Moderation Is A Flawed Concept
Updated: Feb 9
I’m sure you all have heard the “everything in moderation” advice regurgitated by all the gurus — and most likely your grandmother.
But just because everyone spouts it off — doesn't’ mean it’s true, or even a helpful use of words. It does appear on the surface to be wise advice because anything extreme is crazy, right? But get this — this entire concept could be the very reason you can’t maintain or lose weight.
Moderation is an interesting idea in theory. The amount of people that think they are somehow superior because they believe they have mastered the art of moderation is astonishing. They believe that everyone that hasn't been able to moderate are just lazy and undisciplined.
Moderating has always been a slippery slope for me. I do well for awhile, but that little bit that was fine in the beginning always turns to excessive amounts. With everything and anything that feels good. I know I am not alone here.
Some humans indeed handle and thrive with more flexibility and variety in their diet— but not all of us can control the intake of hyperpalatable foods, no matter how much freedom we have. This is not a popular concept in the pop fitness and nutrition crowd — who will tell you that abstinence isn’t healthy, you just haven't done moderation right, or you are not desensitized to variety because you have been restricting too long.
But get this, abstinence is mental freedom to those of us who fail at moderation. Life is so much more peaceful when you work with yourself, rather than against.
Can't everyone just learn to control themselves?
That is far too simplistic and ignorant and I suggest you check yourself. Many people find it far easier to give something up altogether than to indulge moderately. There’s no right way or wrong way — you just need to find what works for your brain. If moderators try to abstain, they feel rebellious and usually end up binging. If abstainers attempt to be moderate, they spend an inordinate amount of time rationalizing why and how much they should eat.
Unlike most individuals in the health sphere, I do not see all restriction as being disordered or inherently bad. Believe it or not, I think a lack of restriction inevitably leads to an unhealthy weight and relationship with food in a subset of individuals.
No matter what category you fall in, most all humans have foods with no breaks. Meaning when they start they just can't stop... or it's incredibly difficult to stop. The foods that hit your pleasure centers hard will be completely different from what hits your best friend’s so there is no blanket recommendation. You probably don’t need to do much work here either. I am guessing your brain has already formed a list of unfuckwithable foods.
We all must take our individual physiology, personality, and lifestyle into consideration when we are deciding what moderation means to us and how we are going to define it.
Simply put: Know what you can fuck with.
Remember this — one persons moderation is another person's bender or restrictive diet. It's completely subjective. Moderation becomes an issue when you’re continuously doing something that is negatively impacting your life and you are having negative consequences attempting to moderate.
As for restriction, it only becomes an issue when you view your diet as all or nothing. Or start to isolate yourself due to your dietary restrictions. Or cause nutrient deficiencies and other health problems from excessive restriction. If you experience anxiety around food, that is also a good indication that you are not simply practicing discipline, and it has crossed into disordered territory.
Sidebar for all you fit or nutrition pros reiterating your favorite gurus verbiage: “the research says moderation is healthy", you need to check yourself for a second…
You’re essentially telling people they are somehow a flawed human because they have failed repeatedly at your definition of moderation.
Perspective shift → telling someone to eat unhealthy things in moderation is like telling someone what the best flavor of ice cream is. Okay, sure, that’s your favorite flavor. Stop assuming it is everyone’s favorite. Stop assuming everyone does well with moderation.
It’s an instruction that is vague as fuck and is fundamentally unhelpful.
Abstainers vs. Moderators
I am of the opinion that life would be a lot easier for most humans if they just made a damn decision to not wrestle with the beasts of desire on the daily. Constantly hitting your pleasure threshold and constantly providing substrates (whatever they are) numbs the hedonic threshold, and you inevitably create a hunger to maintain equilibrium.1 You create a desire by engaging in the moderation game. Simply put: by you tasting, you keep those neural circuits firing.2
People can be judgmental assholes on both sides of the fence. As an abstainer, you will get commentary like; “You aren’t being healthy and this is going to lead to an eating disorder. You are being extreme.” On the flip side, there are the abstainers who want to tell moderators, “Your problems are clearly because you want a hot body but aren't willing to give up the idea that moderating isn’t helping you reach your goals.”
With substance addiction it’s much easier to address, because everyone already accepts that abstaining is the only solution. But we have to eat so it isn't as easy to address.All humans use a variety of coping mechanisms, and food is the most utilized substance, because duh, we have to eat — and the social acceptability with the constant push for people to moderate in order not to be othered.
It’s easy to get on a moral high-horse here in either camp. But the truth is somewhere in between. I know my approach isn’t the only one and would feel like a life not worth living for some humans. Everyone must do this cost benefit analysis on their own. If you feel fine playing this game of russian roulette with food, than by all means do so. If you want to limit pleasure from food in your life, than by all means do so. What is the most important here is our own individual relationships with food. If you’re happy doing what you’re doing, my opinion is irrelevant.
Just keep in mind that the entire moderation concept plays a psychological trick on many people that leads to weight gain. In a study conducted on self regulation and the self control threshold theory — it was found that the more you like a food, the bigger your definition of a “moderate” serving size will be.3
To quote the lead author Michelle vanDellen, "The more you like a food, the more of it you think you can eat "in moderation.”
VanDellen doesn’t completely dismiss the concept of moderation; she did express a healthy dose of skepticism about the common backlash of dieting. Since we're not good at estimating portion sizes, or estimating how much we actually eat, she said following explicit guidelines may actually help if a person wants to continue eating "in moderation." Which is essentially a form of restriction.
There have been other studies on the idea of moderation and weight gain in certain individuals. There was a 2015 study with nearly 7,000 humans that found that food variety is linked to weight gain.4 It lead to an average 120% increase in waist circumference after five years. On the other hand those whom restricted themselves to mostly healthy foods had the best outcomes. This simply doesn’t support the everything in moderation concept for diet adherence or quality.
Addiction & Food
Is food addiction even a thing?
Addiction defined by the American Society of Addiction Medicine:5
Addiction is a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry. Dysfunction in these circuits leads to characteristic biological, psychological, social and spiritual manifestations. This is reflected in an individual pathologically pursuing reward and/or relief by substance use and other behaviors.
Addiction is characterized by inability to consistently abstain, impairment in behavioral control, craving, diminished recognition of significant problems with one’s behaviors and interpersonal relationships, and a dysfunctional emotional response. Like other chronic diseases, addiction often involves cycles of relapse and remission. Without treatment or engagement in recovery activities, addiction is progressive and can result in disability or premature death.
Using this definition, you bet your ass you can be addicted to foods. Food addiction is similar to any other eating disorder in that it can cause us to have an unhealthy relationship with certain foods. Obese and overweight humans clearly display patterns of eating behavior that resemble the ways in which addicted individuals use drugs.6
There are two ways a food addiction can manifest:
Hitting your reward pathways hard, commonly through being a hyperpalatable combo of sugar, fat, and salt.7,8
Manifesting as a behavioral addiction, such as overeating on monotonous foods.
I’m sure you have all came across the idea that no one is addicted to sugar because no one eats sugar out of the bag. Bullshit. I have had clients do this very thing. I’ve also had clients binge on spray oils. Sounds insane to someone who has never struggled here, but I can assure you it isn’t as rare as many of you fit-pros preach. Anything — including the behavior of overeating uncommon foods — can become a source of addiction.9
It’s rarely about the substance of abuse. It has little to do with the taste or feel once the addiction has progressed and has more to do with acting out the compulsion. Addiction is a compulsion to act out something that negatively impacts your life. I do agree as a collective — it is more of an issue with hyperpalatable foods for most people. But I am not blind to the fact that there are people struggling with behavioral addiction.
While the fitness world is debating the validity of food addiction, studies have continued to show that alterations in food composition changes the behavioral response to consumption, in part due to sensory perception (flavor enhancers, sugars, sugar substitutes).9 On another note — in a subset of susceptible humans, high glycemic carbohydrates trigger addition-like neurochemical responses that mimic drug seeking behaviors.10
Which brings us all to the question:
So why do some of us become addicted and others don’t?
This is a layered issue, and the etiology of this will be different for each person struggling. Genetics, environment, lifestyle, and experiences usually factor in here. We are all damaged humans — addiction for anyone is really just trying to escape the pain of your life. If negative consequences stopped addiction there would be no addicts. Getting over-fat and the being diagnosed with disease states isn’t going to be enough.
For the individuals that moderation has failed — the best way to achieve true moderation is to undo the conditioning where you think you want to moderate.
I'll break that down for you — key here is that the road to moderation isn’t seeking moderation through sheer force; it’s when you step outside of the control game and step into the take it or leave it game. You take a break from the addictive behaviors to establish a true take it or leave it mentality. Then when you add things back in you can see if you can control the exposure to these foods that didn't work for you before. You will no longer have the compulsions, so you can assess the situation a little better.
Researchers at Yale University's Rudd Center for Food Science & Policy have a questionnaire to identify people with food addictions. Keep in mind that we all do some of this on occasion and addiction is defined as something that is repeatedly bringing negative consequences to the point of altering life quality.
End up eating more than intended when you start eating?
Continue eating more than planned when eating certain foods?
Eat to the point of feeling sick, or stomach discomfort often?
Have anxiety when eating certain foods, or worry about not being able to eat them?
Go out of your way to obtain certain foods when they aren’t available, even if it’s illogical?
Eat certain foods in large quantities so often that you miss out on working, spending time with family, or doing recreational activities?
Avoid professional or social events where certain foods are available due to the fear of overeating?
Have a problem staying on task due to your obsession about food and eating?
The questionnaire also addresses the psychological withdrawal symptoms. For example, when you cut down on certain foods, do you have symptoms such as:
Food Reward Simplified
Certain individuals do indeed have exaggerated dopaminergic and endorphin
responses to hyperpalatable foods, or the completion of addictive behaviors.11–13
Now, there are many things at play with food reward, but the two systems that I see as most important are our dopaminergic system and our endogenous opioid system. The melanocortin system is intertwined, playing a pivotal role in altering signalling in our dopaminergic system and driving addictive behaviors,14,15 but I will leave that one for a seperate time.
A little background here. Let's start with dopamine. Dopamine is made from an amino acid called tyrosine after being converted to L-Dopa. It’s one of the catecholamines, along with adrenaline and noradrenaline, which you can think of as fight or flight neurochemicals.16
We generally get the substrates to make dopamine from protein-containing foods, bananas, dark chocolate, and almonds. There are numerous dopaminergic pathways in our brain and is known to be the key driving factor in our motivation and reward seeking behaviors.17
Dopamine is the very reason people will drive to the store and buy a box of donuts to binge on the entire thing, when they have vowed never to do so again… But get this: It isn’t the follow-through that gets us that hit of dopamine we are seeking. Anticipation of reward gives us just as much satisfaction.18 This is something to keep in mind when redirecting behaviors. You don’t need to follow through with the behavior to get your favorite neurochemical hit.
An example of this would be when you’re having a strong craving for wine. You’re anxious as fuck on the way to the restaurant — but once you get there and order a glass, it’s like all the anxiety has been lifted. What is this sorcery? You haven't even drank it yet — so it’s not the alcohol impacting your physiology. Simply ordering the wine and anticipating the drink gave you a hit of dopamine. Pretty amazing, right?
This is a common misconception about dopamine. It isn’t a reward chemical so much as it is a motivation chemical.19 You want to feel the highs of dopamine? Then keep setting goals that you need to work towards, even if there is no clear-cut reward to accomplishing those goals. Dopamine is what encourages us to act — it is released in order to achieve a goal.19 When you order the wine, you feel accomplished — the wine itself is irrelevant.
Procrastination, self doubt, and loss of zest for life are all linked to low levels of dopamine. Some of us are genetically wired up to have altered dopaminergic response to stimuli for various reasons. I wont get into the complexities in this article and will keep it fairly simple here. Maybe at a later time I will address this topic in depth.
I have a special interest in this due to my own wiring. I have a set of genetic polymorphisms that contribute to me not clearing catecholamines and neurotransmitters well. This makes rigidity, intellectual tasks, obsessions, personal growth, and habit formation easy for me.20–22 Directed well, it can be an asset. Directed poorly, it can break me. It broke me more times than not when I was younger. But the application of knowledge is power, and awareness is the key to transformation.
—My wiring makes me unable to moderate many foods without lowering the quality of my life due to developing addictive-like behaviors. Many people with this wiring tend to realize they can’t moderate, but swing the pendulum too far in the other direction and develop eating disorders like anorexia. The rigidity of the brain makes this swing incredibly easy. It’s just establishing restriction habits, rather than binging habits. A question I often have is did their attempt at moderate consumption of hperpalatable foods trigger binges which inevitably lead to restriction to compensate? Done enough, the over learning of restriction rather than the binging, could have occurred. I mean they have the wiring that makes habit formation easy and the rigidity to accomplish this. I'm not attempting to deduce eating disorders here as they are multi-factorial.
Food is consumed for far more than just to maintain energy balance. Palatable food is also sought after due to our hedonistic tendencies. We seem to have the entire calories in, calories out (CICO) idea down — but our understanding as a whole is seriously lacking when it comes to hedonic systems and how they influence our eating behaviors. In biomedical research, it is logically speculated that hyperpalatable foods can dysregulate the brain’s food reward system via dopamine making them addictive,8 yet you are looked at as if you have two heads, when you suggest weight loss is more complicated than just controlling your energy balance.
Once people have experienced the pleasure associated with that hit of dopamine in relation to a food, they quickly feel the need to engage in the behavior again to get another hit. This is how we learn behaviors that push evolution forward. Engage this neuroadaptive process enough times, and you will develop addictive-like behaviors predictively . Genetic vulnerabilities in the brain's reward system increases predisposition to drug addictions and obesity, which means that drug addiction and obesity could share similar hedonic mechanisms.23
So does this mean you’re fucked if you were lucky enough to get these genes? Nope. The fall out from entire thing can be mitigated by not consuming drugs and hyperpalatable foods. Important to note here: moderation triggers a continued dopamine response that is associated with these hyperpalatable foods. It is indeed playing with fire for those whom who have this genetic tendency. Eventually, the stimuli will mean nothing if you do not engage. Our nervous system is set up to stop noticing and distributing energy to stimuli if you don’t continuously utilize it. By tasting you keep those neural circuits firing.
Practitioners: So a way to sidestep this entire thing and avoid the dopamine hangover when your clients goal is reached, is by setting new goals before they have achieved the current one. That ensures a continual flow of dopamine.
Now we will dig into the endorphin piece to this puzzle. Endorphins are our onboard “feel pure bliss” chemicals when we experience pain, stress or intense fear.24 They are created in the pituitary gland, brain, and various parts of the nervous system.25
There are over 20 types of endorphins that act on the parts of the brain responsible for emotion and pain. Our limbic system (emotional powerhouse) is heavily concentrated with opioid receptors. If your endogenous opioids are working well, you feel a sense of completion, pleasure, and satisfaction with your food intake.25,26 Those of us who have issues in our endorphin system just can never seem to get enough of anything.27 Binge eating disorder, ADHD, and OCD are common in these individuals.28–30
A natural way to boost these babies is by exercise. That runners high that runners love is caused by the release of β-endorphins. There have been multiple studies showing that exercise can be used as a mechanism to treat anxiety, bulimia, and addiction.31–33 While this is an extremely myopic view, as all of these disease states are multifactorial, it does give us a piece to this puzzle.
There are many other benefits of exercise than just working out to get the body of your dreams. I personally do not cognitively function well if I do not include exercise daily. I am well aware that anything can become a source of addiction, and that those wired up to become addicted to anything that hits their pleasure centers hard (like me) can indeed become addicted to the gym, or their running shoes. But remember how we defined addiction earlier: something that negatively impacts your life. A healthy habit is defined repeated behavior that doesn’t influence your quality of life in a negative way. Everything is a cost-benefit analysis and only you can do that inventory for yourself.
As I have dug into the reasons why for everything, I have transformed my relationship with food to one that no longer causes me anguish. I can’t fuck with certain foods and substances because I am not wired up to. There was a sense of why me in the beginning for sure. But guess what? That same set of genetics makes me a bad ass at pretty much anything I attempt, because I obsess until I get it just right. Everything in life is a double edge. Meaning everything that has a benefit also has a cost. There is no way you’re going to change your ability to moderate an addictive food or substance with your set of genetics, so why not just focus on the positives?
Practitioners: Contrave is a brand name drug that is believed to alter the reward centers of the brain. It is a combination of Bupropion and Naltrexone. Bupropion is an inhibitor of the neuronal reuptake of dopamine and norepinephrine. Naltrexone is an opioid antagonist. Research on CNS pathways that regulate food intake and body weight has identified the hypothalamic melanocortin system and the mesolimbic reward system. These systems are the target of this combination. This can be a complete game changer in someone with the genetic predisposition to have a problems in their reward circuitry and a heightened hedonic threshold.33,34
To show an example of how intertwined addiction is to overeating, it has been shown that bariatric surgery patients often develop cross addictions. Common cross addictions were noted as alcohol, gambling, shopping, exercise, anorectic/binging behaviors, cigarette smoking, and hyper sexuality.35
All eating disorders are a result of multifactorial influences. Culture, biology, experience, and personality, all play in. Understanding this will help us to assess how and why people develop eating disorders, why people stay entrenched in these rigid irrational habitual patterns, and how they can recover.
How we choose foods determines our outcome
Palitibility. We all like delicious food. Focusing on the palatability of foods is nice in theory, but unfortunately this is the exact reason so many people struggle to maintain a normal healthy weight.
There are many humans that have a brain that lights up like a Christmas tree when they are exposed to hyperpalatable foods and they can not control their intake. They promise themselves a little bit every day and their entire diet starts looking like an unsupervised child in a candy store.
Reducing palatability and not choosing foods based on taste has its benefits — such as not overeating simply because it’s fucking delicious and a mouth orgasm that you don’t want to stop. Now I am not saying you need to eat boiled potatoes and bland chicken; I am just saying be mindful of your habitual patterns when you're choosing foods. Do you choose foods based only on palatability? That’s the question to ask yourself.
We are hedonic by nature. Are you willing to let that hedonism direct your success in your diet? I’m not.
Price. Do you choose your foods by how much they cost exclusively? Always buying the cheaper option? You know the 10 for $10 boxes of Hostess at your local Walmart. Definitely a better deal than buying one box at a time, at least long term. But really what are the chances of you eating more than you would otherwise if you have an unlimited supply?
Another component of choosing food by price is saying healthy foods are too expensive, which would be an entire different article, if I wanted to go into detail on how this logic is flawed. If you broke it down protein and the bulk aisles will always be cheaper than pre-packaged gimmicky foods.
Our brains really want delicious cheap food, so they will use confirmation bias any way they can, always searching for reasons your logic is solid.
Take away here is food is meant to be enjoyed — but it also does a job. Be mindful of the reasons you choose foods.
What to do if you have decided you don’t want to play the game anymore.
Knowledge renders beliefs obsolete.
Releasing The Illusion Of Control
I dig pointing out cognitive distortions and fallacies. We all have them, so step off your moral high horse and join me in observing with curiosity. I find it a good practice to get into pointing them out in myself and others. What we put attention on, we can change. So focusing on them helps to modify my sticking points and notice thought patterns in others and where they get caught in their cognitive loops.
The illusion of control is a lovely cognitive bias which translates into us assuming that we have control over an outcome, when we don’t.
Sounds fairly simple right? It's not.
This often shows up in our relationship with food. For example you may think that the bowl of cereal you have after your workout is a good idea because your intentions are to have a specific amount. We make this choice knowing that we overeat the cereal more times than not.
We then tend to blame this shit on ourselves — when in reality if you didn’t have the cereal there it would be an non issue. You don’t have complete control in this situation. You do have control over what goes in your mouth, but you don’t have control over your environment now that you now have stocked with enough cereal to feed half of the starving children in Africa.
In the Illusion of Control, a paper published the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,36 Ellen Langer argued that we are all prone to overestimating our part in successes and we underestimate our part in our failures. We completely and utterly ignore the role of chance.
Langer has said that how readily you ignore the effect of chance depends on certain conditions being met.
“This illusion of control may be induced by introducing competition, choice, stimulus or response familiarity, or passive or active involvement into a chance situation. When these factors are present, people are more confident and are more likely to take a risk.”
There have been multiple researcher after Langer that have corroborated this positive illusion across a number of experimental setups.37–40
Think about the last time you bought one of your unfuckwithable foods. You told yourself you had control over the situation. Your brain made rationalizations. You brought the food to your house with clear guidelines of your new control plan. We all know how that turned out...
The illusion of control in this scenario lead to you blaming yourself when things don’t turn out how you planned. You retrospectively look at things, asking yourself where you went wrong.
Why did I eat that much?
Why didn’t I just stop?
What is wrong with me?
Am I going to be able to work this off in the gym?
This entire narrative is stressful as fuck and can lead you to misjudge the actual cause of your failure. You erroneously conclude that you just need to learn to moderate that shit better — never realizing that if you keep the enemy out of the house you will never fall into this cognitive trap of believing you have more control than you do.
Not everything is within our control. There are multiple variables that will push our ability to control our intake. Hormones, stress, physiological imbalances, cognitive distortions, entitlement, etc.
Believing that you indeed have control over foods that hit your pleasure centers hard is a serious handicap in the dieting or weight maintenance game. The magic here is learning to notice the illusion of control and focus efforts on areas that are within your control.
We all know humans that trend towards the need for absolute control of everyone and everything they come into contact with. They need things to be just… so… They flip their fucking lid when circumstances change. Releasing control and letting go just isn’t in their makeup. These individuals are the ones who are in the illusion of control grip hard core. They grasp on to this illusion to give their ego the security and safety it craves. If you identify here, extra focus should be placed on this cognitive loop if you aren't reaching your goals.
Being mentally healthy is characterized by the ability to be flexible in thoughts, responses, and behaviors. When you need to have control, you relinquish cognitive flexibility.
Control in our lives and diet is often illusionary. This translates into your thoughts that you have control over your ability to moderate a food that is in your environment continuously. Inflexibility in your thoughts and emotions around being deprived may indeed be making it harder on yourself — by attempting to control the uncontrollable — you enable the human drive to gain more fat in preparation for a famine to flourish.
Flexibility also translates into knowing that we can’t control our environment 100% of the time in the real world — therefore mitigating slips in our most common environment, at home, should be our primary focal point.
Moderation makes you continuously have to make decisions all day, every day. Every decision requires some amount of willpower (I use that term lightly and I will explain later). And willpower is finite, unfortunately.
Decision fatigue is basically the deteriorating quality of decisions made by an individual after a long session of decision making. Simply put, the more decisions you make through the day, the worse you are at weighing the cost vs. benefit, and making an educated logical decision is less likely.
Example: In one study researchers looked at over 1,100 ruling from judges across the US. Legal formalism has been believed to be regarded as a job that sticks to the facts of the cases in rational, mechanical, and completely methodological. On the other side of the fence, legal realists argue the idea that judges are human and open to error, via psychology, political ideals, and social conditioning.41 What they concluded is that the most influential factor in whether or not someone was granted parole wasn’t their crime, background, or sentences. It was ridiculously most influenced by the time of day their case was heard!
“Prisoners who appeared early in the morning received parole about 70 percent of the time, while those who appeared late in the day were paroled less than 10 percent of the time.”
No matter how much of a boss you think you are when navigating temptations, no matter how rational and sensible you think you are — you are under a false belief if you think you can make decision after decision without paying a mental price. These mental prices you pay, translate into physical prices when you are constantly failing at moderating due to decision fatigue. They are less visible because at least when you kick your own ass at the gym you can clearly feel how fatigued you are and rest your body. But mental fatigue is an entire different ball game, you don’t notice the fatigue and blame yourself for not having enough willpower.
After a long day dealing with life — we are just tired and burnt the fuck out. Just give us whatever. Cookies that are in the cupboard for dinner. Sure. Less work and we can always run extra tomorrow.
Weird... I just wrote your narrative didn’t I?
There have been plenty of studies that study the phenomena of decision and ego fatigue in dieters as well.37,41–43
The theory of willpower and ego depletion have been recreated in many studies testing impaired self-control tasks and ego depletion. Although there has been some controversy with past reports on this phenomenon,44,45 the most recent meta-analysis confirmed that ego depletion does exist to varying extents depending on the type of task draining willpower.46 The gist here is that a human’s self control does indeed lapse. This is undeniable. We just can’t accurately pinpoint the causal factor and just have theories on what's going on and when it will occur. This isn’t a novel idea, yet the fitness industry has lead everyone to believe that everyone that can’t moderate, just isn’t doing it right.
Always making decisions on what foods to eat how much all day leads to to ending up in the chip aisle grabbing a family size bag of Doritos for dinner.47 We’ve all been there and this is exactly why it is well known that you don’t go shopping hungry or tired.
The way around this trap is having less variety in your daily diet, meaning you know what foods you eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner with slight variations. If you don’t like to stick to the same foods and variety is the spice to your life, place your decisions about food in the beginning of your day.48 Plan out what you will eat to fill your calorie requirements/goals for the day. Remember though, if you keep battling this within yourself, maybe you need to address your thoughts around needing variety if it isn’t working for you. Cognitive dissonance is a bitch and variety does indeed exacerbate this. I personally don’t fuck with it. I save my variety for isolated events and don’t do it on the daily.
Reframe: This isn’t that you can’t eat whatever you want, or can’t keep hyper-palatable foods in the house — you are choosing not to. Dieters who repeatedly feel restrained who had a choice in what to eat, ate more than restrained dieters who did not have a choice.41,42,49
Cognitive Dissonance Mislabeled As Willpower
Cognitive Dissonance: Cognitive — how you think. Dissonance — disagreement. Simply put it is the state of having inconsistent thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes, especially as relating to behavioral decisions and attitude change.
Cognitive dissonance happens when a subconscious belief disagrees with a conscious thought. Part of you enjoys the freedom of eating and drinking whatever the fuck you want. The other part of you knows that it is literally killing you. You aren't able to control this beast and you do want to be healthy and achieve your health goals. Two different thoughts here. But both are true and I belive you do indeed desire both.
You aren't a hypocrite. You aren't broken. You are human. This is a normal cognitive distortion.
Where there is pain, there is life. In the midst of tremendous pain and suffering when dealing with this shit, there’s an opportunity to find meaning, purpose, and vitality in our human experience.
The key to kicking any detrimental habit long term is the reconciliation of any residual opposing beliefs between your conscious and unconscious minds. Bringing your brain to concurrently have the desire to achieve your goals and reframe the false belief that you are somehow a broken human or missing out.
Once we allow these truths to really sink in and shift, there is no going back. While we are learning about these things, our brains are busy re-patterning our conditioning — we realize that our old beliefs about moderation are no longer serving us, and so we replace them with what we know to be true as we gather more data. This right here is what will set you free my friends. Of course there will be bumps along the way, but it does get easier and easier as time goes. Practice makes almost perfect.
True zen in your relationship with food, only comes when it is authentic and easy. Not white knuckled. Not forced. This cannot be maintained via deprivation, willpower, or checking out of life.
Quite the contrary. It’s simply about learning your truth and reprogramming your mind so that you don’t even want the unfuckwithable foods. Freedom comes when the desire is absent. When you don’t need to justify or convince yourself that you need to moderate. True freedom is when turning down that pizza that will spark the inevitable binge that happens every damn time. True freedom comes when turning down your unfuckwithable foods becomes an act of self love, and empowerment; rather than deprivation, and disappointment.
Our brain doesn't like conflict because it is perceived as pain. Remember, we are wired up to seek pleasure and avoid pain.
So our brain, in an effort to stop this mental pain, does the following to deal with cognitive dissonance:
Changes our behavior to one that is more congruent with our subconscious beliefs.
Justifies and rationalizes our behavior.
Adds another behavior to rectify damage caused by detrimental habits.
Deludes ourselves by denial or lies about our behaviors.
An example here: Say Mary binges on cookies. She does so to stop the pain caused by her asshole boss tearing her down. She told herself she deserved them. This binge causes cognitive dissonance because for Mary — she promised herself not to binge on cookies anymore — because of her diabetes. The more cognitive dissonance she experiences the more mental pain she is in. This pushes her to pull the ice cream out of the freezer to numb the pain. A vicious cycle. It is usually compounded with over exercise or starvation the next day in another effort to rectify the damage caused, to bring an internal sense of harmony that our brain is always seeking.
We attempt to reduce this noise by promising to work it off later at the gym all in an attempt to balance the inner conflict. Justification is also a way to reduce this noise. I can have this because I want it. I wasn’t meant to be thin etc. It is all an attempt for our brains to create harmony and get out of the pain of cognitive dissonance.
I realize I’m making this sound simplistic. It’s not. It’s hard as fuck to rewire our brains and recondition them.
You need to come to the point that you realize that cupcake isn’t worth your life and ultimate happiness. This will take time. And lots of mistakes will be made.
Now what is willpower and how does it differ?
Willpower defined: control exerted to do something or restrain impulses.
The beauty of rectifying the cognitive dissonance is we don’t need to exert energy to avoid foods that don’t work for us. As we discussed earlier, this is a failing concept as ego depletion is real for many humans.50 Ego depletion is completely based on our beliefs about willpower being a limited resource.51 Our beliefs shape our reality and this is why it is so important to get your cognitive dissonance under control.
Get your conscious and subconscious mind on the same page and this is where you lose the never winning battle of willpower. You get what you want without effort.
Energy runs out so it’s best not to put all our stock here. We need to resolve the inner conflict to succeed long term.
Now how do we apply this new information?
Subconscious beliefs aren’t always true. We form them through conditioning as a child and we generally don’t question them. They are our gut feelings. Our convictions. Our intuition. Where desires originate.
Awareness is the magic sauce. Shine a light on your beliefs and we can get to work. Subconscious thoughts stay hidden until you are ready and want to question your beliefs. I can’t do this for you. No one can do this for you.
My favorite method to weed through this is by using liminal thinking. Here is the book I use for this method. Liminal thinking is a phenomenal tool to uncondition and reprogram our minds and it is an essential ingredient to gaining freedom from unhelpful patterns.
Once you dig into the beliefs and realize they aren’t true, you begin to clear out the cognitive dissonance around them, because now you have a new awareness and knowing that allows you to see through to the truth of the matter. I will link an excerpt from the book on disputing beliefs below:
Nine practices to help you minimize reality distortion, envision possibilities, and create positive change:
Assume that you are not objective. If you’re part of the system you want to change, you’re part of the problem.
Empty your cup. You can’t learn new things without letting go of old things. Stop, look, and listen. Suspend judgment. What’s going on?
Create safe space. If you don’t understand the underlying need, nothing else matters. People will not share their innermost needs unless they feel safe, respected, and accepted for who they are.
Triangulate and validate. Look at situations from as many points of view as possible. Consider the possibility that seemingly different or contradictory beliefs may be valid. If something doesn’t make sense to you, then you’re missing something.
Ask questions, make connections. Try to understand people’s hopes, dreams and frustrations. Explore the social system and make connections to create new opportunities.
Disrupt routines. Many beliefs are embedded in habitual routines that run on autopilot. If a routine is a problem, disrupt the routine to create new possibilities.
Act as-if in the here-and-now. You can test beliefs even if you don’t believe they are true. All you need to do is act as if they were true and see what happens. If you find something that works, do more of it.
Make sense with stories. If you give people facts without a story, they will explain it within their existing belief system. The best way to promote a new or different belief is not with facts, but with a story.
Evolve yourself. If you can be open about how change affects you personally, you have a better chance of achieving your aims. To change the world, you must be willing to change yourself.
These practices are based on six principles which constitute a theory of beliefs.
These six principles constitute a theory of beliefs: how they come into being, why they are necessary, how they are reinforced over time, and why people cling to their beliefs, even when they are incomplete, obsolete, or invalid. They are beliefs about beliefs.
Beliefs are models. Beliefs seem like perfect representations of the world, but in fact they are imperfect models for navigating a complex, multidimensional, unknowable reality.
Beliefs are created. Beliefs are constructed hierarchically, using theories and judgments, which are based on selected facts and personal, subjective experiences.
Beliefs create a shared world. Beliefs are the psychological material we use to co-create a shared world, so we can live, work, and do things together. Changing a shared world requires changing its underlying beliefs.
Beliefs create blind spots. Beliefs are tools for thinking and provide rules for action, but they can also create artificial constraints that blind you to valid possibilities.
Beliefs defend themselves. Beliefs are unconsciously defended by a bubble of self-sealing logic, which maintains them even when they are invalid, to protect personal identity and self-worth.
Beliefs are tied to identity. Governing beliefs, which form the basis for other beliefs, are the most difficult to change, because they are tied to personal identity and feelings of self-worth. You can’t change your governing beliefs without changing yourself.
Dieting and cognitive dissonance: once you decided not to moderate and to abstain from your unfuckwithable foods, there is no internal thermal conflict.
This is why some people have such an easy time with diets and others don’t. Some have made firm decisions and others haven’t.
Stuck Not Broken
"What you feed your mind determines your appetite." ~Tom Ziglar
If moderation hasn't worked for you — stop reprimanding yourself, and find a different method.
As our behavior becomes increasingly driven by the synthesis of unhelpful thoughts, or attempts to avoid painful experiences in our own minds — inevitably our values get lost, neglected, or forgotten.
If we’re not clear about our values or not in psychological contact with them, then we can’t use them as an effective guide for our actions.
Our beliefs are always taking us somewhere even if we want to deny our responsibility in certain situations.52 We like to place blame and deny responsibility for our thoughts.
Your beliefs determine the foods you eat, the friends you have, the goals you set, the environments you’re comfortable in, and how you behave on the daily my friends.
One of my favorite false beliefs is — if I just taste a little of this, and a little of that, my desire will go away.
You know be moderate in all things. Like grandma said.
Thing is I’m an all or nothing kind of girl. Always have been, always will be — and this rhetoric lights my brain up like a mofo. My brain sees it as an opportunity to go cray. I know I’m not the only one wired up this way due to dealing with numerous clients that describe this scenario verbatim.
I’m always saying know thyself and here is why — this false belief is how my little hedonic lizard bitch brain traps me 90% of the time. It never fairs well for me and the outcome is never different — no matter how I approach it, or what beautiful construct I form to navigate potential issues.
There are many reasons for our false beliefs around food. They can lead to desirable outcomes like healthy weight maintenance due to an idea that carbs make you fat (false) or undesirable outcomes that lead to detrimental outcomes, such as we all must moderate all foods (false).
If you aren’t willing to entertain that you’re wrong, you won’t be able to change your outcome. Again this article is for those who are not getting the results they want by regurgitating the everything in moderation mantra.
Understanding and identifying these false beliefs are the key to changing your outcome, and here is how we do it:
Question beliefs and identity faulty logic.
Expose yourself to alternative viewpoints and observations about your behaviors.
Don’t let your ego maintain the need to be right about everything.
Decide what is worth it. What is worth your energy. We can only address one thing at a time.
Without the shift in your perspective it is difficult to change a faulty belief. When you’re in the trap of a faulty logic it appears so true that we can’t even fathom the idea we are wrong. Our brains are wired up for confirmation bias. Alex’s favorite analogy to use is the person who thinks the earth is flat, they genuinely believe this as a true fact, despite all the evidence to the contrary. The only way to shift this faulty belief is to shift their perspective.
A belief paradigm is akin to a dream. When you’re in a dream it seems real as fuck. You are under the illusion that what is happening in the dream is genuinely occuring in real time. You know when you’re running from that tyrannosaurus rex, crippled with fear for your life.
Alas when you wake you begin to look at the dream through the perspective of it was just a dream, with nothing to fear. Changing the way you are perceiving things immediately changes your belief that your in real danger. The dream no longer has power over your emotional responses. This type of shift is the magic sauce.
Another example to really hit this home for you: there have been many humans that have had near death experiences and walked away with an absence of the fear of dying, then there are those who develop PTSD.53 The only difference here is perspective my friends.
Just because you’ve experienced trauma doesn’t mean your traumatized.
Changing our core beliefs is relatively easy in theory. You simply stop believing outdated shit that is no longer serving you. It takes little effort to believe in something but here lies the catch my friends — it takes concentrated effort and self introspection to develop awareness to identify the faulty rationale your clinging to.
Reframing Our Faulty Beliefs.
You feel as if you cannot control your compulsion to shove that tenth piece of fudge in your mouth — although it may be uncomfortable to feel the strong desire to have another piece of fudge, you will not parish nor combust if you don’t follow through. Promise.
If I just taste a little my desire will go away — you will keep the desire active by engaging the reward centers, our nervous system eventually stops noticing stimuli if you don’t give in.
Just one glass of wine isn’t that harmful. Just have a little, moderation is healthy — normal is an illusion, for many trying to moderate an addictive substance, or a food that changes our intentions, or any food that shifts behavior patterns negatively, isn’t worth all the mental anguish it causes.
I am a bad person, or there is some physiological need for this craving — we all have desires for immediate gratification and to feel good. Those who appear to have it all together don’t, they just have mastered delaying gratification most of the time. Remember we can’t control every little thought that goes through our heads. However, we can absolutely control our choices to act out the compulsion. Eventually as you stop acting out these compulsions they do fade away. If you don’t use it, you lose it.
I eat until I am so uncomfortable, and shove everything in my mouth because I enjoy it — our brains are wired to seek pleasure and avoid pain. You do not need anything in that quantity.
Changing your awareness of one belief — such as all humans need to moderate all foods — affects the entire system of reactions and your entire relationship with food.51 A new perspective allows you to have that life shattering epiphany of awareness that changes the way your life plays out.
Awareness is cultivated through mindfulness of our beliefs and responses. Mindfulness means paying attention with flexibility, openness, and curiosity.
I am going to include a method I use with my clients below:48,54–56
ACT : Acceptance and commitment therapy is a form of counseling and a branch of clinical behavior analysis. It is an empirically-based psychological intervention that uses acceptance and mindfulness strategies mixed in different ways with commitment and behavior-change strategies, to increase psychological flexibility.
A = Accept your thoughts and feelings and be mindful.
C = Choose a valued direction.
T = Take action.
Release the illusion of control we talked about earlier. Being obsessive, worrying and ruminating on events keeps you stuck. Asking yourself why for everything can make you feel helpless. Acceptance of reality is the only way to move forward with what you have. All the rest is delusional and illogical.
Ways to apply this.
Accept that feelings and thoughts are fleeting and don’t need immediate action from you.
Know your flaws but also know your strengths.
Give yourself the space to be imperfect and the permission to not know everything.
Acknowledge that there is difficulty in everyone's life. You don’t need to escape or avoid it.
Realize that the only thing you truly control is how you react and think. You will never be able to control another human.
Choose Valued Direction
Values in this context are defined as the qualities that we choose to work towards in any given moment. We all hold values, consciously or unconsciously, that direct our behaviors.
Common core values are as followed:
Make a list and rate the importance of each value on a scale of 0-2, zero being completely unimportant two being very important to you.
Take action is where you design a turn around.
Write down your plan. Dispute why the opposite of your long held belief may be true. Then assess how your values play in and what you plan to do to change.
Go back to any value rated as a 1 or 2 on the importance scale and write down your intentions for the foreseeable future.
Paper and pen here helps solidify this shit in your brain. Write down what you want to achieve, maintain, or improve upon. These aren’t goals that you check off and have closure. They are open ended and how you want to approach your life on the daily. Everything will be filtered through these lenses.
This exercise helps you to clarify what is important. What you prioritize. This practice helps to facilitate who you want to become.
Book Recommendations to help with the application of this method:
Worksheets can be printed FROM HERE.
App can be found HERE.
Our unconscious mind controls desires and emotions — it runs habits and behaviors so routine actions and thus don’t use willpower to control. It’s a better long term success strategy to change our core philosophies and beliefs than to attribute your fuck ups as lack of some magical thing called willpower.
Wrapping It Up & Some Real Talk
One reason people have a hard time changing is because they focus on what they have to give up instead of what they have to gain. The more you know the less you fear.
You really have to ask yourself is moderation worth it to you? Is it worth making a million decisions and taking the chance of slipping when you are fatigued. If you decide to abstain you decide not to expend mental energy on it. Mental energy you can spend elsewhere.
Firm decisions are power. They can change the trajectory of your life and whether or not you reach your goals.
If a food doesn’t work for you at all, don’t try to learn moderation with it. No you don’t have to accept being fat so you can fit into societies box of moderation in all things. Some of us just can’t be lean and moderate. You aren't broken. You are human. You are designed to survive better than most. This means you’re built strong. See what reframing does.
Wanting to be sexy as fuck is biological. You don’t have an eating disorder because you want to appeal to the opposite sex. It is normal and I would argue there is a serious flaw in your logic if you think this is an eating disorder for people to restrict in order to get the body that enables them to seek out a high sexual market value partner.
Us abstainers are constantly being pressured to conform at our own detriment. A common theme to gatherings with friends goes like this — “Just have a little, moderation is healthy.” Now our friends and family aren’t intentionally sabotaging us — well most aren’t anyways. They just don’t understand because they have chose to moderate, or are struggling with their own lizard bitch brain and your highlighting their flaws.
I’m a firm believer in educating our friends and family on differing perspectives and our personality differences. Simply stating to your favorite food pusher, that not everyone is the same and some can’t moderate certain things, is enough most of the time.
If you have that relentless individual that seems to not take no for an answer — it’s best to distance yourself and let them work out their own demons. We can’t make anyone ‘see’ anything unfortunately.
When a food causes you physical pain (headache, tummy ache, bloating, stuffy nose, achy joints, breakouts, bleeding gums, etc.) or makes you feel otherwise crappy (anxious, tired or have insomnia), these foods are doing damage.
They are hurting you, and they have to go.
Even if you love the taste or freedom that comes with not avoiding or restricting certain foods — it’s hard to be truly happy when you don’t feel well, when your hormones and neurotransmitters are off, or when you’re not reaching your goals — sometimes those foods are part of the reason.
Take the time to think about the foods you really love and see what type of relationship you need to have with them in order to be happy.
Be honest and honor yourself.
The bottom line is you need to do the work. If you want a meal plan and want a coach, but don’t do any of the fucking work to undo all of this conditioning, you will rebound every time.
My last note here. Mistakes will happen. They are part of the process and nothing to be feared. Failures teach us that after falling apart, we need to build ourselves again to grow. If you decide that you want to eat the foods that have proven to you don’t work well with you, accept and honor your choice, and move on. Don’t waste a second beating your pretty little mind up for a momentary choice that didn’t support your higher goals.
Check yourself. Breathe. Restart immediately.
This is not about deprivation, willpower, or missing out. It’s simply about learning your truth. What works for you. Eliminating things standing in your way.
Know thyself first.
Create a plan where your working with yourself — instead of trying to live a worn out mantra like, "everything in moderation" that inevitably sabotages your self confidence while making you feel like a failure.
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