Dietary changes and food elimination diets are treatments that I recommend routinely with patients. Having experienced the benefit of this therapy in my own life, I know the importance of making dietary changes. Patients remind me, however, that it is not always easy to change something that we do everyday, three or more times per day, that we have been doing for as long as we can remember.
After more than a decade of eating this way, I have forgotten the challenges of eating a diet free of gluten, dairy, eggs, soy, any other food or even all of the above because it is now a habit. I no longer spend any significant amount of time thinking about what I am going to eat at work, at home, at a party, a family gathering or while travelling. I do not crave the foods on my avoidance list. Temptation is rare, but when it does occur, I have developed a set of strategies to manage it.
Eating outside of the Standard American Diet didn’t start as a habit. It began by me making the choice that feeling good on a regular basis was more important than the instant gratification of the comforting taste and feeling of cheese, bread, cream, bagels, pizza, or cake. It took will power to say no to foods that I really wanted to eat day after day, to find recipes and foods that fit my diet, and to create new patterns of eating.
In the beginning, I thought about the foods I wasn’t supposed to eat all the time. I felt like an alcoholic walking past a bar every time I walked through the bakery section of the grocery store. I struggled to find meals that did not contain those things. Some days, I missed meals because I didn’t know what to eat or didn’t have food available. Other days, I “cheated” for the same reasons. At restaurants, I had to think about how to order to avoid these foods and to how to resist the bread, rolls, etc. that they brought before the meal, when I was really hungry. Asking the waiter to take it away (or not bring it in the first place), asking whoever I am with to put the offensive food as far away from me as possible, and asking who I am with to not let me have any are all tactics I have used. Now, it isn’t even a conscience thought.
Like an addiction, it is the first 4-7 days that are the most difficult. This is the time that will power will be necessary. Having a mantra about what choice you are making and why you are making it that you can say to yourself during times that are a challenge can be helpful. This is your body, which you will live in for the rest of your life. How do you want to feel and what are you willing to do to feel that way?
Fortunately, cravings typically significantly decrease after 4 days of having a food completely out of your diet. After 7 days, the cravings have generally resolved as long as the food is avoided. It is not unusual for the cravings to return in full force if the food is eaten. This is not an accident, but a result of biochemical responses to an offending food that drive us to eat more of it. Knowing that a food craving will decrease with time helps us to get through those first difficult days. Also realizing that you will have to go back through the difficulties if you eat it again, can help to continue to avoid those foods.
To set yourself up for success, make a list of situations that will involve temptation prior to starting an elimination diet. Some common ones are parties, traveling, and family gatherings. Plan how will you manage these temptations. Create a strategy for each situation. One that I have used is to eat before going to a party or gathering so that I had a full stomach to help resist foods. Another option would be to take food that you can eat with you so that you have something satisfying to eat. You can even share your special food and this part of your life with your friends.
Every time you come up against a temptation, follow the strategy that you have created to be successful. After responding to the same stimulus in the same way a number of times, it will create a pattern in your brain that will then become a habit. Once something becomes a habit, it requires very little energy to maintain it.
Create a reward system for when you succeed in resisting temptation. Perhaps it is a relaxing bath, a few minutes to watch the sunset over the Bay, or a “legal” treat. In time, you will reap the rewards of better energy, sleep, mood and sense of well being among other things. Until then, it is important to acknowledge your success in doing something for yourself and your health.