From Lemon to Lemonade: Tweaking the Wrong Advice to Make It Work for You

In the world of “eating habits” (a common euphemism for the world of diets) there are well known and common pearls of wisdom which are inefficient. Facially, they seem reasonable and helpful, stemming from common sense and accrued wisdom. But in fact, they are not only unhelpful, but plainly harmful. These include, for example “eat in moderation”, and “do not deprive yourself of anything”.

Why harmful? Because when these guidelines do not achieve the expected result, you, who put your trust in them, feel at fault. You then backtrack to familiar patterns, with a sense of despair that it is impossible to find a new path, feeling like you’ve been left out of a party, because what seems to be working for everyone else, simply fails for you. Of course, none of this is true, and the problem is actually with the advice and its (ir)relevance for you.It may be necessary to acknowledge that there will always be a group of people for whom this or that particular advice works perfectly well. And that’s excellent – whatever works, wins the day, as long as it doesn’t cost us elsewhere (in the emotional sphere, for example). So if a particular guideline works for you, keep at it. But if it doesn’t – try to understand why, listen to other voices out there, and mainly – to your own, internal voice! 

Take, for example, the advice “don’t deny yourself anything”. The Don’t deny instruction seems very accurate, as anyone with an interest in eating habits knows that long term denial creates a need that, eventually, erupts in an uncontrollable fashion. Restraint and limitations are akin to the activation of a muscle, and every muscle will eventually ask to rest and relax. So what is the problem? The way the instruction is phrased, and the lack of an alternative.


Phrasing: our systems don’t fancy negation. They prefer permission. When an instruction directed at us opens with a negative, we hear, but don’t listen. Our brain hears “denial” where we intended to give permission. Why is this so in general, and in this case in particular? Because this advice, at its core, reaches us from the worlds of deprivation and the effort to control, and stems from fear that if we will deny ourselves something, we will be all the worse for it.

Our system listens, but does not hear. Instead of words, it listens to the music of this advice, identifies the fear and restriction, and reacts accordingly, by rejecting it.

Even if we apply this advice on several occasions, it is likely that we will end up confused. We seem to be permitting ourselves everything, but the experience is not easy-going and comfortable like true permission should feel. So who are we kidding?

To escape the grip of this advice whilst keeping its internal, positive approach, we can simply reverse the phrasing: I’m permitted everything. This has the added value of being true. This knowledge does not have to lead to any activity. Just simple recognition of its inherent truth.

The alternative? Just as you are about to act, search to what you can say ‘yes’, instead of ‘no’. Permission is granted; everything is open to you. So from the plenty that is available, what sets within me a feeling of complete acceptance? What are the components in a meal that would offer me a truly good feeling?

For now, leave aside those components that lead to mixed feelings. As adults, you have permission to eat them and can always choose them. But for now, just to understand your own field of options, look for those that do not ignite an internal debate that consists of limitations and restrictions, and give them voice and presence. When all the options will be present on the table, sometimes literally, choose as you see fit, and to the best of your ability.

The guidance “don’t deny yourself anything” should be replaced with “you have complete permission to eat everything”. Choose food that set within you a complete and encompassing feeling of “yes”.

Similar things may be said as to the guidance “eat everything in moderation”. On the face of it, this seems like a good prescription for a healthy lifestyle. In reality, however, it also hides within it the fear that we may eat too much. At the sound of this guidance something within us feels at ease. This is the feeling of permission that we can eat everything. But this feeling, and this permission, would not have required the guidance as a form of external support.

Deriving pleasure from this guidance triggers a warning sign: our internal permission mechanism is not functioning properly, and seeks crutches as reinforcement. The problem is that the external permission is not real and is not complete – it is actually a masquerade for a warning sign: watch out! There are bad and harmful things out there and you risk eating too much of them. No one suggests eating vegetable soup or a fruit salad in moderation. The clear target of the guidance are the foods that we know are harmful, but we will not identify them as such so as not to feel that we’re depriving ourselves, and instead – we’ll share a feeling of fake permission.

So instead – rephrase.

I can eat everything, and the quantities will depend on my attentiveness to my body and my personal experience at every given moment.


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