Jennifer Lovejoy, Arivale Chief Science Officer, PhD
Does the word “diet” bring up pleasant thoughts of enjoying your favorite foods? Yeah, we thought so.
For most of us, dieting is synonymous with “torture” or “short-term starvation” or, at the very least, a list of “don’ts” when it comes to food.
The problem with this mindset, especially when you want to make lasting changes, is that it doesn’t support what basic psychology promotes: positive reinforcement is more successful in the long-term than negative consequences.
Dos work better than don’ts.
Let’s look at this in the context of changing your eating patterns, exercise, or sleep routines. Rather than immediately focusing on what should be limited or avoided, you should adopt the philosophy that it’s better to add than take away. Instead of cutting out all sugar, start eating more leafy greens—that sort of thinking. Because when it comes to behavior change, what matters most is your perception of the change.
If the change is seen as positive, you are more likely to continue it. If it is seen as negative, you have to rely on willpower to keep it up. You can likely muster up enough for a while but eventually, your willpower will wear out. Then, you’re more likely to go with the path of least resistance.
Adding creates displacement.
As you add in the foods, nutrients, and lifestyle behaviors that you want to be there, they will start to displace the ones that probably weren’t serving you in the first place. You won’t have to “deny” yourself at all. There just won’t be room.
Let’s look at some more examples. The more fiber you include in your diet, the more likely you are to feel full sooner. Therefore, you might end up eating less of other foods. Maybe the beans and greens you choose to eat first will fill you up so by the time you get to the beef brisket, you can’t eat as much of it. Maybe putting your gym bag in your car and adding a trip to the gym on your way home from work will mean that you no longer have time to sit on the couch and scroll through social media sites before dinner.
Think about abundance, not scarcity.
When you focus on what you’re adding in, rather than what you’re taking away, it helps keep your brain and its established habits from feeling threatened. The minute you say, “I’m not allowed to have cheese anymore,” or “I am quitting sugar,” you inevitably create the “purple elephant” effect. When you’re told to think about anything except a purple elephant, all you can think of is a purple elephant. You’re thinking about it, aren’t you?
In contrast, when you’re adding positive things, you’re focusing on the good that you want to add to your life. This creates feelings of abundance, rather than scarcity.
Now, before you launch into an argument about how you can definitely add lots of healthy things to your diet and still be tempted by the old favorites, let’s go back to the concept of room. Here’s our advice. Put the new good habits first. As they begin to fill your life or your plate, the others will become what you simply don’t have room for—instead of health being what you just don’t have room for.