In 1996 a study was conducted by psychologist Roy Baumeister about self-control. The experiment was pretty simple. Sixty-seven study hungry participants individually walked into a room that smelled of freshly baked chocolate cookies. The room had one plate of cookies and one plate of radishes on a table. Half of the participants in the trial were told they could only eat the radishes; the other half were told they could have whatever they chose. After their snack, all participants were administered an unsolvable puzzle to complete. The results were undeniable. Those who were forced to eat the radishes made far fewer attempts and devoted less than half the time solving the puzzle compared to the chocolate-eating participants. In other words, those who had to resist the sweets and force themselves to eat radishes could no longer find the will to fully engage in another torturous task. They were already too tired.
Self-control is a resource that can be depleted if you have to constantly refuse things you crave. Willpower is not a skill, and it’s not a matter of having it or not.
I’ve been dieting for as long as I can remember, so I’m a self-proclaimed expert in the field of willpower and cheating. (Anyone else? Hands?) When I was on Atkins like the rest of the world several years ago, Dr. Atkins told you that eating one thing that was on the “bad” list could completely derail your Ketosis and whatnot, meaning that it would take you 2 weeks to get back into that fat-burning mode. So, when I inadvertently ate a restricted item, it was easier to throw up my hands and go insane, “getting in” all the foods that I had been wanting but knew I couldn’t have. Then I’d go back on the diet, and before I knew it, I was finding another excuse to jump off the wagon.
Seriously, dieting sucks. I hate it.
So, knowing this about myself, last summer I implemented something I still think is a stroke of genius. Every two weeks (usually on a weekend), I would give myself a “cheat day” … I could have anything I wanted, guilt-free, for 24 hours. Then straight back on the wagon.
This accomplished several things:
- It got my brain back in the game. Because I knew that I was going to have a cheat day to eat anything I wanted, I knew I could keep on the straight and narrow until then. It was something to look forward to. And like any good purge, when that day was over I started with a clean slate and began fresh and ready again.
- Made me realize what a great change I was making. You really don’t understand how tough processed food is on your body until you go without it. The day after Cheat Day, my stomach feels like someone punched me repeatedly. I’m not a doctor, but it was clear to me that my body had to work overtime to process all the crap I was putting into it on that day, and we were beat up and exhausted.
- Gave me my life back. It’s tough having to constantly tell friends and family that you are watching what you’re eating, so you can’t partake in certain events (birthday cake, pizza at Mack & Manco’s, wine). If I knew something special was coming up, I’d plan my Cheat Day around that event… it might be 3 weeks until a cheat day, or I’d space out the time in advance. Maybe I’d elect on a cheat “meal” if it was too close to a previous cheat day. It gave me the freedom to choose.
- Took the excuses away. There was no reason to indulge in XYZ today when my cheat day was only 3, 4, 5 days away. If I was still craving it then, I’d have it then. End of story.
So, on this note, I think I need a cheat day. I’ve been doing great eating what I am supposed to, but like my radish-eating friends in the study, I’m starting to get worn down. I see goldfish crackers and stupid snacks my kid eats and I want them, even though I know I don’t really want them…… I want the idea of freedom, of choice, of not having to think or cook or plan meals. I just need a break. Know what I mean?