Do not — DO NOT — deprive yourself


In Woody Allen’s very  funny movie Sleeper (1973), he plays a health food store owner who travels to the future and discovers everything that was bad for you (smoking, fast food) is now good for you. I have often wondered whether, in such circumstances, I would change my long-standing eating preferences (which now happen to be “healthy”) so that I would eat heavy desserts, creamy sauces, sweets, McDonalds food, etc.  Now I dislike such foods, but if it turned out they were good for me, would I learn to like them?  The answer is, probably yes.

Over the last two decades, I have absorbed the culture of healthy eating to the extent that I PREFER to eat this way.  I don’t know for sure, but I suspect that I have brainwashed myself.  Which is a good thing.  There is ample and growing evidence that we can control our likes and dislikes to a great extent (it takes time and practice).

What I know does NOT work for me or many other people is to change the way I eat just to be “good” or “healthy.”  If I do that, I feel deprived, and will get angry, resentful, and ultimately go back to eating what I like.

The same is true for exercise; do it because you want to, not because you “have to.”   You will be happier, and healthier.  What’s the point of being healthy if you’re not happy?


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8 Responses to “Do not — DO NOT — deprive yourself”

  1. thinkingarthur Says:

    Maybe I am just a contrarian, but I like most of the foods that are bad for me much better than those that are good for me, although I can discipline myself to avoid them to a large extent. And those foods which are bad for me which I dislike? I think I’d dislike them even if I found out they were health-foods. The trick, I think, is to figure out what is good for you, and try to find a sufficient variety of foods in that category which you like. Then you will be less tempted to stray.

  2. Charles Goldman Says:

    Thinkingarthur: I think your approach is a reasonable one and used by many. Still, we tend to underestimate the degree to which our preferences are determined, over time, by the influence of environmental/social/cultural factors, and the degree to which food preferences are influenced by feelings and beliefs. All of these things are changeable, and it is my contention that we can exert our “willpower,” not to make ourselves do stuff we don’t want to do, but to change what we want.
    P.S. Arthur, do you feel deprived?

  3. thinkingarthur Says:

    No, should I?

  4. Charles Goldman Says:

    Absolutely not. The point of this post is — do whatever it takes to not feel deprived.

  5. rebeccascritchfield Says:

    Hi, great blog… I have to chime in on the deprivation and controlling your likes and dislikes. I 100% agree that your food preferences are learned and can be unlearned. But some people have psychological and behavioral issues (emotional/stress/depression) with food that get in their way of their intention to make lasting, healthful changes. I’ll speak personally here. My obese mother was about to get a visit from her obese sister. Even though she was newly diagnosed with diabetes she told me she “could not” start making healthier choices (suggested a grilled chicken sandwich with salad on the side instead of burger/fries) until after the visit with my aunt was over. She said the reason was that they would not have as much fun together if she ordered the grilled chicken and side salad. Well, she is now about to have her second angioplasty. She is status post MI and has heart disease, diabetes, and morbid obesity.

    Now, cut to me… a registered dietitian and marathon runner. Yes, I grew up eating fried bologna. We had a fry daddy on our stove. We ate tons of cheap food: ramen, barrel “fruit juice” boxes, twinkies and other hostess things, and fast food a few times a week.

    I can’t imagine having a diet filled mostly with junk. It is undesirable. Watching fast food commercials turns my stomach most of the time. Now, don’t get me wrong… I love pizza (thick crust) and ice cream. I’ve learned my “vices” meaning… there is no way I will stick to 1/2 cup serving of ice cream. So instead, I change the FREQUENCY in which I buy ice cream. This way, when it’s in the house, we have a choice to make it last or just “go to town” but then its gone until next time. With pizza… I learned I do not feel deprived if I start with a nice big, healthy salad — usually greek or italian. Then, I enjoy one slice at a time and usually I am full by the first slice. I’ll have a second slice for pleasure if I really feel like I “want” it even though hunger-wise I don’t need it.

    The difference here is that I don’t have a habit of downing half a large pizza. That is not normal eating behavior. But you can find a way to fit anything in your healthy diet — as long as you can be realistic with what is “normal” based on your other lifestyle choices. When I’m training for a marathon or triathlon, my calorie needs go way up and I liberalize my eating behaviors.

    Just my two cents on this interesting topic.

  6. Charles Goldman Says:

    Thanks, Rebecca, for the helpful comment. I assume that the strategy you use for yourself works to prevent feelings of deprivation. I wholeheartedly agree!
    Your mother’s story is an interesting one. It certainly reinforces the research on the effect of others on our health-related behavior (see

  7. hwall Says:

    Charlie, I have been very impressed wtih your description of how we define “food” for ourselves. I know that it was quite a while ago that I stopped eating sweets. I’m not sure what prompted this change, but for at least 15 years, anything fairly sweet seems somewhat inedible to me. Once in a while, I’ll feel the need to eat some ice cream, but I think that has more to do with texture or mouth-feel than taste. Anyhow, what might happen if all of a sudden, sweets were considered health food (I do remember Woody Allen)? I think it would be hard for me to change my view since I get physically uncomfortable if I eat more than a few bites of sweet things.

    Now what about the concept of “what is (good) food?” Do we instruct ourselves? I exercise so much that I’ve come to believe that it almost doesn’t matter what I eat as far as weight control is concerned. However, I also hate to eat wasteful calories, stuff that is sugary, salty, artificial, chemical laden. It seems to me that junk has certain tastes, and good food of whatever sort just tastes better and probably provides better nourishment and energy. That should lead to better performance/endurance when I swim. I cannot say that I avoid creamy sauces, meat, or other high calorie/fat foods, since I do eat them quite often. But I think cooking things from scratch, from fresh ingredients, and eating a lot of vegetables and fruits provides both eating pleasure and energy.

    What do you think about the recent news concerning multi-vitamins? Most of the doctors I’ve had really pushed the vitamins, but I figured that I had a balanced enough diet and didn’t bother with them. Some of these same doctors pushed hormone replacements which I also avoided. How do we know when medications really are needed? I have opted for blood pressure meds, mostly due to family history and inability to control bp any other way. I still don’t like taking anything though and wish diet and exercise would work for me (they don’t).

  8. Charles Goldman Says:

    In general, medications and food supplements are way over-hyped and over-used. When it comes to blood pressure, though, current wisdom is do whatever works to keep it under control (I agree). The thing about learning and re-learning food preferences is: we don’t know; but I suspect we can change our preferences over time based on changes in our beliefs. Do we have some innate ability to tell what is healthy? That is a tough one, but if we do, it probably can be overridden by social influences. Why do so many people learn to love McDonald’s food and other crap? It seems to overwhelm any tendency people may have to prefer natural foods. This occurs in most every culture world-wide.

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