Generally, our fitness clients have good intentions when it comes to their caloric intake and food choices. But thanks to the rhetoric diet culture constantly promotes, such good intentions are often interpreted to be the same as restriction. The message clients overhear is less about balance and more about deprivation in some cases. Unfortunately, there are consequences when clients listen to this “nutrition noise”. When restriction is central to the message, clients may be set up for overindulgence and superfluous caloric consumption. If this happens often enough, overeating becomes a pattern clients struggle to break.
Habits Leading to Overeating
Let’s look at three specific habits that can set clients (or ourselves) up for failure.
Avoiding foods that are high in calories
At some point in the evolution of diet culture, energy-dense foods were demonized and classified as “bad”. Consequently, individuals see a high-calorie food item such as ice cream, pizza, nut butters, cheese, etc., and think “If I eat this, I will gain weight.” No one macronutrient in absence of a caloric surplus is going to tip the scale like that in the absence of metabolic disease. Avoiding high-calorie foods becomes problematic because these foods are often enjoyable and can certainly have their place in a well-balanced and mindful eating style.
If one intentionally avoids enjoying higher-calorie foods consistently and regularly, it can create a fixation on that food and intensify the craving or desire lending overeating. Then, when in the presence of that food item, an individual tends to overconsume it leading to the intake of an even greater number of calories than if the craving would have been satisfied initially (and moderately).
It’s important to educate clients about the value of enjoying higher-calorie foods on occasion. It is equally as important to change the rhetoric of “good” and “bad” food. There is no inherent morality attached to food. Food is food. It’s fuel. Some sources are higher in calories, lower in nutrients, and vice versa. A balanced eating style includes a variety of foods (and may include pizza and ice cream)! Help clients find food freedom and they will be far more successful.
Only eating a specific portion or one serving
Depending on an individual’s unique caloric needs, one serving or a single portion may not be enough to satisfy energy and/or nutrient needs. No two clients need the exact same serving sizes or calories each day. Further, limiting oneself to a single serving or a specific portion (1/2 cup of cereal, for example) may not be enough to create a feeling of satiety. If left feeling unsatisfied or hungry, an individual is more likely to keep seeking other fuel sources – nutrient-dense or not. Help clients focus on creating a balanced plate at each meal and thoughtful snacks that provide necessary energy and nutrients which will promote satiety.
“Satisfying” cravings with lower calorie/less satisfying foods
Let’s be honest – the only way to truly satisfy a craving is to indulge in it. Notice, I said indulge not overindulge. There’s a difference. Cravings are a message from the body and the mind, and it is ok to enjoy the pizza, the chocolate, a slice of cake, lasagna, whatever food item is calling to you. Giving in to a craving occasionally will not make a client a “failure” or “derail” a healthy eating pattern. In truth, ignoring cravings and consuming less satisfying foods to curb a craving or need will backfire. Perhaps helping your client determine what occasionally means (because it isn’t daily!) can help them formulate a positive relationship around the indulgence.
If a food is deemed “off-limits”, it only intensifies the individual’s focus on that food causing them to hyper-fixate on its absence and overindulge in that food at a later point. Teach clients to enjoy the foods they crave in smaller portions on the way to their goals. This does two things: satisfies the need and promotes joy and it teaches clients how to satisfy their cravings mindfully. This combination makes their eating plan sustainable and enjoyable.
Eating, much like exercise, should not be a chore or come with a set of restrictive practices that snuffs out joy and sustainability. Successful health outcomes are all about balance and harmony in all aspects of nutrition and fitness. Help your clients change their relationship with food by modifying the diet culture rhetoric and promoting mindful eating so that the habit of overeating never has a chance to manifest.