To Eat or Not to Eat: The power of choice. A Question of Self-Deprivation vs Self-Empowerment

One of the first things you learn about personal accountability is that it all comes down to being able to tell the difference between have to and choose to.

Of course, we choose to engage in whatever things we like to do in our leisure time; things like read or watch TV or play golf or skydive. And yet beyond that, most of the things that make up our daily lives are also things we choose to do, even if we find these things to be not much fun. For instance, some of us choose to mow the lawn, because we like the consequence of having our homes look well-maintained. We choose to take out the garbage to avoid the consequence of trash piling up in the kitchen. While it is true that we have to eat to survive, we choose what to eat. We choose to work, pay taxes, or commute to a job because we choose to support a certain lifestyle, even if we (at times) feel irritation toward some aspects of these choices. Put succinctly, while we have to do the things necessary for our literal survival, we get to choose to do these things the way that we see fit. (Yes, we could even jump into the philosophical rabbit hole that says that taking steps to insure survival is kind of a choice as well, but that sort of meandering is well beyond my point.)

And what is my point? My point is that owning the fact that it is our choice to do even the things that we do not particularly like to do (like walking the dog on a cold night) makes us feel self-empowered, rather than forced to do these things. We take certain actions by choice to make our lives function. Pretending that these things are not choices leaves us feeling less powerful, and possibly even pissed-off. People who feel less powerful often feel like victims. And nothing comes into focus with as much clarity in this Choose To/Have To dynamic as does our relationship with food. (As I frequently observe about other aspects of the human condition, the relationship we have with food reflects the relationship we have with other areas of our lives.)

I have many clients who will come to my office and confess that they’ll be at –for example– a party, and be really “good” and not have any of the selection of cakes and pies offered, only to go home feeling deprived and end up inhaling a box of Thin Mint Girl Scout cookies. They hate this behavior, yet feel powerless to stop it. (Ah, this is why diets based on deprivation so rarely work. Dieters often, on some deep level, feel a tinge of victimhood and resentment. “Why do those lucky people get to eat cakes and pies, while I gotta be on this stinky old diet?” laments a voice deep within.)

I often point out that most of these “dieters” are avoiding desserts because they have told themselves that they have to… when avoiding desserts is actually a choice. And if you feel deprived –feelings of deprivation being an instinctive reaction to what feels like scarcity– you are likely to make a choice to compensate for that feeling of lack. So you eat the cake even though you promised yourself you wouldn’t… when the choice was actually with you the whole time. The catch here is, of course, that if you simply choose to do something, you can just as easily choose not to. The issue is not the choice, but ignoring the fact that it was ever a choice in the first place.

The good news here is that when we acknowledge the fact that skipping dessert is our choice, then that cake doesn’t feel so unattainable and it automatically holds less power over us. We may, or may not, choose to eat the cake; we are empowering ourselves to make that choice. We might choose to have a large portion tonight, or maybe a little taste, or choose to eat it another day. Notice how never saying never makes the idea of the food less threatening! If we choose not to eat it, fine, we are empowered to do so. If we choose to go ahead and eat it, fine, we are also empowered to do so and can eat it without feeling like we are letting ourselves down or betraying a position.

An empowered eater –that is, an eater who acknowledges that she is the one who chooses what and when to eat– learns to trust and honor their hunger and fullness cues.  They learns how to intuitively regulate their food choices; balsamic salad today, chocolate cake tomorrow, salmon on Tuesday, ice cream whenever. An empowered eater is a mindful eater, appreciating food consciously without giving it too much power.

So… resent the diet.. or respect yourself?

The choice is yours.