Losing "control"

I did something fairly unusual for me last week: I went out to lunch. I had a coupon for a buy one get one free item at a casual sit-down chain restaurant that sells (essentially) sandwiches, salads, and soup. So I asked my co-worker and we had a nice lunch. Both of us ordered entree salads.

We were sitting and eating when he made a comment that really stuck with me:

I feel so virtuous when I get a salad. It makes me want to go home and do something not-so-virtuous this evening.

I'm kicking myself for not asking: like what? I'm assuming he doesn't mean decapitating a small animal, as he doesn't strike me as the type. To many people, especially dieters, this kind of thinking can lead to eating a package of cookies in the evening because you were "good" at lunch.

Except neither my coworker or I were "virtuous" or "good" at lunch. We just ate a salad.

At the heart of these kinds of statements, aside from the good/bad food issue, is self-control. And self-control typically doesn't come natural to humans. You exerted "control" at lunch, so you can let loose later. If you feel you overate last night, you can show your "self-control" today and eat lettuce. Or so say the diet/nutrition columnists, anyway. In an obvious irony, I have problems with self-control of my self-control, letting my controlling behaviors run amok.

Some have proposed teaching kids better self-control as a way to prevent obesity. Researchers found that those kids who could wait for a longer period of time before obtaining a food reward had higher BMIs. Maybe it's a problem with self-control, or maybe these kids were just hungry. We don't know.

I find it ironic that the solution to supposed "lack of control" around food (as if that could be the only reason that anyone had a BMI above 25!) involves more self-control, when we know that humans, as a rule, suck at this. When we also know that imposing self-control leads to out-of-control behaviors later. Why not remove the "control" aspect entirely? No one over-consumes oxygen. Outside of obvious medical pathology, people really don't berate themselves for producing too much urine. It might be a trifle inconvenient, but no one measures their self-worth or self-control by how much they do or don't pee.

It is the human intervention and need to control that people start dieting, which typically ends in net weight gain, not weight loss. People can and do self-regulate around food. No really. They do. Our environment doesn't like to give them that chance. There's too much money to be made on diet products, obesity prevention and the health scare du jour.

But the healthiest eaters I know are the ones that don't show deliberate self-control around food. A salad lunch doesn't lead to a doughnut binge later on. They eat when they're hungry and stop when they're full. The rest takes care of itself.

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Kim said...

You're totally right -- "healthy" eaters don't associate food with control. They don't attach moral judgment to food. It is what it is. I'd love to get back to thinking that way. For the first 17years of my life, I did...so it has to be possible, right?

Lisa said...

"Self-control of my self-control" - I like the way you put that.

And I don't know about the pee thing - me and my teaspoon-sized bladder have gotten plenty of berating during family road trips!

Jen said...

"Our environment doesn't like to give them that chance." Very, very true.

Harriet said...

Excellent post, Carrie.

Susie Q said...

This is a great post!

Carrie Arnold said...


And Lisa, you're right- I really should add that road trips can really add judgment to urine output. :) Many memories of car trips when I was younger.

Susie said...

As my step dad aways says when he sees these dieting TV programmes, "a diet is a lifestyle, not just a phase"

i guess what he means is if you attapt your exercise in your lifestyle too it means you don't always have to exert that self control becasue the balance is there.

mind you self control is something i need to really learn right now with my hunger signals all screwed up! I could do with learning some normal eating patterns.

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I'm a science writer, a jewelry design artist, a bookworm, a complete geek, and mom to a wonderful kitty. I am also recovering from a decade-plus battle with anorexia nervosa. I believe that complete recovery is possible, and that the first step along that path is full nutrition.

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