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Saturday, January 3, 2015

A Reasonable New Year's Resolution: Enjoy Your Food

The New Year is a time of optimism and hope. Just visit your local gym. You'll be sure to see a crowd of "resolutionists" courageously weightlifting, cycling, and running their way to the new, healthy person they'd promised to be. Unfortunately, we know from our own experience as well as scientific studies that most people will relapse into bad habits. As Maria Konnikova wrote in the The New Yorker last year:

"When the psychologist John Norcross researched New Year’s resolutions, in the nineteen-eighties, he found that more than fifty per cent of Americans made some sort of resolution. After six months, only forty per cent had stuck with it. When Norcross followed up two years later, the number had dropped to nineteen per cent."


So why do we feel so compelled to make New Year's resolutions--and why do we so often fail? In her post "Why We Make Resolutions (and Why They Fail)," Konnikova writes about timing and optimism. Apparently, as Konnikova writes, "The beginning of a week, a month, or a year forms what the psychologist Richard Thaler calls a notational boundary"--a turning point or new beginning.

The beginning of weeks and months inspire optimism for many people, and the beginning of a new year inspires extreme optimism for most people. Unfortunately, this optimism is hard to sustain. And so many people end up failing. Why? Well, too often we're "too positive." We set unreachable expectations, and condemn ourselves to failure. As Konnikova writes,

"Many backsliders relapse because they have overestimated their own abilities, underestimated the time and effort involved in staying the course, or have an exaggerated view of the effect that the change would have on their lives."

Overestimating abilities. Underestimating time and effort. An exaggerated view of change. I find these qualities often apply to people who, for whatever reason, wish to change their relationship with food. Unfortunately, instead of making subtle common-sense changes that we can easily maintain, we often shoot for the moon with all-or-nothing diets, extreme fasts, and/or expensive cleanses. The problem with these approaches, as most of us have experienced, is backsliding--we just can’t maintain our enthusiasm.

Or perhaps lack of enthusiasm is not the problem. We’re humans, after all, and our relationship with food is governed by nuanced emotions and shared memories--qualities that most "diets" completely neglect. Let’s face it: almost all "diets" present emotionless views of food and eating.

I have a tremendously complicated relationship with food--a relationship defined as much by illness as joy. What I’ve learned from exploring this relationship, if anything, is that truly nourishing food is about pleasure. In my opinion, an Epic Bar eaten in penance is not as healthy as a piece of chocolate eaten with reverence and joy.