THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN RESTRICTIVE AND HEALTHY EATING
By Michelle May, M.D.
There is a harmful meme (like an idea gene – see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Meme) that has become so widespread, so ubiquitous, that it is accepted as normal. It has subtly integrated itself into our beliefs, our thoughts, our language, our behavior and our reality. It’s so pervasive that it has become “conventional wisdom” and almost no one questions it.
SO WHAT IS THIS MEME?
This meme is the belief that restrictive eating is healthy eating. It usually starts with information about nutrition or weight management that mutates into rules and restriction. But the blurring of the line between healthy eating and restrictive eating is the difference between a work of art and paint-by-number. Either way, you end up with a nice picture—until you get up close to take a look.
HEALTHY EATING VS. RESTRICTIVE EATING
In Charge vs. In Control
Nourishment vs. Diet
Fuel vs. Calories
Quality vs. Points
Healthy vs. Skinny
Aware vs. Preoccupied
Conscious vs. Consumed
Mindful vs. Vigilant
Information vs. Dogma
Guide vs. Rules
All foods fit vs. Good or bad
Balance vs. Perfection
Variety vs. Temptation
Moderation vs. Deprivation
Choosing vs. Earning
Deciding vs. Rationalizing
Flexible vs. Rigid
Hunger based vs. By the clock
Comfort vs. Portion sizes
Physical Activity vs. Penance
Introspective vs. Smug
Effortless vs. Willpower
Trust vs. Fear
Learning vs. Failing
Self-acceptance vs. Condemnation
Enjoyment vs. Guilt
Pleasure vs. Shame
Freedom vs. Bondage
The main reason that this meme is so powerful is that it has a built-in protective mechanism: the underlying belief that people who are overweight are incapable of handling freedom or choice. This belief ensures the survival of the meme because when you try to restrict yourself (or others) it actually leads to more cravings for the foods you’ve labeled “bad.” When you finally “give in,” you’re more likely to overeat, proving that you are incapable of handling freedom or choice leading to more restriction. (If you’ve already read Am I Hungry?, this is what causes Cycle Switching.)
One of the reasons that the meme is so successful at replicating itself is that it initially appears to be beneficial to its host. That’s why so many people intentionally seek out this meme. The empires of Weight Watchers®, Jenny Craig® and NutriSystem® (to name just a few) were built on their ability to successfully transfer this meme to millions.
For many people that promote health, wellness and weight loss, “lifestyle change” and “healthy eating” have become euphemisms for “you’re going to be on this diet for the rest of your life.” I’m not being critical here; the meme is so subtle and so ingrained that they usually don’t even realize that restriction is at the core of their message.
HOW IS THIS MEME SPREAD?
You are most prone to this meme if you’re overweight (or think you are). Everybody else that has the meme tries to give it to you in an effort to help you (or sell you something). It takes the form of rational suggestions, loving advice and even harsh criticism.
The meme spreads vertically through advertising, television, magazines, books, the Internet and medical research. It is propagated by marketers, models, celebrities, reporters, experts, bloggers, legislators and academicians. It is then spread horizontally from doctor to patient, dietitian to client, friend to friend, wife to husband and parent to child. This meme is also swiftly moving from the United States to the rest of the world. Mark my words, if they start dieting, French Women Will Get Fat.
Some people who spread the meme are carriers but don’t actually manifest it themselves. For instance, some health and fitness professionals eat instinctively without restriction but spread the meme when they put their patients or clients on a diet or rigid exercise regimen.
WHAT POPS INTO YOUR HEAD WHEN YOU THINK OF BREAD?
It’s just bread but you’ve experienced the power of this meme if words like “carbs,” thoughts like “bad” and feelings like “fear” popped up. How did this happen? Atkins of course! The vast majority of people on Atkins gained their weight back (SURPRISE!) but by then it was too late. The meme had already integrated itself into our cultural beliefs.
HOW TO GET RID OF THIS MEME
Take a close look at the “picture of health” you’re painting. Is it constrained by rigid lines and someone else’s choice of colors? Or does it express your individuality, your preferences and your lifestyle? Choose now how you want to create your work of art. If you want to rid yourself of the “restrictive eating is healthy eating” meme, here are some specific steps you can take.
1. Expose the meme. Filter everything you read, hear and say by asking, “Is this restrictive in nature?” (You might be surprised when you start to notice just how pervasive it really is!)
2. Begin to monitor your little voice. (This meme is sneaky so it may be helpful to journal so you capture the real essence of your beliefs, thoughts, feelings and choices.) When you notice restrictive eating thoughts from the second column above, gently replace them with true healthy eating thoughts from the first column.
3. Remember, the meme may have you convinced that you are incapable of managing your weight without rigid rules. Find role models, health care providers and non-diet approaches that don’t propagate the meme. With time, support and new tools you can do it!
4. Use nutrition information as a tool not a weapon. Remember, all foods fit into a healthy diet.
5. Make the healthiest choice you can without feeling deprived. It is balance, variety and moderation.
6. Let go of the belief that you need to eat perfectly – that is the meme talking. Accept that you’ll sometimes regret certain choices you make – that is part of healthy eating. When you don’t get caught up in guilt and shame, you’re able to learn from your experiences.
7. Repeat this often: “It’s just food and I can learn to trust and nourish myself without restriction.”
Discover joy in creating your masterpiece!
Michelle May, M.D.
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