It’s amazing how healthy eating suddenly switches into Hard Mode after a bad day. This is where so many people struggle to stick with Paleo, and it’s perfectly understandable. When you’re feeling basically OK, it’s not so hard to eat well, but on those truly awful days, the caramel fudge starts looking really tempting.
But this doesn’t have to be you! You can make good decisions even when nothing else in the world is going right. It just takes a little planning and the willingness to stop relying on “willpower” to save you in a pinch. So, are you ready to get started?
Why Stress and Fatigue can Undermine your Best Intentions
First of all, it’s time to get to know the enemy.
Stress and fatigue are a one-two punch: not only is your body craving quick energy (read: sugar), but your more rational mind is weaker to resist it. It’s a very well-documented fact that people make lousy decisions when they’re stressed and tired. Most people tend to go for whatever they think will make them feel better the fastest, whether that’s caving to a cigarette, blowing off work in favor of TV, spending too much money on designer shoes, or eating a whole sleeve of Oreos: anything to get those feel-good hormones pumping again. No matter what you might think when you’re feeling better, in that moment of distress and exhaustion, anything that might make it better gets awfully compelling.
What’s more, comfort-eating in response to stress does actually work. In this study, for example, researchers found that overweight women could effectively self-medicate for a bad mood by eating refined carbs.
That’s why stress-eating is so incredibly hard to fight: you’re not just imagining the way it makes you feel better. You’re actually turning down a reasonably effective form of “therapy,” maybe the only one you’ve ever really learned how to use.
The problem is that this “therapy” only works in the short term; in the long term, it isn’t doing you any favors. But our lizard brains don’t think long-term. They think “stress is bad; sugar will make it go away; must have sugar.”
This has absolutely nothing to do with willpower. It’s a survival instinct, like blinking when something heads for your eye, or pulling your hand off a hot stove. The problem is not a “lack of willpower,” and the solution is not “more willpower.”
So what is the solution? Well, you can start by…
Planning Ahead for Bad Situations
When you’re exhausted and stressed, it’s very hard to weigh all your options and carefully consider the long-term consequences of your decisions before you make them. Short-term rewards start looking disproportionately good, and long-term consequences fade into the background. The smart response is to plan for the fact that you won’t be thinking straight, instead of relying on your future self to have superhuman self-control.
Being a responsible adult does not mean having the power to barrel through any obstacle with willpower. It means having the foresight to plan for the times when you won’t have willpower available.
Imagine a future you who’s having the worst day imaginable. Future you won’t be very good at making decisions. But current-you can make good decisions on behalf of future-you. So the question then becomes: what can now-you do to make healthy eating easier for future-you?
Some quick suggestions:
- Tuck a healthy snack in your briefcase, purse, or laptop bag – and while you’re at it, stick one in your car, your desk at work, and anywhere else you have room. Make the healthy choice even more convenient than the vending machine.
- At home, always leave the fixings for a super-quick healthy meal ready to hand. Cans of fish are perfect for this (since they essentially never go bad); so are bags of frozen vegetables. Alternately, you could cook something double now, and stick the extra in the freezer labeled “[RECIPE NAME] – For Emergencies Only.”
These simple acts of planning ahead can make healthy food seem like less of a hurdle, which means you’ll be more likely to eat it.
It also helps to write down a game plan – the act of writing it down really makes it “real” so don’t skip this step. Just fill in the blank: “When I’m stressed and craving sugar, then I will ______________________ before making any decisions about food.” Fill in the blank with anything that will make you feel happier, in control, or less frantic. Write it on an index card (or three) and keep it where you’ll see it when you need it.
When the Time Comes…
Planning ahead is the first step, but it also helps to know some emergency self-management techniques to help shore up your decision-making skills. Just a few suggestions:
- Make a tiny good decision. Even if it has nothing to do with food, this will get you to literally become someone who makes good decisions even when they’re stressed and tired. You’ll get on a roll, and it’ll be easier to make a healthy choice with food.
- Do something else go give yourself a boost. When your mood is higher, you’ll be able to make better decisions. So before you make any decisions about food, watch a funny video, read a chapter of your favorite book, go for a walk, or just give yourself half an hour to lie down and stare at the ceiling – whatever will make you smile. Then decide if you really do want that cupcake.
- Write down your choices and the consequences. This can help you get some distance from the decision and take some of the emotional weight out of the process. Somehow, seeing “should I eat a pizza and deal with the stomachache, or should I cook healthy food and feel better afterwards?” in black and white can really help it sink in.
- Remind yourself why food will not help in the long run.Write it down or say it out loud: “Eating a [brownie/cookie/pint of ice cream/_____________] will not fix my [lousy boss/broken car/awful work schedule/sick pet/______________]” Sometimes, all you need is a little reinforcement to go from knowing it to actually acting on it.
- Get away from temptation. If you can’t get junk food out of the house, go for a walk (and leave your wallet at home, so you won’t walk straight to the grocery store and get something there). Once it’s not quite so immediate, you’ll be able to make a calmer decision about what you really want to do.
One last piece of advice: if you do slip up, don’t beat yourself up about it afterward. One meal, or one day, or even one week, will not derail your life. It will only do serious damage if you let it suck you down into unhealthy food in the long term. Just let it go and get right back to healthy food with your next meal.
Summing it Up
Even smart, motivated, educated people make bad decisions when they’re stressed and tired. And at some point, you will get stressed and tired – so plan for it in advance to make sure you don’t take a nosedive off the Paleo train when it happens. Keeping emergency food around and setting a game plan for what you’ll do when the sugar cravings strike can help you make decisions that you’ll be proud of later.
In the moment, try strategies like writing down your options or doing something to perk your mood up before you make any decisions about food. And if you do end up eating something you regret, don’t let it suck you down into a cycle of bad decisions. Move past it and get right back on your feet: soon that one bad day will be just a blip on the radar.