A MONTH AGO the Twinkies were tossed and the pantry cleared of the transfatty carbs. The combination of daily treadmill time, healthy salads for lunch, and salmon for dinner has proven to be an effective prescription to trim inches off your waist. Yet the idea of diving into an ice cream sundae becomes harder and harder to repress. Do you keep going or do you give in?
Cheat days, or days when you let loose and free yourself from your dietary restraints, may improve motivation to get back on track and stick to long term lifestyle changes. According to psychologists, human beings – even those who are gung-ho about their new healthy meal plan – harbor “hedonic deviations”. This means that we all have subconscious desires to indulge, and the denial of these may lead to yo-yo patterns of dieting that eventually lead to weight gain.
If the possibility of caving in to cravings is denied when embarking on a lifestyle modification from the start, it is more likely for the freshly minted junk-food-addict-turned-health-nut to give up, or overshoot the calorie intake when instinctual old habits trump willpower (and with deeply ingrained behavior patterns, they eventually will). These deviations lead to feelings of guilt, which then lead to something called the “failure cascade”. Small lapses lead to an all-or-nothing pattern and many abandon their goals for weeks at a time before restarting the same cycle.
The key is to outsmart instincts through strategic planning for these ‘hedonistic tendencies’.
What sends most into yo-yo patterns of dieting is the lack of ability to address realistic expectations. Most believe that the willpower will persist once they are committed and pounds are shed. While that will to succeed certainly gets stronger with new habit formation, the beginning of the road is rocky for those who have indulged in a daily pint of Rocky Road for years.
Beginners should expect to have cravings and plan for them, researchers say, but then plan to return to a scheduled pattern of healthy eating thereafter. This does not mean a burger and fries every other day, but scheduling a treat day every week or so has been shown to beat feelings of self-deprivation and lead to long term weight loss. Controlled indulgence in goal-deviation helps regain self-regulatory ability, maintain motivation to persist pursuit of the goal, and contributes to the experience of staying positive about the whole process.
Ref: Coelho do Vale, et al. The benefits of behaving badly on occasion: Successful regulation by planned hedonic deviations. Journal of Consumer Psychology