If you’ve ever been on a diet you know the feeling of irritability that sets in after a few days. Nutrition experts have attributed this feeling to a physical state of deprivation, such as low blood sugar or dehydration.
While these conditions do have a definite effect on mood, they don’t tell the whole story. Consider the fact that you are not ALWAYS crabby when hungry or thirsty, even though your body may be in a state of deprivation.
Diet-related crabbiness stems not just from your body’s physical state, but also from mental fatigue. As you know, it takes concentrated effort to change your eating habits. That effort uses up mental strength, which gets depleted.
According to psychological research by Dr. Roy Baumeister and his colleagues, mental strength operates similarly to physical strength. Suppose, for example, you’ve just spent the afternoon moving furniture. By the time you’re done, you don’t have much strength left to play tennis.
In the same way, when you’ve spent the day exercising self-control with food, you don’t have much strength left for controlling your behavior in other situations. Thus, you’re more likely to snap back at someone, lose your patience easily, or overreact to minor frustrations.
** HERE’S A TYPICAL SCENARIO:
~ You start off the day feeling OK, determined to stay on your diet. This takes some effort. If you’ve been used to having a donut or sweet roll for breakfast, it requires effort to eat something different. When you turn on the TV or radio you’re confronted with food ads designed to make your mouth water. It takes effort to ignore these temptations.
~ While you’re trying to ignore the food ads, the “inner brat” in the back of your mind notices every single one. It nags at you: “I want that . . . I must have it.” Your inner brat’s nagging intensifies the cravings. You become involved in a struggle between short-term gratification (your inner brat) and your long-term goal of losing weight. This, too, takes effort.
~ As the day progresses and you continue to resist old eating habits, your mental strength is gradually depleted. This makes it harder for you to keep the lid on your frustration or control your temper. In other words, your inner brat gets the better of you.
~ It’s no coincidence that most people end up overeating later in the day, when their mental strength is at its low point. By this time it seems like too much work to resist, so you give into your cravings.
Is it any wonder that most diets fail? They don’t have to. To make sure that your moods don’t sabotage your diet, here are some tips:
1. Conserve your mental strength. Be selective in taking on unnecessary stressors.
2. Stick to a routine as much as possible. This reduces the number of decisions you have to make, and thereby saves mental energy.
3. Set up your environment so that you avoid temptation:
~ Don’t keep junk food at home or in your desk at work.
~ When food-related TV commercials come on, change the channel.
~ At the grocery store avoid the aisles that hold snack foods.
The less you come in contact with reminders of your old eating habits, the less you will need to draw on your mental strength. In these kinds of situations, the old saying, “out of sight, out of mind” is truly applicable.
4. Watch out for negative self-talk. If you find yourself thinking “This is awful” or “I can’t stand this” you will only magnify your bad mood. Instead say to yourself, “OK, so I’m not at my best. Just wait it out for a little while longer.”
5. Take responsibility for your mood. If you do get irritable, avoid picking arguments. If necessary, involve yourself in a solitary physical task, away from other people. Your bad mood will pass, you’ll keep your inner brat under control, and you’ll emerge on the other side with additional strength for tomorrow.