Living by the Government's Book Doesn't Make Dieting Any Easier

A writer was healthier, but unhappier, trying to stick to the rules

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If eating healthy were an easy task, obesity wouldn't plague our country. But, it's not--so we need a little guidance. And that's where the government steps in, setting guidelines for healthy living--as if writing down some rules would magically solve the obesity issues. But, as The Morning News's Mike Deri Smith discovered after trying to strictly follow the government guidelines for a month, rules can make achieving a healthy lifestyle even harder. After his month of rules, Smith learned one thing: eating well and exercising, not so bad; living by the book, very un-fun.

Sticking to a diet is all about self-control, and as research has shown, limiting your behaviors triggers negative emotions -- your brain doesn't want to follow rules, found a study in the Journal of Consumer Research. "Exerting self-control makes people more likely to behave aggressively toward others and people on diets are known to be irritable and quick to anger." Another study found that self-control can only work for so long. "People have a diminishable supply of energy that the body and mind use to engage in self-control," explains the study author Kathleen Vohs.

Following Smith's emotions through the month, we can see how rules can feel more like a burden then a useful guide to getting in shape. As the month progressed he stuck to the regimen and we can see him accepting the changes, but the idea of following guidelines nags him, making it harder for him to stay on the diet horse.

  • As he begins, his mind resists; it doesn't like the idea of rules. "It feels unnatural to exercise just because this regime compels me rather than of my own volition, but the novelty of the thing helps me power through."
  • He wants what he can't have. "As part of an otherwise low-calorie diet, soda can be fine, but I’m avoiding it, while convenience and fast food is almost totally prohibited. I only want it more. Already, the regime is sandpaper against the usual momentum of my life."
  • Rules suck the fun out of fun. "I cycle around an abandoned airport for 90 minutes because the regime compels me to, not because I want to. And so I don’t enjoy it."
  • We are psychologically programmed to ignore the rewards of following the rules.

After food and a long walk, my mood has changed completely and my pores are sweating sunshine. Unfortunately, I won’t remember these moments, because my brain, which I blame reflexively for lots of deep problems that I assume are evolutionary, is programmed to remember pain much more vividly than happiness.

  • The rules are good rules, if only they weren't rules. "I will absolutely go back, but she’s making an inevitable but also important observation: While I am counting the days eagerly, I don’t want to go all the way back to where I started, because minus following rules so closely, this is a good way to live."
  • Now that he doesn't have to follow the rules, he follows them anyway.

This isn’t working out quite as I expected. While I fully expect to eat duck, fried rice, and spring rolls for dinner, maybe I’ll take the tofu soup. With the pressure off, I still want to exercise, because it’s fun, and I want to do a wider range of exercise to see how that feels, too.

Ultimately, Smith adopted a relatively healthier lifestyle, but not the ideal government sanctioned one. (He admits to heavy drinking.) Rather than put the burden on people to exhibit self control, Liu suggests behavioral interventions, Smith might react more positively to that type of counseling.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.