Brian Wansink, director of Cornell University's Food and Brand Lab tested the concept of 'food as reward, which hindered the weight loss efforts of many. He had two groups of people take a 2km walk around a lake.
One group was told the walk was exercise; for the other group it was a "scenic walk." Chocolate pudding was served to both the groups after the walk.
The study points the reason of weight loss failure as overcompensation with calories post-workout.
Some weight loss diets deprive the foods that you usually crave and leaves in confusion. "Some of it has to do with the frustration and the disappointment people feel after changing the content of what they eat - say, cutting out fat, sugar or flour and finding that it doesn't make a difference," said Susan Albers, a psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic and author of Eat Q: Unlock the Weight-Loss Power of Emotional Intelligence and five other books about mindful eating.
But when they start to change the way that they eat, that's when they start to see long-term changes.
"Fostering awareness removes a lot of the judgments of good and bad that so many diets are built on," says Michelle May, the Phoenix-based doctor and author of Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat.
In terms of mastering the food-as-reward dynamic, Wansink recommends adjusting your attitude about working out. If exercise doesn't feel like torture, you're less likely to pamper yourself with calories after it's done.
So call your workout a break. Call it personal time. Call it an antidepressant where all the side-effects are good. If you don't like to exercise, "reframe it in whatever way is motivating to you," Wansink says. And find a way to make it fun. Make a date to work out with friends so it doubles as a social hour.
"People underestimate the calories in food and overestimate the calories in activities," Wansink says.
"Calorie burn is irrelevant," says Rebecca Scritchfield, a registered dietitian and founder of Capitol Nutrition Group, a lifestyle counseling practice.
"It's a distraction from what you really need to focus on, which is how did you feel? Did you have fun? Did you challenge yourself? Will you be excited to work out again?"
When you feel like eating, rather than wrestle with your willpower, pause and ask: "Am I hungry? Does my body need food right now? Or is the desire to eat coming from something else?" May advises.
"It's like checking your gas gauge before you fill up your car," she says. If your stomach isn't grumbling, maybe you're procrastinating, feeling lonely or experiencing some other uncomfortable emotion or thought.
Resist the temptation to set up rigid food rules; deprivation leads to overeating, Scritchfield says. "When you cut out foods you enjoy, it makes you want the food more," she says.
"Eventually you become too tired to fight yourself, you overeat it, then you feel like you did something wrong and feel guilty." So if it's pizza night, enjoy it, Scritchfield says, but also serve vegetables and protein-rich foods, which will fill you up and satisfy you.
Or pick one food that you miss and serve it once a day, every day, in a realistic portion. "You'll probably notice that after a few days, the food is less appealing and you will start skipping days," she says.
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