I’ve waxed ad nauseam that deprivation diets don’t work, and that we should ditch food guilt and stop lamenting a lack of sheer willpower, but this neglects what is still a vital part of working on food issues and making a lifestyle change. Because I did most of my work on this issue BEFORE I started blogging, I fear that my neglecting this very big and important facet of lifestyle change may give a false impression of what one needs to do to get to a good place with food. Down with food guilt and “bad” foods, BUT…
Know your trigger foods. And then LEARN TO CONTROL THEM.
Everyone has some foods that they simply cannot eat. The problem with deprivation diets is they provide you with a laundry list of “forbidden” foods, the usual suspects that we lament for being “bad”… and beat ourselves up for eating. That way lies madness — you can’t realistically live and NEVER EAT POTATO CHIPS/COOKIES/ICE CREAM, etc. again. You may not even *have* a problem with ice cream, but a “diet” (and dieters) will tell you it’s a “bad” food and you “can’t have it.” Forget that. Don’t drive yourself mad with forbidden foods — focus on YOUR food habits and relationship with certain foods.
Those with normative eating habits don’t have “forbidden foods,” because they don’t have to — they have a healthy relationship with food and their bodies. They eat things in moderation. Potato chips aren’t “bad” because they can have just a few and move on. A little won’t kill you. But a lot very well might. And our problem is “a lot,” most of the time.
The solution for most of us is that we have to identify the foods that we simply cannot control ourselves around — the trigger foods that lead to binges, and/or set-off emotional reactions that lead to more bad choices.
Weight Watchers teaches this as Red light foods, Yellow light foods and Green light foods. Yes — like a traffic light! Namely:
- Red light foods: you can’t control yourself — there is no such thing as a “serving.” It’s the whole bag. Or 2,000 calories of ice cream four times a week (hello Coldstone). It’s McDonald’s. Or spaghetti & meatballs — the foods that set you off and make you binge.
- Yellow light foods: Foods that are a little tempting, but you don’t go overboard on. Maybe you don’t eat a serving, but you don’t pig out. This could be anything — pretzels, peanut butter, cheese. One kind of cheese could be red light (brie), another could be yellow (cheddar). But if you’re in an emotional place or situation (or just not paying attention), you might binge.
- Green light foods: You can eat these foods like a “normal” person! One serving and you’re good! Or, they’re zero points/so good for you that it doesn’t matter — fruit & veg. Or, you can eat these foods until you feel satisfied, and stop.
It’s important to establish boundaries when it comes to red light foods, and work on your relationship with them. To a lesser degree, you should do the same with yellow. The general aim is to reprogram your red light foods into yellow & green light foods (and possibly your yellow into green).
I started working on red light foods when I was 15 — I went cold turkey on a bunch of food: mashed potatoes, french fries, peanut butter, chips, pasta, fast food. Then I gradually learned how to manage those foods in “normal” situations, gradually re-introducing them into my life. Some are relegated to “special occasion” foods — mashed potatoes & full fat chips, for example. They are yellow light foods for me though — if I don’t watch myself on these occasions, I will still binge. Generally, I NEVER BUY THESE FOODS. Sometimes I order them in restaurants, but initially I didn’t even do that — I went cold turkey on french fries until I could learn to control them. Sometimes, though, french fries are still red light.
But peanut butter, amazingly, became a green light food for me. I can have peanut butter in my cupboard and it will last a year, because I only eat it sometimes and one serving is enough for me. I used to eat it RIGHT OUT OF THE JAR. I confess I didn’t do anything special to change my relationship with it, other than stop eating it for a while until I stopped seeing it as a “snack” food or a “treat.” It’s just peanut butter now.
That said, most of us will ALWAYS have red light foods. I don’t think I can ever be trusted with a bag of Lays potato chips, or Chex Mix. Over the years, I have developed NEW trigger foods, including things that are considered “healthy” — I can’t be trusted with nuts.
I bring this all up because I don’t want to give the impression that you can eat anything and be “healthy” OR that you should give up all the things you love and lose weight by SHEER WILLPOWER. It’s not an all-or-nothing thing. You must strike a healthy balance and know yourself. Eliminate or limit your trigger foods without going crazy. Over time, you may reteach yourself how to enjoy those foods in moderation. (I can handle certain kinds of cookies, but not Oreos)
I’ve worked on my food for YEARS, with a lot of successes, but plenty of set-backs. THEN I started working on the food guilt and body acceptance. Now it’s clicking.