I think one of the more misunderstood topics when getting healthy is deprivation. Absolutely, you get to define it for yourself (you’re the one that has to live your life, no one else), and everyone has an opinion on the topic too, but (hopefully) we’re all in a constant state of evolution, and for me the definition of deprivation needs the same fluidity.
Before I go off on my rant, for me deprivation is defined by intent. I’m not walking up to a vegetarian and explaining to them that their food choices are unsustainable. I’ve cut lots of foods out of my life and definitely binged on them because I felt deprived, but that’s usually when the reason I’m cutting them out is to lose weight. That’s why I’m always giving “losing weight” such a hard time, that goal and focus just isn't sustainable for me because it’s too singular in its purpose and temporary in its intent. The choices I make to lose weight don’t last. Those same choices with a goal of “this is what I do now” exponentially increases the likelihood that it becomes a habit. Eating broccoli and chicken on Friday night to lose weight typically ends when the scale doesn’t validate the behaviour. When you eat broccoli and chicken on Friday night with some consistency because “this is what I do now”, it actually becomes what you do now. Intent plays a huge role in our relationship with food. It is the backbone of the definition of deprivation for me.
Plain talk: as a 361lbs guy, I was never satisfied with the amount of indulgent food I was eating, so I’ve always suffered through some kind of version of deprivation anyway. Even when I’m eating whatever I want in whatever quantity I want. Oh I’d get full, but that’s not the same thing as “satisfied” right? I got used to eating until I felt sick, and the moment I wasn’t feeling sick it was the signal to eat more. On the rare occasion I reached “satisfied”, it was very temporary.
So when I was on a program on previous health journeys I felt pretty deprived eating a single serving of ice cream or a handful of fries. That was probably 1/10th of the indulgent food I was used to on a daily basis. When I heard in meetings that having a small portion of my triggers was the way to avoid feeling deprived, my journey got even more frustrating. Who are these people that are satisfied with 1/3rd a cup of ice cream????!!!!! These little dribbles of my favourite indulgent foods were just a reminder that the lifestyle I really preferred was waiting for me in the pantry (or freezer). My life revolved around indulgent food for so long, it influenced most decisions I made. In fact, I defined indulgent food as “food”. Everything else was “healthy food”.
So these little measured portions of sugar and salty crunchy snacks didn’t pair well with my food obsession, it simply reinforced an unconscious, unintended conclusion: indulgent food is happiness, which is why you shouldn’t cut it out.
If indulgent food is happiness, and I can’t get enough indulgent food to feel satisfied, that’s a recipe for perpetual failure. 30 years in my case.
Trying to treat this more like an addiction and less like a weight problem really helped me. It meant cutting out trigger foods with the intent that I may never eat them again. A recovery mindset forced me to contemplate a life without my substances of abuse. Is a recovering alcoholic depriving themselves? Thankfully my food obsession/addiction isn’t as severe as alcoholism, but the mindset of recovery had more positive inflict on my journey compared to daily "moderation”. Is recovery an unsustainable lifestyle or is there intent to simply live life without something in it you can’t control? This is what I started rolling around in my head. You can’t give a new relationship in your life a fair chance if you refuse to let go of the old one. Truthfully, avoiding trigger foods was always intended as an experiment for me, a path I had never taken with the right mindset and I owed it to myself to see where it led. I never said to myself “you’ve eaten your last chip”. I needed to either prove to myself that trigger foods aren’t the key to happiness, or confirm that they actually are. When I got a sense that life didn’t suck eating fruit on a Saturday instead of chips, then I was interested in what longer term impact my triggers had on hunger, on cravings, on momentum, on mood, on mindset. This was a lifestyle and mindset I had never really lived. I wanted to see where it would take me.
The key for me successfully creating a lifestyle without triggers (my triggers are refined sugar, pasta, and salty crunchy snacks) was threefold:
Accepting that I’m going to feel deprived and making peace with it (I’ve always felt deprived anyway, I just stopped chasing that impossible feeling of “satisfied”),
I declared war on hunger (that was a big positive change. I may not be able to feel satisfied eating triggers but I stopped tolerating hunger. I ate fruit, veg, and lean protein until I was full), and finally
I attempted a mindset that was brand new for me....”just keep going”. I didn’t eat this way until my birthday, or Christmas, or my vacation. I just kept going.
This experiment changed my life. Our house is filled with chocolate, cookies, salty snacks now. Sometimes I eat some of that stuff. Sometimes I over eat it. Sometimes I binge on it. But the overwhelming majority of the time they’re not what I choose to eat. I lived my life without those foods long enough that I proved to myself that my happiness and a sustainable life aren’t dependent on those foods. They’re optional to a happy life.
Explore this concept of deprivation. What does it mean to you? Is the definition static or fluid? How does intent influence your personal understanding of deprivation?. Most modern health programs frown hard on deprivation. But most modern health programs don’t focus on people with more than 100lbs to lose like me. I needed to tweak these concepts to suit my success, instead of my comfort (which was always my priority).
If you’re doing great improving your health, I hope this was an entertaining read. If you’re struggling, are there foods that trigger bad patterns? Do you think those foods are necessary for a happy life? Tweak this concept of deprivation to see if it can kickstart a new path to success for you. And don’t hesitate to ask questions in the comments. This is only scratching the surface of this controversial concept.