eat. And what effect the lack of food is having on your body. Hot emotions start to supersede cool. So in the words of much wiser folk than I, don’t focus on what you don’t want, focus on what you do want.
So what do you really want?
My most successful diet to date was where I tracked my progress on an excel chart emblazoned with a picture of Jennifer Garner in the role of Electra. It was inspiring. Or was it? That taut belly, those perky breasts and muscled upper arms. I got them running 15km a day and watching every mouthful.
Was it just because I had developed the willpower that previously I had seemed to lack? No. My boyfriend who later became my husband had thing for fitness… Although I didn’t realize it at the time, what I wanted was love, and acceptance from him. Taut abs? Not so much. They were a nice side effect of my low self-esteem. Look at what you really want when you exercise…. acceptance by a society who tells you fat is disgusting? Not so healthy.
Nowadays, even after a divorce, and two babies later I have much better self-esteem and a much wider girth. Although I want love and acceptance, I don’t want it enough anymore to to overcome my poor ability to delay gratification. That’s the thing with good self-esteem. You tend to accept yourself for who you are, with all your imperfections. I wanted great self esteem. Worked really hard to get it. But I didn’t realise that great self-esteem combined with my still poor impulse control and inability to delay gratification after a rough childhood meant that my weight would be like well – your average woman after childbirth…
Yes, I’m afraid to say that my pre-pregnancy clothes will never fit me again. Nor am I going to try to make them. I do not binge. But neither do I trim the fat from my lamb chop. I enjoy my food. I no longer fear rejection from those around me who may think my weight is less than ideal. Because I want to be happy, which means accepting myself whatever my size. And really as long as you’re not panting when you climb the stairs, that’s all that matters.
PS. Toast rocks.