How to Reframe Dietary Rules for Greater Success

Most people associate diets with restriction. Whether that be by limiting the amount you can eat or providing a laundry list of foods that you are not allowed to consume. We have all heard someone on a diet say at some point, “Oh, I can’t have that,” based on the rules dictated by their current dietary plan.

Some diets have rules about when you can eat, what types of macronutrients are allowed with each meal, or what types of meals to have before or after exercise. While these different dietary rules are what makes each diet unique, these same rules are often what cause most people to go “off” their diet at some point in time.

Those that succeed at turning their diet into a lifestyle, like so many experts claim you need to do, have done so by simply adopting the dietary rules as their own personal set of rules. On the outside, this may seem like semantics, but there is a very powerful effect that this reframing has. It shifts the responsibility from the diet to the person, and that personal accountability makes a world of difference.

When you say you can’t eat a particular food group there is almost an unspoken caveat accompanying that statement. While you don’t say it aloud, your brain hears it and it chips away at your willpower until you cave. Here’s an example:

What you say: I can’t eat chocolate chip cookies

What your brain hears: I can’t eat chocolate chip cookies because my diet doesn’t allow it, but if I really had my way I would so eat a cookie or two because they are delicious.

The second phrasing shifts the blame to the diet, away from you, and leaves the option of choice. There’s an out, an escape route, and when most individuals go long enough or face periods of high stress, choosing that out becomes much easier. The word can’t can also imply a time frame. I can’t right now, but at some point in the future I will. Believe me, the future comes sooner rather than later when dealing with “can’ts.”

So how does one rephrase the statement to assume personal responsibility and take away that out? By simply replacing the word “can’t” with the word “don’t.” This basic swap can do powerful things for your mind.

You more than likely already have quite a few things you don’t do based on your personal set of principles. Here’s just a few of mine:

  • I don’t steal
  • I don’t kill people
  • I don’t drink alcohol
  • I don’t use hot water in the shower
  • I don’t drink milk
  • I don’t eat soy
  • I don’t go a day without writing something

Sure, there are laws against some of these, but even without a law in place that list would remain the same. That’s my personal code. It’s a set of standards that dictates how I live my life. These standards aren’t dictated by someone else, rather, they are ones I’ve chosen to adopt in order to live my life according my own philosophical ideal.

You can see that there are a few dietary examples on there. These are specific things I don’t consume, and when they present themselves in my life the decision to avoid them is easy. In fact, it’s not really a decision at all. If I say I don’t do something, I don’t do it. To do otherwise would be hypocritical.

Vegetarians are a great example of this. They simply don’t eat meat. This is a choice they have made, whether it be for ethical or health related reasons. You never hear a true vegetarian say they can’t eat meat. It is always that they don’t. Maybe that’s why many of them come off with a holier than thou attitude, but you can’t deny the conviction of their choice.

Having a long list of don’ts can seem restrictive, especially when these rules seem permanent. They don’t have to be permanent, but you also can’t willy nilly add and remove things otherwise it defeats the purpose. To be honest I will add or remove certain things periodically from my list. Mostly this is because I like to run dietary experiments on myself. For thirty days or longer I will add or remove a food, supplement, or behavior.

About a year ago I decided to stop eating hard boiled eggs with my salads because I was experiencing an allergic reactions shortly after my meals. Needless to say that cleared it right up and “I don’t eat hard boiled eggs,” has become a permanent addition to the list. As delicious as hard boiled eggs are, I don’t lust after them when I see others eating them saying, “I wish I could have those, but I can’t.” I don’t eat them.  End of discussion.

Instead of being restrictive these sorts of rules can actually be extremely liberating. It eliminates choices and decisions that would other suck away at your willpower. No more arguments with yourself about whether or not you can have something just this once. We all have been there, dreaming up exorbitant excuses to indulge and give in to moments of weakness.

It also frees up bandwidth to focus on other tasks. Just like Steve Jobs wearing the same outfit every day to concentrate on more important decisions, ridding yourself of daily dietary debates can allow you to shift your attention to things that really matter. If you have a strict “do not eat doughnuts” policy you cruise right by the bakery section of your supermarket and head straight to the produce section.

We all have principles. They’re a set of rules that define who we are, how we act and what we stand for. Yet, few of us have dietary principles, as exemplified by the vast amount of “cheating” on different dietary plans. When we cheat we blame the diet, not ourselves. Why? Because we didn’t make the dietary rules our personal rules. We kept our language in terms of can’ts instead of don’ts. We didn’t create a mindset that emphasized personal accountability.

Next time, take those restrictive rules and incorporate them into your personal code. New diet says you can’t have something? No, take responsibility and now that is something you don’t have. Can’t do something? No, you just don’t do it anymore.

Don’t let yourself be at the mercy of the diet. Take control. Make it personal. You have to be accountable for what you are trying to achieve, and this simple shift in phrasing may just give you the edge to navigate stressful situations and environments, and turn what would otherwise be failure into a surprising success.

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