It’s one of the most common dieting tips. Stock your refrigerator and pantry with healthy foods; clear your shelves of junk food and sugar. Remove the temptation and you will choose to (or have to) eat healthy food instead. This makes perfect sense right?
I was terrified to bring junk food such as heavenly hash ice cream, two-bite brownies or a family-sized bag of Cadbury Mini-Eggs into my kitchen. Ice cream would be gone within 24 hours; my husband was lucky to get a scoop. I’d eat a small bowl or two before breakfast and any other time of day I could scoop some in a bowl and wolf it down before anyone noticed.
Yes, I need to avoid junk food temptations. Junk food was not welcome in my house.
The annual wrench in my dieting effort (aka Christmas baking) increased my dread for the holiday season. I love baking gingerbread cookies, shortbread cookies and chocolate treats for presents and hostess gifts. But, I could not handle the temptation, I would eat my way through Christmas; I was lucky if I managed to keep some shortbread for New Year’s dinner.
I was approaching the three month mark in my cognitive therapy journey when Christmas rolled around. We were hosting four events: my son’s baptism, Christmas dinner, New Year’s Eve dinner and a family dinner. I baked more cookies than in previous years.
By some sort of miracle, I had lots of cookies for all the events. To my shock, I wasn’t even interested in eating the Christmas baking. Here and there I’d have a gingerbread man or piece of shortbread. Even with all the events and handmade gifts for friends, the cookies almost lasted until February.
Then something weird happened. I was feeling anxious; the hunting and obsessing about food started again. What was going on? I had baked and stored dozens of cookies for almost a month and a half; I managed to navigate a dieting minefield with ease. The temptation was gone, so why was I feeling anxious?
“I felt a sense of loss when all the Christmas baking was gone. Somehow I was comforted by having something sweet in the house. My anxiety increased significantly.” I told my therapist. “I think I need to have something sweet in the house.”
My therapist and I discussed this discovery. For months, I repeated my mantra, “I can eat it if I really want it. I can have more, buy more and make more if I really want it.” It took time and many bowls of granola for my subconscious to actually believe it. But when there was nothing left, (no cookies, no nothing) I was back in diet land: avoid junk food temptation; keep junk food out of your house! Instead avoiding temptation, removing all junk food simply made me crave it even more.
We came up with a plan to experiment with “bad” (or restricted) foods. I did what every magazine article tells you to not do; I brought junk food back into the house. One “bad” food at a time, I brought ice cream, Oreos, brownies and mini cupcakes to see what would happen.
My anxiety level decreased; I was, in fact, comforted by having some sort of treat/sweet food in the house. I could easily ignore ice cream, chips and crackers. With super sweet stuff like Oreos, brownies and mini cupcakes, I experienced mixed results. Sometimes I would forget about the box of Oreos on my pantry shelf, other times I’d eat an entire row of cookies in one sitting.
I brought in new foods such as Nonnis’ biscotti, a tasty treat, but I didn’t covet this food like I do with Oreos. Sweets without the dieting baggage are the perfect comfort for me. I rarely crave eating the light, crunchy cookies. And when I make the positive choice to eat a biscotti, I eat it slowly (intuitive eating style) so I can enjoy the flavor and texture.
So now I do the exact opposite of dieting convention: I always ensure that I have something sweet (like the biscotti) in my house, sharing shelf space with the healthy foods. I discovered that even if tempting foods are physically removed from my house, this physical hurdle did not quell the psychological temptation. I wanted what I couldn’t have; increasing anxiety and cravings.
Note: I’m not suggesting that you start bringing your restricted foods back into your house. I believe that you need to do what works for you. That may mean keeping the most tempting foods at the store. I had the benefit of making this discovery with help from my therapist and the cognitive behaviour therapy process.