Not long ago, I went on a low-carb, no-sugar, no-dairy, no-gluten diet (you can read all about that experience here.) The day before I started the diet, I was like a biblical locust, descending on my pantry for any snacks and sweets to stuff in my face. If that scenario doesn’t sound at least somewhat familiar, then consider this: at some point, you’ve probably stopped at the grocery store, coffee shop, or drive-thru on a day when you’ve also done something healthful, like hit the gym, gone for a long walk, or cleaned the house.
If you found yourself feeling good, healthy, or even virtuous because of your activity, you might have allowed yourself to grab something “sinful” to eat or drink. You rationalized that all your good fitness choices should be “rewarded,” that you “deserved” it, or that you had calories to spare.
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This rationale is something psychologists call “moral licensing,” and it comes with a cost. Put another way, moral licensing is how we “rationalize how we eat instead of being mindful of what we put into our bodies,” says Jodi Greebel, MS, RDN, founder and president of New York-based Citrition, LLC.
Moral licensing is what goes through our minds as we throw good food choices out the window around holidays or while on vacation, thinking we’ll start a new diet and exercise plan come Monday morning. Your intention of doing something “good” (working out, eating right) leads you to doing something “bad” (hello, beach lounging and greasy boardwalk fries!)
But it doesn’t start and stop with exercise. Greebel notes that there are many other ways we rationalize our food choices. Rewarding yourself with a treat because you got a promotion (or because you had a bad day) is one way, she says. “Weighing yourself, seeing you lost weight, and rewarding yourself with food” is another.
Those “rewards” end up sabotaging the health goals you’ve set for yourself, whether it’s weight loss or something else. For example, if you’ve bought a lot of veggies to add more fiber to your diet, and your “reward” is a pint of ice cream, you’re going to limit your progress.
This rationalization shows up in other ways, too. “If your day started off well, but then got ‘bad,’ you think, you might as well keep eating bad foods and start over tomorrow, rather than trying to just pick up and eat healthfully the rest of the day,” Greebel explains. Or, you want a cookie (“bad”) but eat an apple (“good”) instead, which leaves you unsatisfied. “So you go back for another snack and end up eating more calories than if you just had the cookie in the first place. This is very common,” she adds. By the way, labeling foods as “good” or “bad” is another way we sabotage ourselves. “Psychologically, it makes total sense why people do it, but there are better strategies,” notes Greebel.
Here, five ways to stop moral licensing in its tracks for good.
Combat emotional eating with mindful eating.
All these behaviors fall into emotional eating. Though you might be reaching for a brownie because you just ran 3 miles—and not because you’re sad or stressed—it’s still your emotions, rather than your body, telling you to eat. “Emotional eating is normal from time to time,” says Greebel, “but it shouldn’t be the guiding force behind when and what you eat on a regular basis.” Emotional eating has been linked to difficulty losing weight and keeping it off.
But you can combat emotional eating with mindfulness. “There is a huge push towards intuitive eating and paying more attention to your body and what it says, rather than all the messages around us about food and diets,” says Greebel. Mindful eating can result in positive changes in weight, eating behavior, and mental distress.
Simply put, mindful eating means being more attentive to your food: how you buy it, prepare it, serve it, and eat it. Here are four ways to become more mindful with meals. If you find it challenging, start with one meal per day and go from there.
Instead of scarfing down a meal, take your time with these tips: Take smaller bites. “Chew slowly. Put your fork or sandwich down between bites, and sit down to eat,” says Greebel. (But this doesn’t mean eating while driving or watching T.V., she adds.)
Slowing down has benefits beyond calming the mind. It gives your brain a chance to catch up to your stomach’s satiety signals (it typically lags 20 minutes behind). When you eat too fast, your brain won’t tell you to stop eating until it’s too late—and you’re stuffed. When you slow down, eating becomes intentional rather than automatic.
Eat when you’re truly hungry.
This is a case of listening to your body, not your mind. Pay attention to your body’s hunger signals: hunger pangs, low energy, headaches or light-headedness, or irritability. Learn to distinguish between emotional hunger and physical hunger. Too often we eat when we’re bored, lonely, stressed out, sad, nervous, or even happy.
“Physical hunger goes away after you eat. Emotional hunger does not,” says Greebel. “Ask yourself if you are really hungry. If you aren’t sure, take a walk, call a friend, or have a glass of water.”
Another game our minds play on us is that we feel we must finish everything on our plates. “Think about whether you are still hungry, not whether you finished what was in front of you, to decide whether you should have more food,” says Greebel.
She adds that “if you often go searching for something else when you’re done eating, and you aren’t hungry—but you aren’t satisfied—you need to eat more fat with your meal.” These should be healthy, monounsaturated fats, such as avocado, nuts, or olives.
Make family meal time consistent.
Eating with family (or close friends) five or more times per week, rather than eating solo, leads to better emotional wellbeing. And it doesn’t have to be dinner; if breakfast is the one time of day you are all together, make that your consistent family meal.
Consistency means not eating at random times or places (such as in the car or at a kid’s soccer practice). Sitting down, rather than multitasking during dinner, keeps you present. When you’re distracted by paying bills or watching television, you’re not paying attention to what you’re putting in your mouth—or your body’s satiety signals. “Avoid playing on your phone while you eat,” adds Greebel.
Consider where your food comes from.
This goes beyond whether your milk came from grass-fed happy heifers or factory-farm cows (though that does matter!) It’s who brought that milk to market and who stocked the grocery shelves. It’s who prepared the meal, as well as where the recipe came from.
“Make a conscious decision to eat a food,” says Greebel. “Do not feel bad about it. Enjoy the food.” Notice the colors, flavors, and textures of your food, and you will feel more connected to what you eat.
Bottom line: When food urges strike, acknowledge them. Pay attention to what that craving is telling you. Is it a “craving based on foods your body needs, or is it a craving that fills some other void?” asks Greebel. Now consider: Is there something else you could eat that’s equally satisfying—but nourishing? As you think about where your alternative food choice came from or how it was made, you might find you enjoy it more than whatever it was you were craving in the first place—without any of the remorse. When you truly pay attention to the food you eat, you might also find that you’re naturally indulging in fewer unhealthy choices and making better ones. And that’s a reward in itself.
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