Why I don't tell clients not to keep treats in the house (and what you could try instead)
Updated: Apr 16
"I can't keep chocolate (or chips, candy, cookies.....) in the house because then I'll eat it all." Does this statement resonate with you? I have this conversation with people all the time. Here's the thing though- this is one of those things that's actually reinforcing your feeling out-of-control around food.
I want you to think about the last time you went on a 'diet' or started a 'lifestyle change' that restricted what you could eat. Now I want you to think about what happened in the days before you started that diet. Think about if these statements resonate with you:
"I have chips in the cupboard so I'd better eat them all now so I'm not tempted by them later."
"I don't know the next time I'll be able to have chocolate so I'd better get some now and eat it all."
You might not consciously have these thoughts but these behaviours might resonate with you. These thoughts are the reason I no longer tell people not to keep foods like chocolate, cookies, chips, candy, and cake in the house. This sets you up for two problems with your eating:
1) It suggests that the foods you're avoiding keeping in your house are 'bad'
Although some foods are more nutritious than others, when we place the 'bad' label on foods, it makes them the forbidden fruit, which as most of us have experienced, sets us up for wanting them even more, yet also feeling guilty when we do eat them. It sets us up for feeling bad about ourselves. Plus, different foods provide us with different things. Some provide us with more nutrients and some provide us with more enjoyment. Both are important!
2) It reinforces the idea of the 'last supper syndrome'
This is the idea that since you don't know the next time you'll have it, you need to eat all of it NOW. It also comes into play when you 'fall off the wagon' if you have a food you've considered off-limits it plays into what I like to call the 'f*ck it effect.'
I have a feeling most of you know exactly what I'm talking about but for those of you who don't, I'll elaborate. The 'f*ck it effect' is when you have a food you've been restricting and say "f*ck it, I'll go back on my diet tomorrow!" This is usually followed by eating all the foods that have been off-limits. Let's give an example:
You've been on an eating plan that says you can't have refined sugar. You've had a really stressful day at work and there are chocolates in the lunch room. You have one, then feel really guilty for eating it. You think to yourself "How could I break the diet? I've been so good!! Oh well, I've messed up now so screw it! I may as well eat more!" You then proceed to buy some cookies on the way home, which you've really missed. You eat the whole bag to make sure there aren't any left when you 'start fresh' tomorrow and go back to not eating sugar.
Sound familiar? I've heard variations of this story from more clients and friends than I can count. When we tell ourselves we can't keep a food in our home, we're essentially telling ourselves we are not to be trusted with that food. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy too.
You're so deprived when you have a food that's been off-limits, that you binge on it when you have it. You then decide that OF COURSE you can't trust yourself around that food, what were you thinking? You then go back to restricting it and keep it out of the house.
What could you do instead?
Deprivation breeds overeating and binges so the key to stopping feeling out-of-control around food is to stop the deprivation. I know this is a really scary thought and it goes against everything the media tells you about food but hear me out!
Think about what foods you feel out-of-control around that you're restricting. Think about when you're having them- usually people are having them when they're stressed out, sad, or really hungry. Of course you're going to eat more of them during those times than feels good in your body!
Make sure you're eating enough food overall
The first step is to make sure you're eating enough food- if you're restricting the overall amount of food, your body will be trying to get you to eat more, making you feel more out-of-control with eating. Start paying attention to when you feel hungry and make sure to eat at those times. If you are not in-touch with your hunger cues, try not to go more than 4-5 hours without eating while you're awake. It takes time to get back in touch with your hunger cues so be patient.
If you skip this step and you aren't feeding your body enough, you're pretty much guaranteeing that you will eat more of your restricted food than feels good! The truth is that restricting your food and improving your relationship with food can't happen at the same time because of the mental and physiological effects of deprivation. As a first step, you might start eating more of the foods you feel comfortable eating to satisfy your hunger.
(Note: if you are really struggling, working with professionals including a dietitian who practices a non-diet approach as well as a therapist will be important in this process. If you need support in this area, you can contact me or check out the Association for Size and Health Diversity page for a listing of practitioners in your area.)
Focus on re-introducing the food in a way that feels safe to you
You might want to start by re-introducing a food that is less fearful to you to start with so you can grow your confidence. If you feel very out-of-control around chocolate but feel a bit better around a certain type of cookie for instance, starting with the cookie might be a better idea than the chocolate.
In order to have the food no longer be off-limits, you need to give yourself unconditional permission to eat the food. That means no telling yourself "I ate more than I should have already so time to stop." This conditional permission means the threat of deprivation is still there, which is what we're trying to get rid of! It is also important not to set yourself up for failure though: if you're having the food only when you're famished or stressed out, it is going to be more difficult!
Plan to include the food when you're not stressed or really hungry
Find a time when your stress levels are low and you aren't ravenous. Maybe that means lunch on a weekend, right after dinner when your day has been low-stress, or on a morning break at work when your mood is good. Plan to include the food at this time.
It is important to remember a few things: one is that if you have been depriving yourself of a food, when you re-introduce it, you will likely eat more of that food than feels good. This often scares people so they start restricting it again but don't be scared- this is completely normal and will decrease as the feeling of deprivation goes away. You can think of this as a pendulum- you've been restricting so when you let go of the pendulum, it will swing over to the other side. It takes time but eventually your eating of this food will settle.
Another thing is you need to give yourself permission to eat that food when you want it WITHOUT GUILT AND JUDGEMENT. If you're eating the food but all the while telling yourself you're eating more than you 'should' or judging yourself for it, you're not really giving yourself permission! This is another reason why working with a professional is important- it's really helpful to have someone to discuss this with who can support you through this process!
Remind yourself you can always have more of the food when you want it
The key here to no longer feeling out of control around a food is that the food is not off-limits. That means you can have it whenever you want! You don't have to wait until a diet is over, someone's birthday, or when no-one is around to see you eat it.
This is where the process of something called "stocking" is helpful- once you've started incorporating the food into your eating when your stress is low and you're not super hungry, making sure you have enough of the food around to feel like there isn't a shortage can be really helpful. The idea is you have enough of the food around so there is no longer the fear of scarcity- the food is there when you want it.
That means you need to have more of the food around than you would eat at once. If you could easily eat a bag of cookies, then you might need to buy 5 bags of cookies and replace the empty bags as you eat them. The idea here IS NOT to get sick of the food but rather for you to realize you can have it whenever you want it. The goal is to get rid of the deprivation factor.
It sounds scary, I know. Again, if you're restricting your intake and judging yourself for your eating, this won't work. It will be a self-fulfilling prophecy where you reinforce to yourself that you can't be trusted. The thing is, YOU CAN TRUST YOURSELF. You don't need to count your calories or grams of fat to be healthy. Your body knows what it's doing but you need to address the side-effects of years of dieting and deprivation.
You are going to eat more of your previously off-limits food than feels comfortable for a while but eventually, the food will lose its power over you. You are probably also really scared about this idea but take a step back and think about your mental health when it comes to food. Think about all the restricting and binging that will continue to happen if you don't give yourself permission to eat. In the long run, giving yourself permission is going to be much better for your mental, emotional, and physical health.
If you have diabetes, this idea can be especially scary- you might be reading this thinking 'but what about my blood sugars?' The answer will depend a lot on where your blood sugars and if you're taking any medications. I will say that in the long run, having a better relationship with food that doesn't involve the restrict- binge- restrict cycle will probably lead to more stable blood sugars. I do recommend working with your healthcare team to come up with a plan to help best manage your blood sugars during this time.
Remember- you can trust yourself, your body knows what it's doing! Sometimes you just need someone to support and guide you there. If you're interested in working with me, you can contact me at KatHernderRD@gmail.com to get on the wait list!