Why making healthy changes to your diet
can cause you to struggle more
I love chocolate. This is no secret. It’s always been my thing. There's not a lot that could stand in the way of me and some really great chocolate. For much of my life, I took this love affair as a problem....but not any more. I eat chocolate whenever I want, for the most part. And you can too.
However, that's not typically well-taken advice from most people. This sounds like a scary proposition because haven't we mostly decided that chocolate (or most sweet indulgences) be totally banned from our diets - especially if we are to lose weight and get healthier?
No, I don't believe that is the answer. Let me explain…
My love for chocolate and all things sweet and yummy, started at a young age. It was pretty innocent stuff as a child, but I remember as I grew up that I would often indulge in a chocolate bar frequently and generally just enjoyed sweets of any kind. Soon, I realized that my waistline was expanding and as teen that was not cool. This is where I embarked on a long journey game of try-to-not-eat-chocolate-ever-because-it-will-make-me-fat (and later I would add, unhealthy).
Naturally, I would end up sneaking in chocolate and sugar from time-to-time all the time, because the energy it took to avoid it just sucked the life out of me - if not immediately, then at some point down the road. This of course, would lead me to feeling really bad about myself because in my head, going to sugar land is just pure evil and not acceptable – who would do that when you’re trying to be skinny??
I did not enjoy this game. It was not fun, and really all I wanted was to find a way to eat sweets in some shape or form, so that I could avoid the real thing that was "so bad for me".
Over the course of the game, I decided – like many people I know – that an acceptable way to keep my sugar habit from getting out of hand would be to substitute: don't eat the chocolate / sugar, but eat something else that I figured wasn't quite so bad).
My substitutions ranged from:
- Jelly beans or m&m’s (mindset myth: they’re small so that makes for fewer calories)
- Diet cookies (aka: carboard with fake sugar)
- “healthy muffins” (you know, whole grain and agave fat-bombs or non-fat dry, tasteless morsels)
- Sugar-free chocolate (yes, this exists and it’s actually decent)
- Anything made with a sugar substitute (sucralose, agave, honey, etc)
- Discipline (fun! not) & avoidance (boring)
Now, let me be clear here – I’m not trying to sound discouraging to anyone who is making changes to their diet by substituting with other options, especially if your health concern is an urgent one. Substitutions can be very beneficial, for sure. However, as a Coach and from my own wild experiences, I know many women are stuck in a cycle of avoidance and substitution - without achieving the result they are seeking from making these so-called “healthy” changes. Whether its weight loss or overcoming type II diabetes or any other health issue, there’s a few fatal flaws to this system.
Many people eat sugar at will and it's not a weight management or health issue for them, because the quantity that is eaten is not enough to chronically affect their health, and the context of it within the entire diet and lifestyle is balanced.
But for others, the chronic intake of sugar (and similar foods that essentially contribute in the same way) at an unhealthy level, combined with lifestyle and poor weight management strategies, create disease and dysfunction. Chronic dieters have a change to be addressed that is more crucial than the chocolate or sugar itself: getting to the core of what motivates and entices us to crave these foods on a level that creates dysfunction for us. Simply avoiding it, doesn't create an understanding and awareness of it.
It personally took me years to recognize and practice this. But over time, this was one of the most impactful processes that I experienced because it has allowed me to break free from the struggle of dieting and restriction. I can now choose to eat chocolate whenever I want, but not have it trigger negative physical or emotional responses. Ahhhh....so freeing 🙂
The long term solution is not to simply make a rule to eliminate ALL sugar, period - and then, in turn replace the offending foods with substitutions that have been marketed to be "healthier" or lower calorie. This rarely works effectively as a stand-alone solution because it doesn't change the behaviour pattern or results of those behaviours.
It would be better, in my experience, to just keep eating the same foods that you actually enjoy - but change the physical and emotional context of those habits to the point that they are no longer causing the issue of weight gain or disease.
I see people struggling with this because there tends to be strong focus on the details or the "magic", than there is on creating a more functional setting - or context - for our health over the long term.
There becomes a hyper-sensitivity to adhering to specific, yet random "rules" that don't necessarily connect to the actual result they produce. Just like a “natural supplement” that is marketed to suppress appetite and help you lose weight, will not actually affect permanent changes in the context of your health and chronic habits, substituting sugar alternatives will also not end up ultimately changing your relationship to them or establishing the long-term transformations that will ultimately provide the most effective results.
What we produce or partake in when we simply substitute, is a replica.
Unless the substitute is along the lines of swapping the nutritional content of the food (say, like for broccoli or a chicken breast), the main components of the substitution (and the effect on your physiology) is likely pretty close to the carb, sugar, and fat responses we experience compared to the real deal. We have changed the players, but the score remains the same.
Why is this?
Often what happens when we substitute the players, but don’t change the context, is that we become less and less satisfied - especially when this is a new or familiar change. It often results in feeling the need to eat MORE of those substitutes, or maybe MORE of something else we are craving (maybe pasta or a burger) in search of pure enjoyment of what's going in our mouth.
So, the cycle tends to continue instead of being solved. The number of calories and sugar grams end up being the same (if not more) over the long term, and often there’s a bit of fantasy that leads to the belief that because it’s a "healthier" alternative, that it is ok to indulge more often.
The result is stagnant weight loss, and unchanged heath issues over the long term. The unfortunate part is that often people believe that all these “healthy” changes aren’t working, so they get frustrated and give up.
The problem of course, wasn’t the pursuit of healthy changes, it was that the context was misguided.
The context that needs to change in order for a true transformation to take place is a respect for the entire picture – as well as embracing the perspective that there is no magical food, formula, or diet trend that is the sole determiner of your health.
When I was knee-deep into my love for sugar and chocolate, I was also not really aware of the nutrition qualities (or lack thereof) of my whole diet. What I know now is that the sugar was only one part of the issue, and in fact it was magnified due to the lack of quality in the other portions of my diet - of course, I was doing some ineffective substitutions there too.
I know to many, this rant may sound like either I'm condoning a free-for-all on sugar, or that I am not hard-core enough in my nutrition principles. It probably sounds like I should be more strict. I have had some potential clients reject my philosophies because to them, the only way they can see getting healthier or getting weight loss results is to be held accountable to eating more strictly than they currently do.
And as part of the larger, long-term picture there is certainly room for each of us to determine what that looks like in the context of our own lives and habits and goals. But the point of this discussion is to create a greater awareness of one of the potential "health myths" that I see so many women falling into, leaving them frustrated.
I find that even if someone successfully integrates a fairly effective substitutes and gets good results from this, that eventually there is a point at which the old temptations come back. Or the person perseveres making substitution, using a lot of energy to do this, and still find themselves struggling on some level. And when those things happen, it's easy to recognize that the same cravings, temptations, and mindsets still exist - they haven't gone away magically.
So, yeah….I don’t really think about chocolate so much any more.
The way I broke the cycle for myself was not a strict adherence to avoidance and substitution. I had to take the time to dig deeper into my habits, my triggers, my self-awareness, and had to learn to be okay with a degree of trial and error.
I do not ban treats from my diet - they are very much a part of what keeps me satisfied and sane. Because of the work I have done to create a new context for my habits, I don't struggle with the threat of an impending binge and I don't rely on discipline to get me through a craving. All of my habits are aligned into the context of what works for me, so I feel confident that my waistline or blood sugar situation will not take a hit. Because I changed the context of my health and lifestyle, didn't just swap out substitutions, what works for me is more about managing the overall impact of my metabolism, hormonal balance (this includes stress + sleep), and my emotional health. When these are in check, then it is less about micro-managing my food ingredients or staving off cravings. And that is really when I have found access to my best health and sustainable body composition.