Have you completely given up on your healthy eating resolutions after eating a couple of cookies, or finishing a bag of chips?

Relapsing into old behaviours after breaking a new promise to yourself is a common experience. Psychologists call it the “Abstinence Violation Effect” (AVE). It affects people who are trying to change any type of addictive habit, such as drinking alcohol, smoking cigarettes, and of course, eating junk food.

There are a few common thought patterns that might make you say “Oh, screw it! I give up!” The good news is, we can change those thoughts to ones that help us stick with healthy eating in the future.

Stick with healthy eating

Stick With Healthy Eating: It’s Not All Your Fault 
  • When you mess up your diet, it’s easy to blame… well, yourself. This may sound like “I’m a failure.” “It’ll never work with me.” 
  • Reality Check: There are multiple reasons for the initial slip up, so don’t just blame yourself. For example, the food industry spends billions of dollars convincing consumers to buy their products, maybe work was unusually stressful today, or perhaps your kids chose to go to a fast-food restaurant to celebrate winning a soccer game. It’s often counter-productive to be overly harsh on yourself when you’ve encountered a setback. 
  • Try This Instead: See if you can name 3 factors, other than yourself, that contributed to this slip up. This can help you recognize your actions are influenced by other people and the environment around you. Offer yourself some kindness and compassion — changing eating habits is not easy, and you’re only human after all.  
Stick with Healthy Eating: You Can Do Something About It 
  • One reason that you may give up after making a mistake, is thinking “Why should I try again? My eating is out of control.” 
  • Reality Check: You can do something different next time. The road to better eating (and better health) is usually slightly bumpy (aka: there will be slip ups), but keep going, and you will end up at a different place than where you started. Although you might not be able to overhaul your diet overnight, you can make small changes that add up over time.
  • Try This Instead: Set realistic goals to help you re-gain a sense of control and get back on track. For example, if you are trying to cut back on your sugar intake, instead of vowing to never eat anything sweet again, try reducing the amount of sugar in your morning coffee, substituting a hard cooked egg for a danish at snack time, and serve yourself a smaller scoop of ice cream after dinner. 
Stick with Healthy Eating: It Might be Different Next Time 
  • One belief that could hold you back from making the changes you want to make is “I’ll just fall off the wagon again the next time.” 
  • Reality Check: That night when you ate too many potato chips while watching TV was a unique scenario. No two days are exactly the same. Depending on the situation, your eating behaviour can be different. Even if you’re struggling with a long-time habit, change is possible. No one is a fortune teller, so give yourself the benefit of the doubt, and you might surprise yourself one day! 
  • Try This Instead: Recognize the situations that get you into trouble ahead of time, and plan to cope with it. For example, if you notice it’s harder to control your eating after a few drinks, try ordering non-alcoholic beverages. If late night eating gets you into trouble, you can set an alarm to remind yourself to get to bed at a reasonable hour. If you always finish your kids’ leftovers in addition to your own dinner, provide a few containers and ask your kids to pack up their leftovers. 

When you’re trying to make a new eating habit stick, try to keep in mind that a few slip-ups are likely. Instead of tossing in the towel (AVE is at work here),  remind yourself that 1) multiple factors contributed to you making these food choices, 2) some elements of your eating are still within your control, and 3) trying again may lead to different outcomes next time. Offer yourself some self-compassion, and keep on the healthy eating journey! 

Have you experienced the AVE? Or are you usually able to continue a healthy eating pattern after a setback? Leave a comment below, I’d love to hear from you! 

How to Stick with Healthy Eating (after you’ve messed up)
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