People tend to assume that because I am a food psychologist that I must be naturally disciplined and virtuous when it comes to my own eating.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Just like everyone else, I engage in elaborate self-deceptions to try to get to the foods I'm really craving and ignore everything I know about nutrition.
So in order to help us all recognize the excuses we tell ourselves, I'm sharing the top seven lies I catch myself in when it comes to eating — and how we can all readjust our thinking.
Lie #1: If I’m craving something sweet that means my body needs sugar.
The truth: Cravings can be powerful, and it’s easy to feel as though we're powerless against them. But just because you’re craving something sweet doesn’t mean that a sugary treat is the only thing that will satisfy it.
Your body can convert anything into glucose — so just eat some cashews already! You might be surprised to find that low-glycemic snacks like nuts, cheese, or hummus will curb the cravings and keep you fuller longer.
On the other hand, when we turn to high-glycemic foods such as bagels, chips, pretzels, and sweets, we keep the craving cycle going.
Lie #2: It’s a smoothie, so it’s healthy.
The truth: It’s seems logical to think of smoothies and juice as healthy, especially when they’re green in color. They have what researchers call a “health halo,” which tricks us into thinking they are healthy because they're made from fruit.
But most of the time they also have lots of sugar in them (even when they’re green). Many other fruit-based products have similar health halos, including dried cranberries, banana chips, fruit leather, and trail mix. Take a look at the nutrition labels and you might be surprised.
When I wanted to reduce the amount of added sugar I was eating, I decided to become a “fruitaholic." I eat as much fruit as I want (and it’s a lot!), but I just make sure it’s raw, whole fruit that comes with a hefty dose of fiber, to slow down the digestion of the natural sugar.
Lie #3: I exercised today so I can indulge all I want.
The truth: Most of us tend to overestimate how many calories we burn during a workout. In fact, one recent study found that people estimated that they had burned four times the number of calories than they had actually burned.
Not surprisingly, it turns out that many of us reward ourselves a little too much after exercising because we feel so virtuous. This so-called licensing effect also means that if we eat something like kale we might feel as though we’ve earned some ice cream.
This one is hard to combat, but focusing on a healthy lifestyle, instead of virtuous behavior, seems to help.
Lie #4: This treat is naturally sweetened so it must be OK.
The truth: It’s easy to think that "natural" foods are healthier than processed foods, but that’s not always the case, especially with sweeteners.
It turns out that sugar, honey, agave, molasses, and all other sweeteners are about the same metabolically — which means they raise insulin and get stored as fat.
Lie #5: These Lindt truffles don’t count because they're so very small.
The truth: Everything counts.
It’s hard to believe how many calories we can stealthily consume here and there without realizing it. The little truffles I like are 75 calories each, and it’s quite easy to eat three or four of them. That quickly adds up to 300 “invisible” calories that aren’t filling at all.
How can we catch these sneaky little Trojan Horses? I often recommend that my patients use a calorie-counting app as a reality check. You don’t have to do it forever — just long enough to make sure that you know what you’re really eating. The key, of course, is that you track everything.
Lie #6: This sweetener has no calories, so it won't make me gain weight.
The truth: When I decided to cut back on sugar a few years ago, I started putting Splenda in my coffee instead of sugar. I didn’t like the taste as much, but I was willing to overlook that because I thought I was doing something healthy.
Imagine my surprise when I found out that artificial sweeteners are also associated with weight gain, metabolic syndrome, and type 2 diabetes.
Eventually I decided I had to wean myself off of the taste of sweet coffee. How’d I do it? Heavy cream instead! This is a great strategy because the richness of the cream is so delicious that you won’t miss the taste of sugar so much. Over time you can transition to half-and-half or milk instead.
Lie #7: I’ve had a stressful day and some comfort food will make me feel better.
The truth: It will make me feel worse.
Of course food should be pleasurable — it’s one of the great things in life! But it turns out that when we try to use food for coping, it backfires. Research shows it actually makes us feel worse.
Exercise on the other hand, is one of the most effective strategies for coping with negative feelings. Even short bursts of exercise have natural antidepressant and stress-reducing effects on brain chemistry.
The Bottom Line:
The big takeaway here is that most of us try to trick ourselves whenever there is an opportunity. And with more than 200 food decisions to make a day, there’s a lot of opportunity! That’s why it’s really important to set up habits that make our eating and activity behaviors automatic.
Once we've adopted healthy habits, we don’t have to make hundreds of tiny choices every day.
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