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When is Deprivation not Deprivation?

Have you ever met someone who said, “Oh, I’ll eat anything?”

Really?  Anything? 

The state of freshness or decay doesn’t matter to you: you drink sour milk and eat maggot-infested beef without concern. 

The source of the food doesn’t matter to you: you don’t care whether it came from a garbage can, was picked up from the floor, or stolen from another person’s lunchbox. 

The details and origin of the food doesn’t matter to you: any kind of human/animal waste or chemical compound can be used as fertilizer and you could care less whether you eat cows and raise dogs or raise cows and eat dogs. 

The means of preparation don’t matter to you: you have no preference around whether a food is raw, cooked, burned, salted, seasoned, pickled, canned, or fermented. 

The truth is, the vast majority of us have hundreds of guidelines governing what we will and will not eat. 

Spoken or unspoken, these food guidelines influence our everyday decisions:

“Always have at least one piece of Grandma’s casserole so you don’t hurt her feelings.”

“I never order spaghetti, lobster, or anything that will become stuck between your teeth during a dinner date.” 

“If an almond drops on my couch, I’ll eat it; on the floor, I’ll wipe it off and then eat it; on the floor for more than five seconds, I throw it away.” 

The voice of deprivation is asking you, “Why be deprived? Why would you want to set unnatural limits around your eating?”

Once you acknowledge all the food guidelines you have already, you can ask the opposite question: Why don’t you feel more deprived now? 

If you don’t eat maggot-infested beef, well, why don’t you feel ripped off, cheated, depressed, and angry about that?  How can you be happy and fulfilled, knowing full well you could be rummaging through a dumpster outside of a grocery store and be rewarded with pounds of free, rotten beef? 

The answer is simple: You do not experience all of your guidelines as restrictions.

We focus so much on our restrictions—that is, those food guidelines around our eating with which we struggle and resent—that we fail to consider the many guidelines we have totally accepted.  The voice of deprivation is quick to tell us about all the fun we are supposedly missing and eager to convince us that refraining from any food-related activity is just weird. 

What we rarely acknowledge is that most of us have a great many food guidelines with which we have no struggle at all.  Something about these guidelines is so self-evident, right, and useful to you that you do not experience them as keeping you away from something desirable.  You don’t fantasize about “breaking” this guideline (“Only 10 days until I get to eat maggot-infested beef!”) or attempting to rearrange circumstances so your guideline can remain intact (“Well, if I eat maggot-infested beef with lots of vegetables, it doesn’t really count.”).  You appreciate these guidelines and are glad they are there, even if you rarely think about them in this intentional way. 

When the voice of deprivation tells you that ‘going without’ is unacceptable, don’t argue.  Allow the voice of deprivation to have its full say, and add this to the end:

I have always lived within some guidelines around this (food/activity).

“It’s just not realistic.  I can’t give up drinking beer on the weekends.  I should be able to have a beer while watching the game without consequences.”

To this, you can add: “Of course, I’ve always lived within some guidelines around beer—I refuse to drink Brand X and never have more than three when I plan to drive.”

The voice of deprivation has a piece of the truth: changing your eating habits will mean going without a familiar food/pattern.

The value of perspective adds another piece of the truth: right now, you live quite contentedly within many food guidelines. 

Is there a way to transform a guideline (something we accept without struggle) into a restriction (something we accept without struggle)? 

We’ll explore this in the upcoming column. 

Copyright: Dr. Ndiya Nkongho

Dr. Ndiya Nkongho is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Atlanta, GA.  Her website is www.boldquestions.com.  She is an athlete who trains at BTB Fitness. 

Today's Pic: Rich Drye's prep.

Reader Comments (7)

Pretty brilliant stuff, Ndiya.

July 19, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSteveWalker

Mmmm, only 10 days until I get to eat maggot infested beef! Classic.

I was actually thinking about this very subject this weekend and how to change the conscious deprivation feeling into a normal subconscious guideline. To me it has a lot to do with how people become so emotionally attached to food. We've basically been trained to substitute or associate certain foods with happiness or pleasant experiences (birthdays and cake, romantic dates and dinner, holidays and feasts) not to mention the chemical effect certain foods can have on your brain. I'll be very interested to continue reading these articles.

July 19, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDavid W

Ndiya - Well said. You are pyscho smart!

July 19, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSmugs

Ndiya... thanks again for an excellent post!

This weekend was a Paleo killer for me. I almost want to cry just thinking about it. I am in the middle of filling out my sheet as I am typing this. It was awful... and I wasn't prepared... and I think I just went back to where I started in the challenge in 4 days! I messed up royally and let emotional eating get a hold of me again.

My dad is heading into his last rounds of radiation for his second bout with cancer in almost a years time. My family is just not on board with the healthy (well anything) eating. There is crap food everywhere and I am uber emotional about my dad so what starts as dried fruit (technically my cheat) and nuts moves all the way to cake, pie and ice cream by the end of the weekend. On the drive home I ate a personal pan pizza (pepperoni) that tasted like garbage and made me feel worse!

Surprisingly, I didn't drink... so I think what happened was that I was so concerned about keeping myself from drinking that I completely lost all will power when it came to the desserts and junk.

I know I'll get it back on track but right now I feel like complete garbage. CRAP!

Ah geez, Jessica, that's really tough. Sorry to hear about your dad. Sounds almost like you were trying to show some solidarity w/ your dad by making yourself feel physically crappy while he was being radiated. For what it's worth, seems that if you'd twisted your ankle & so couldn't do the WOD Rx'd that day, you would just do what you could and then go back to Rx when your ankle got better. No use in beating yourself up about it or feeling like you'd "messed up." Being with family when dad is undergoing chemo seems a lot rougher than twisting your ankle...so just get healed up, and back into the paleo as Rx'd when you're able.

July 20, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterKung Li

Thank you for the compliments!

Quick note about the article. There is a typo in the second-to-last sentence: it ought to read "Is there a way to turn a restriction (something we struggle to accept) into a guideline (something we accept without struggle)?"

Jessica, your willingness to take responsibility (that is, to see what was challenging for you and imagine how you might respond differently next time) is admirable. It can be challenging to simply eat the doesn't-work-for-us food, feel physically off, take appropriate responsibility, and stop the train there. Most of us keep on riding that train to the Beat Down Station, where we engage in blame, guilt, and/or other feelings that deepen the original misstep. Even though you might be at that station now, I admire the fact you already have your ticket out of there: you know you'll get back on track with your intentional, healthier food choices.

My best to you and every member of your family (and to ALL of us and assorted family members), no matter where we are on our healthy journeys!

July 20, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterNdiya

Thanks Kung Li & Ndiya! I'm already back on track and rolling... I really feel even stronger in my desire to follow my strict Paleo lifestyle after I saw what damage I could do in 4 short days! I really have been feeling better than ever and I want to keep it that way.

I got the fitness side planned for the month of August (when I will be home in Ohio again). #1 I am starting my day out by gathering my friends and family in the park and going at it bootcamp style... I need that early morning start and I feel good helping people I care about kick start their journeys. #2 I found a part-time box (www.crossfit440.com) that runs out of a strongman box (www.gorilla-pit.com) and the owner of the pit is allowing me to come in on the off days to supplement training where I need.

For the food... I have located all the farmers markets in the close vicinity... I am going to go there immediately when I arrive home to pick up some essentials. I am cooking like a madwoman here to make sure I arrive with plenty to keep on track. I have also contacted some family friends who own farms with grass-fed beef, lamb, & chicken. I will buy from them but I am trying to see if I can work for my meals so I can work on some functional skills.

sleep- I need sleep and I have arranged to go stay with my grandmother if I am not getting full nights of rest.

emotionally- I am a little worried about this... I figure if I really focus on all of the above and treat helping my dad as a job I will be level the whole time. I have even worked on several ways to flip around things on him. Instead of him needing me... I am going to explain that I feel incompetent when he doesn't ask for help on the smaller things. I am going to make it so that it is me... not him... needing to help him to make myself feel better. What Father could resist making their family feel needed and competent?

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