Don’t You Just Want A Cookie Sometimes?

When I first started my 30 Day Reboot (a modified version of the Whole 30 program), I was at a weekend conference with a friend of mine about 5 days into it. On the second day of the conference, as we were sitting at Panera Bread and I was eating a delicious spinach salad off of their “hidden menu”, she said to me: “don’t you just want a cookie sometimes?”

soon

After I realized that she meant during this 30 days, and not in general (because hello, I love cookies!), it got me thinking about my mindset during this period. I’ve actually had a few people over the last few weeks tell me that they wish they had the motivation/dedication/self-restraint that I do, or that they wouldn’t be able to be around certain foods and not eat them. I don’t consider myself to have super human strength in self-restraint, but I have found this 30 days to be fairly easy, so what gives? What causes that mental shift in focus — going from seeing cake and NEEDING CAKE to seeing cake and feeling quite indifferent about it?

I think it comes down to one word: don’t vs. can’t.

For instance, if I walk into a bakery, with all of their amazing baked goods on display for all of my senses to take in (ohmygod that bread smells so good…), part of me is going to want one of those delicious treats. In the past, if I had told myself “I can’t” have one of those treats, I would want it more. However, once I decided to do this 30-day Reboot, can’t turned into don’t, and all of a sudden, it’s not some external influences telling me that I can’t have this food, but now it’s me telling myself that I don’t eat that — not for the next 30 days, anyway.

When you make it your choice, your decision, and take all of the external bullshit out of the equation (did I workout enough this week? did I have sweets yesterday? am I feeling sad/angry/frustrated/excited?), it becomes much easier to stick to a certain plan. Not to mention, I think it is much easier for the psyche to register “I am not eating cookies for the next 30 days“, than it is “I can never eat cookies again! Cookies are SO BAD!” See the difference? I’m not vilifying cookies, I actually really love cookies, and I think that they can find their way into anyone’s diet in moderation. Instead, I am making a conscious decision to say no to cookies for 30 days, and then when the 30 days is up, I can make a new decision on whether I want a cookie or not.

I think one of the things that is hardest for people when it comes to healthy eating is the stress of constantly making decisions. If you have a jar of candy on your desk at work, every time you glance at that jar, you are making a decision (whether it’s conscious or unconscious) on whether or not you should eat a piece of that candy. There is a great book called Mindless Eating by Brian Wansink, PhD, where he talks about this very premise. The more times you have to make that decision to not eat a piece of that candy, the greater your chances of caving to the candy jar by the end of the day, if not by lunch time. According to the research presented by Wansink, our brains can only handle so much decision making in one day.

mindless eating

So doesn’t it make sense that when the decision is made in advance and there is no constant subconscious battling over whether or not you will have a piece of candy,  your brain is free to focus on other things? Sure, sometimes I might want a cookie, as my friend suggested, but I’ve already made the decision, starting on January 6th, that I wouldn’t have any cookies for 30 days. So when I do see some delicious looking fresh-baked cookies, there is no internal cookie-or-no-cookie battle, there is simply the realization that the cookie looks good, but I won’t be having any at this time. 

So really, for those who have complimented my determination, etc., it’s really just all about making decisions. Making your brain choose whether or not to have a cookie every time you see a cookie, is asking your brain to do an awful lot of unneccessary work. I think it’s also important to note that I’m not telling myself that I’ll never have cookies/bread/cake/candy again, I’m just telling myself that I’m not having it right now. Telling yourself that you will never again have your favorite food is kind of a form of masochism, if you ask me, but telling yourself that you won’t have that food for 30 days, or two weeks, or one week? I think we can all handle that. And I’m not saying that it’s always easy,  just that it’s possible.

The point is, don’t make your brain work so hard. If you know that you eat cookies every night before bed, but you really want to learn to tame that craving, set some boundaries for yourself and stick with them. Don’t continue to make your brain make that decision every night — make it ahead of time, and hold yourself accountable. Decide that you won’t have cookies for 1 week or two weeks, and stick to it.  Yes, the first few nights that you don’t have cookies will be hard, and you’ll definitely be tempted to dig in to that bag of Oreos, but if you give it a chance, and stick with the decision you made, you might be able to beat that craving after all.  And I can almost guarantee you that after your time period is up, you’ll be much better at making those decisions on a regular basis — you will control your thoughts about the cookies, instead of the cookies controlling your thoughts.

Readers: What do you think of the difference between can’t and don’t when it comes to food? Do you think you could (or would) give up your favorite treats for 30 days?

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12 thoughts on “Don’t You Just Want A Cookie Sometimes?

  1. Um I kinda always just want a cookie….lol. But I totally get what you’re saying about mindset. If I say I don’t want something then I don’t want it, but can’t have means eating all of it in sight. The power of the mind is amazing. You explained it perfectly.

  2. Excellent piece, Steph. I don’t think the brain is trained in absolutes. (That’s probably why it’s so hard to be a nun, stay on a restrictively ludicrous diet, or never talk to your ex again.) I think it becomes a flight or fight reflex when you have to make the decision constantly, like your example with the candy jar. And sadly when it comes to anything that society has enforced should be about a DIET or being THINNER, the flight out fight becomes a good or bad judgment about the food and ourselves for partaking. And that’s worse for your overall health and happiness than any. single. cookie. could. ever. be. for. you.

    You’re spot on, as usual.

    • Thanks Tam! And you are so right — I think that the constant judgement (from others and ourselves) really can put you into a kind of panic mode. No need to beat yourself up over a cookie, even if society is telling you that cookies are BAD! I think it’s much more important to develop a healthy relationship with food, rather than just avoiding things all together.

  3. I might have to search out that book. I think I have a pretty disordered way of eating sometimes, when I’m at my really “bad” state, and I’m constantly fighting that battle of “Well, I shouldn’t eat that. But I’m going to the gym today. But, I still shouldn’t. But, I can – I mean, one cookie isn’t going to kill me. Of course I can! I can eat whatever I want! I’m a conscious human being! I can eat just one cookie! I don’t have to live my life on some stupid diet! Screw it, I’m having a cookie.” And then 10 minutes later, I have pulled a Cookie Monster and eaten more cookies than I can count on 2 hands… ~ Lindsey

    • Lindsey – I think that’s really common, I even do that sometimes! Definitely look for that book, it’s a pretty quick read but there are some really interesting points that he makes. It just kind of gives you a different perspective on why mindless eating is so commonplace, and what kind of strategies you can use to overcome it.

  4. I find that my debate is always, “is it worth it?” verses “can’t.” Since I started understanding food more, maybe about 5 years ago, I started noticing how I felt after certain foods. When I found out I was allergic to gluten everyone was mourning for me and I was bummed, ate 2 cupcakes at my favorite bakery and that was it. I have no idea how I made such a fast decision other than my health. Every since then, sometimes I will desperately want something bad and the risk isn’t high enough to say no so I eat it. The latest was in the Bahamas last month. Everyone (and I mean EVERYONE) talked about the coconut crusted french toast. I waited until our last day and ate them and loved every second of them. If I didn’t allow myself to have them I would have regretted it but because I knew I didn’t “need” them I had control.

    • I think sometimes there are just some things that are worth a major splurge, even if you know you might not feel too great after! And I think with the gluten, the switch was much easier because it was for your health, it wasn’t just an arbitrary decision to never eat carbs again! Imagine if you had tried to remove gluten just on a whim, it would have been so hard. But with the knowledge of your diagnosis, your mind was able to leave behind the cravings relatively easy.

  5. i really love your point about being in the mindset that no, i’m not saying no this food FOREVER – i’m just saying no to this food for now. it really makes a huge difference– you don’t feel stressed out and upset that you’ve deprived yourself of something permanently– you feel in control, like you could easily have that food any other time you want. i think too often we think in such extremes– and when is anything in life an ultimatum? great post!!

    • Thanks so much! And you’re right, it really does come down to stress vs. feeling in control. During my 30 day thing, there were a few times that I wanted chocolate but I never felt out of control, because I knew I would have some soon. I think if I had decided to never have chocolate again, I probably would have caved and eaten all the chocolate 2 weeks in.

  6. Perfectly explained. I love biscuits, cookies, sweeties nom nom nom nom!!! I had a real issue with chocolate a couple years ago and after many failed attempts at trying to remove it from my diet I decided to try the “medicinal” approach. I could have some. One chunk only per day. The first few days were dicey, the second week I really enjoyed my one and only chunk of chocolate and saved it for my evening cup of tea treat, the third week something strange happened. I got bored of chocolate!! By the fourth week I had no longer had this burning desire to have what I saw as a necessity – chocolate. For the next two months the chocolate stayed untouched and in the end was devoured by my husband, hahaha! I’ve taken this approach on quite a few things over the past two years. One thing at a time using the medicinal approach to remove unhealthy food from my diet. So full on “can’t” just doesn’t work, setting hard and fast rules that are simple work wonders. Spot on.

    • I love how you took that very structured approach! It’s like once we can get our brains to get over that “need need need” feeling about a certain food, we can start appreciating it in much smaller doses and actually controlling when and how much of it we have. I’m glad you found something that works for you when it comes to treats and indulgences!

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