Use a reward that actually works

Yes, Chocolate

I was going to be even handed and talk about different foods you could reward yourself with but let's face it, we all know that nothing's going to beat chocolate...

You see, rewards really work.  I guess they’re the oldest behavioural trick in the book.  Or maybe the stick came first, but rewards are much nicer and they’re pretty tried and tested.

The only question is what’s the prize?  Yes, ultimately the reward will be all the weight you’ve lost.  But we all know that can feel a long way off.  So next there’s the reward of seeing the weight lost when you step on the scales each day, and that’s great, especially when you mark it up onto your chart.  But even with the best behaviour there are always times when it doesn't seem to respond.  And, if we’re honest, what we really want is something more of a physical pleasure; a treat.

Diet writers often suggest that you reward yourself with all sorts of things (a day at a spa, new clothes, shoes - it’s often shoes) but I’m not sure that any of these things really work.  We all know that the thing we really want is the thing we’re missing most on a diet: a big lump of something sweet and sticky.

When you want a donut, you just want a donut. 

It’s down to Amy again. You might love new shoes, but they’re not donuts.  Amy’s programming operates at a fundamentally more basic level than our appreciation of nice clothes.  And the motivations are strictly non-transferable.

The instant, mouth-filling fix we’re looking for as a reward from food just can’t be substituted.  Food is a basic, human gratification and trying to deny it, or substitute it, is doomed to failure - and not without a fair bit of hardship on the way. 

But what kind of diet would recommend that you reward yourself with exactly the kind of thing you’re trying to cut out?  Duh.  For a start you’re going to be eating a bunch of empty calories.

But it might be worse than that.   What’s to stop one little reward becoming two?  Once you’ve broken the principle behind your diet, then what do you follow anymore?  Can you be on the ‘Paleo-except-when-cavemen-popped-into-Greggs-for-a-cheese-slice' diet?

What’s to stop it are some behaviour grooves.  At first glance it might seem like a stupid idea but this is the diet that recommends you reward yourself with exactly the kind of thing you’re trying to cut out.  That thinking misses the point.  The alternative to some nice foodie rewards is not a steady successful diet.  The alternative is the diet-crash-diet cycle.  We are not angels.  To beat Amy we can’t just ignore her and doggedly try to stick to a saintly set of eating restrictions week-in, week-out.  She will always revolt.

So the Diet Groove’s Reload Days are not just the reloading stage of the weight loss cycle, but they are a motivational reward too. 

You could argue that, overall, I would have lost weight quicker if I hadn’t let myself free into the Reload zone every weekend.  But I know that it’s far more likely that I'd crack, and a few weeks later I’d still end up having a big drink and a bag of nuts on a Friday night, except I’d be a few stone heavier, with another failed diet fallen by the wayside.

And Reload isn’t my only reward.  If you can successfully put in a couple of Fast Days and a couple of Burn Days, and really stick to them I think you darn well deserve a reward.  'Darn'?   Is this the Waltons? 

So the challenge is: how do you allow yourself a small treat without it spiralling out of control and sending progress completely off the rails?

If you can build strong enough guard-rails to keep the Amy Brain impulses at bay then you can have a treat (everyday) and stay on a hard working diet.  I tried three simple restrictions and they seem to work. 

First off, limit the damage in terms of what kind of food you set as your reward.  So not the donuts, I’m afraid.  But chocolate works.  A piece of dark chocolate won’t set you back a ton of calories.  It’s fairly low GI, it contains a reasonable amount of fibre and it’s credited with antioxidants and nutrients.  So, is it better not to eat it on a diet?  Yes.  Will it undo all the weight you’ve lost?  No.

Next you have to limit your quantity.  Bobby Moore, apparently would allow himself some peanuts with a drink.  But only twelve.  He’d count them out onto the table, no more no fewer.  I went for Lindt 85% cocoa chocolate.  There are 53 calories in one square and only 10 of those are carbs so there’s not too much danger there.  Now all I had to do was prevent myself having three.

And finally, making sure you stick to it.  I like to have a final cup of tea or coffee after my supper and I nearly always have some chocolate with it.  And actually, looking forward to that will help you avoid any other temptations that might crop up.

So on to the guard rails – and they’ve got to be physical.

In the past I’d get the chocolate out of the fridge door and put the pack next to my drink.  And as long as I only broke off small pieces each time I could probably eat half a bar before I acknowledged to my self that I’d had a piece of chocolate.

Perhaps with a regimented mind and the self-control of Bobby Moore this kind of restraint comes naturally but I needed to act out of character to beat this one.  This wasn’t the free wheeling eat what you like abandon of a Reload Day.  I had to get prissy.  And I didn’t like it a bit, but this is the kind of approach someone with my lack of willpower has to take to allow eating chocolate on a diet.

I rationed my chocolate out in advance.  Before even my supper at first, and then, once I could be trusted, just before I was going to eat it.  But I didn’t take the whole bar away from the fridge.  I broke off a piece or two and put it on plate, and put it back in the fridge.  Then I put back the bar.  When the time came to eat the chocolate later that evening I knew that that one piece was effectively all there was.  One bar has eight squares so I never needed to have any more than one in the fridge at a time, well at least until Friday.

It might strike you as a lot of fuss over a piece of chocolate and I agree.  But desperate times call for desperate measures and the double whammy of adding little physical barriers along side the psychological deterrent of a removed temptation really kept Amy out of the picture.

All the physical boundaries were a way of making sure the piece of chocolate stayed in a clearly demarcated mental space.  This was a single daily treat to reward myself for sticking on the diet.  It was something that some days I didn’t even feel I needed to take, but was available for me if I did.  It was part of even the strictest ‘Fast Day’ part of the diet.  I just promised myself not to break it.

Of course I broke it a few times.  Thanks Amy.  So much for promises.  But the big promise, the overall commitment, always held fast; I always got back on the horse the next day.  Just picked up where I’d left off and carried on with the routine that had just failed.  And, truth be known, the chocolate regime actually worked far better than the times I've cheekily opened a bottle of wine.