Diets are filled with dogma about when, what and how much to eat. These ‘rules’ are usually based on observations that make sense, but unless you understand why you do certain things, you will break the rules as soon as the temptation is greater than your motivation. Let’s examine some of these myths, where they come from and how to make some long-term changes that will work for you.
Myth: Don’t Eat After 7pm
Your metabolism doesn’t shut off at 7:01pm, so why is this rule so common? It is based on the observation that a lot of people who struggle with their weight overeat in the evening. Most people have eaten dinner by 7pm, so they don’t snack because they’re hungry, they snack because of boredom, loneliness, television or other triggers.
Rather than creating a rule to address those habits, if you feel like eating in the evening, simply ask yourself, ‘Am I hungry?’. If you truly are, then eat, keeping in mind that your day is winding down, so you don’t need a big meal. If you don’t feel truly hungry, consider why you feel like eating and come up with a better way to address that feeling. Ken, a man in one of my workshops, realised he often ate out of boredom, so he started doing stained glass in the evening to entertain himself. Whatever works!
Myth: Eat Small Meals Every 3 Hours
This rule is based on the fact that many thin people tend to eat frequent small meals. However, most of the thin people I know don’t check their watch to tell them it’s time to eat, they eat when their body tells them to. They eat when they’re hungry and stop when they’re satisfied. That tends to be a small meal. Then they eat when they get hungry again in a few hours.
Instead of watching the clock, start tuning in to the physical symptoms of hunger to tell you when to eat. And remember, your stomach is only about the size of your fist, so it only holds a handful of food comfortably. By learning to listen to your body’s signals, you are likely to follow a frequent small meal pattern naturally.
Myth: Don’t Let Yourself Get Hungry
This one is based on the belief that overweight people are incapable of controlling themselves when they are hungry. In my experience with hundreds of workshop participants, once overweight people learn to tell the difference between physical hunger and head hunger, the opposite is true.
Think about it. When you’re hungry, food tastes better and is more satisfying. My grandmother used to say, “Hunger is the best seasoning.” Besides, if you aren’t hungry when you start eating, what’s going to tell you to stop? Of course, you also need to learn to recognise hunger and make time to eat before you are over-hungry, since it’s much harder to make great choices when you’re starving!
Myth: Exercise More When You Cheat with Your Diet
I hate this one because it has caused millions of people to equate physical activity with punishment for eating. As a result, many people either hate to exercise or use exercise to earn the right to eat.
While it’s true that your weight is determined by your overall ‘calories in versus calories out’, exercise is only part of the equation and has so many other important benefits. Instead of using exercise to pay penance, focus on how great you feel, how much more energy you have, how much better you sleep and how much healthier you are becoming. In the long run, you are more likely to do something because it feels good than because you are forced to.
Myth: Follow Your Diet 6 Days a Week and You Can Have a Cheat Day
This is absurd! What if you were a harsh, overly strict parent six days a week, then let your kids do whatever they wanted to on the seventh day? Imagine how this approach would work for your marriage or managing your employees.
It just doesn’t make sense to try to be perfect (whatever that is) for six days a week, then on the seventh day you overeat just because you’re allowed to and you end up feeling miserable all day. Personally, I would rather enjoy eating the foods I love every day mindfully and in moderation. I call this being ‘in charge’, instead of going back and forth between being in control and out of control.
Myth: Eat X Number of Calories (or X Number of Points) Every Day
Does it make sense that you need exactly the same amount of fuel every day? Aren’t there just days when you are hungrier than others, due to your activity levels or hormonal cycles?
Rather than setting yourself up to ‘cheat’ on those hungry days and forcing yourself to eat more food than you want on your less hungry days, allow yourself the flexibility to adjust your intake based on your actual needs, rather than an arbitrary number. Important: for this to work long-term, you also need to learn to tell the difference between physical hunger and head hunger.
Myth: Carbs are Bad (or Fat is Bad)
This ‘good food – bad food’ thinking makes certain foods special. As a result, you may feel deprived and think about them even more than you did before. Worse yet, healthy foods become a four-letter word. The truth is that all foods fit into a healthy diet. Since different foods have various nutritional qualities and calorie content, you can use the principles of balance, variety and moderation to guide you, without trying to restrict an entire food group.
Truth: You Are in Charge!
I assume the rule-makers are well-intentioned and don’t realise they have created a tightrope that most people will fall off sooner or later. If your head has not already told you that all these rules are crazy, I’m sure your heart is saying there has to be a better way.
It’s time to give yourself a wider path on which you can stay forever. Allow yourself the flexibility to make any decision, as long as you consider the advantages and disadvantages of your choices and always keep self-care in mind.
About the Author
Michelle May, MD, is a recovered yoyo dieter and founder of the Am I Hungry?® Mindful Eating Program, which received the Excellence in Patient Education Innovation Award. She is the award-winning author of Am I Hungry?: What to Do When Diets Don’t Work. Her latest book is Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat: How to Break the Eat-Repent-Repeat Cycle. To learn more about mindful eating, visit www.AmIHungry.com.