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How to lose weight without restriction and deprivation - by Sasha High MD

Sep 29, 2020

Let’s set this up, ok? So, let’s say you decide that you want to lose weight, you research some different dietary protocols, and decide you’re going to follow a low carb eating plan. [That’s the eating plan that we will generally advise in our clinic whether you’re an omnivore, vegetarian, plant-based, whole foods, whatever it is.. Low carb in its most simple form means minimizing processed flour and sugar.] So you start eating low carb - you avoid the bread, the rice, the pasta, the sugar... Your weight is coming down, things are going ok. But as this is happening, you’re thinking how deprived you are, how you’re so restricted, how everyone else is eating pasta, but you have to eat salad, and this sucks. So of course, one day you give in and go on a pizza fest followed by dessert, cookies, whatever, some sort of overeating episode. And the rest is history. You conclude that a low carb diet is just way too restrictive for you. Villify the diet. Diets are bad, diets don’t work. True story?

Let me ask you something - was it the diet that was restrictive? Or was it your thinking, and the story your brain created that gave you the feelings of deprivation and restriction?

Think about that for a second. Deprivation is a feeling. Feelings come from our thoughts.

Following a particular eating plan is a circumstance. Circumstances are neutral. The only reason you have feelings of being deprived and overly restricted is because of your thoughts - because that’s the story that your brain is telling you.

Maybe you don’t believe me - think for a moment, if you had never tasted bread, never eaten refined flour before, and grew up in the jungle where you just ate vegetables and maybe wild animals. And you bumped into someone eating a slice of bread - you wouldn’t feel deprived because you have never tasted the bread. My point is that circumstances don’t generate feelings, only our thinking about the circumstance generates feelings.

Let me take a step back and give you the definition of the word deprivation.

Deprivation is the lack or denial of something considered to be a necessity. Note that qualifier - considered to be a necessity. When you decide to manage your weight, there’s likely going to be denial of sugar, processed foods, maybe refined carbs. One of the reasons that feels like deprivation, is because you “consider those to be a necessity”.

Many people who start a low carb diet will feel like they’re not eating “normally”. But where does “normal eating” come from? In North America, our “normal” diet consists of a whole lot of processed food-like products, a lot of sugar and flour, and approximately 350-450g of carbohydrates in a day. But “normal” Canadians are overweight - 61% to be precise - so it would certainly appear that this “normal” diet is not working for us.

Let me give you a classic example - cereal for breakfast - the healthy start to your day right? It’s very normal to eat cereal for breakfast. Where did this come from? Cereal is sugar in a bowl with milk. It doesn’t matter if the box says it’s heart healthy, and whole grains, or protein-enriched, it is just sugar in a bowl. Who decided that this is normal eating? The food industry. Cereal was a created concept but it’s just been passed down from generation to generation so we have this belief that cereal is a reasonable start to everyone’s day. Google “origin of cereal New York Times” and take a look at the history of cereal.

I’m explaining this because it’s important to understand that we have beliefs about what “normal” eating is - but what is that based on?

Maybe we need to discover a new “normal” way of eating that is going to work better for our body and our health, without thinking that this is deprivation.

Let’s talk more generally about deprivation. When you are trying to manage your weight, you’re likely going to be mindful of your food choices, maybe choosing to forego the dessert after supper, maybe avoiding certain trigger foods that you know cause over-eating behaviours. If you focus your brain on everything you are giving up - that is going to feel like deprivation and restriction. If you focus your brain on everything you’re gaining - the experience can be a whole lot more positive.

Overeating and giving into food cravings happens because we get pleasure from food. Flour and sugar in particular have a very strong dopamine effect in our reward brain - so we feel momentarily good. But the pleasure from food - and I invite you to test this out for yourself - it lasts only as long as the food is in your mouth. The second you swallow, the pleasure is gone. So then you need more.

Your brain wants to focus in on how good that food tastes - it’s so yummy, it makes you feel so good. So if you choose not to eat that food, your brain may create a whole story about deprivation.

But take a step back and look at the big picture - when you overeat foods that you know aren’t serving your body, what is the price tag? What is the cost that you’re paying for eating those things that seem like too much deprivation to give up? Maybe in the short term its physical symptoms like bloating, discomfort, pants are too tight, or emotional like guilt, disappointment, frustration and anger. And maybe in the longterm it’s diabetes, or heart disease, or joint pain, or not being able to engage in the activities that you want to. Perhaps that moment of pleasure is depriving you of the life and health you really want.

So there is deprivation on both sides of the equation - but if we don’t take an honest look at it, our brain will only focus on the deprivation of that present moment of desire.

Let me talk about urges for a moment. Because it’s very likely that if you’re trying to manage your weight, you’re going to experience urges at some point.

Catherine did a great job of giving you some tips on overcoming cravings a few weeks ago. If you missed it, please go back and watch that video on our Facebook page.

An urge is a wanting of food. Normal, autopilot behaviour is this: We get an urge to eat, we go find the food, we eat the food, our brain gets a measure of reward. The primal brain’s focus in very much in the moment - it doesn’t matter that the chocolate bar isn’t serving our longterm health, it did the trick in that moment. So what would it look like to practice restraint? We get an urge to eat, we feel the urge, we say no to the food… now we feel veeeerrrry uncomfortable. For some, that discomfort will be interpreted as deprivation. For some, that discomfort can actually be anxiety provoking.

On a subconscious level it’s like why should I go through this discomfort, I’m being deprived of pleasure right now, so this can’t be right, I shouldn’t be feeling this way, I should eat, life is all about pleasure.... So rather than learning to tolerate the discomfort of the urge, many people will just give in to the food. But it’s not deprivation, it’s that we haven’t learned to master our thinking, and empower ourselves to tolerate short term discomfort and say no to immediate pleasure for longterm reward.

So let’s summarize: deprivation and restriction are feelings that are rooted in our thinking. Mindset is everything in life. Master your thinking and you will master your life.

Now let me give you a few steps to help you overcome the deprivation thoughts.

  1. Instead of focusing on what you’re giving up, focus on what you’re gaining. What are you gaining by managing your eating, by choosing a nutritious eating plan, by practising restraint? Instead of focusing on all the things you’re saying no to, what are you saying yes to?
  2. Notice your thinking. If you’re at a restaurant, and everyone around you is eating the burger and fries, but you’re having a salmon and a side salad. What is your self-talk? I can tell you mine - I tell myself that I feel powerful, that I’m making a choice to care for myself, that I love salmon and it’s delicious. And I’m at peace with my decision. See, if you reluctantly make the healthier choice, and you’re resenting the process and wishing you just had the burger and fries, of course you’re going to feel a whole lot of deprivation. But if you decide, hey - this is what I’m doing for me, because I care about me and I want to honour me and I’m good with it - then that same experience can be really peaceful and way more enjoyable.
  3. What are you making food to be? What is food for you? And is that serving you?
  4. Develop your own personal health mantra. I’ve shared this before, but mine is “I want to feel powerful, and I can do hard things”. So when I have an urge, I will literally say that too myself: “I want to feel powerful” and it helps me practice restraint.
  5. Be okay with feeling uncomfortable. This is such a big topic so I will do a whole FB Live on Accepting Discomfort but learning that it’s ok to feel uncomfortable, that life doesn’t have to be pleasurable 100% of the time, is actually so powerful. The misunderstanding that life is supposed to be happy and pleasurable 100% of the time is actually one of the things that I believe leads to a lot of unhealthy behaviour because it means we don’t know how to experience unpleasant emotions.. Ok, that’s a tangent - I’ll share more on that another day.
  6. Explore your values, revisit them often, and know your vision. What are your personal core values that propel you forward in life? What is your vision statement for your life? Just as businesses and companies have values and a vision, you should have that too. They can help give you direction. This is week 1 for a lot of our patients. We have a whole values and vision exercise and it’s super powerful.
  7. Evaluate the pricetag. As you’re considering your eating plan, and what boundaries you choose to put in place for your eating, consider the emotional, psychological and physical price tag, the cost, of the processed foods that you’re saying no to. They come at a cost - so what is that cost to you. Write it down, think about it, and that may help strengthen your restraint muscle when it comes to urges.

The most critical secret to success in managing weight, in business, in relationships, in life in general: Mindset. Mindset is everything. Learning to manage your self-talk is critical. An unmanaged mind will derail you from your potential.

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