Should I punish myself when I go off my diet?

A complicated question. Psychologists prefer not to use punishment frequently because of nasty and unintended side effects that can derail you. Punishment can leave you feeling discouraged, make you feel like a failure, and become more aggressive or punishing to other people. Punishment does not direct us to the better alternative; it only suppresses behavior temporarily.

On the other hand, wise and selective use of punishment can shape your eating and exercise behavior. For these reasons, minimize punishing yourself, both in your daily behavior and in your thoughts. Rewards are more effective in the long run. Less stick and more carrot.

If you decide to use punishers -- and I know that some of you will (perhaps it’s just human nature), here are some pointers:
  • Punish like a tree. Properly applied, punishment should be immediate, contingent, and calm. Every time you run into a tree, you experience the same response. Emulate a tree should you decide to punish yourself in addition to rewards, and avoid having an emotional “I got you” response.
  • Each and every time. Be consistent with your punishment even though daily life might get in the way. We only get caught on rare occasion for cheating on diets. That’s a weak way of controlling behavior; instead, apply a mild punishment every time.
  • Catch it early in the behavior chain. Punishing yourself is more effective when it’s done early -- before the unwanted behavior culminates in a more serious outcome. Reaching for the forbidden cookie jar while dieting can be mildly punished. Don’t wait until after you’ve already eaten four cookies.
  • Variety is the spice of punishment. By definition, punishment is not necessarily a penalty; it’s anything that decreases the behavior. Thus, use a wide range of mild forms of punishment so that they do not lose their impact.
  • Double thrust the consequences. As you punish yourself for what not to do, simultaneously reinforce what to do. In our cookie example, you could mildly punish yourself for reaching for the cookies and then immediately reward yourself for eating a healthier substitute. Always combine punishment with rewarding the healthier alternative!
  • Put yourself in timeout. Much like you might ground adolescents or put youngsters in a “time-out” for their misbehavior, you can punish yourself just by removing a pleasurable event or activity. You can skip your favorite television show or lose some other “behavioral freedom.”

Changeology: 5 Steps to Realizing Your Goals and Resolutions

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Changeology: 5 Steps to Realizing Your Goals and Resolutions

Is there a scientific formula you can follow to change your life? Change is hard. But not if you know the 5-step formula that works whether you’re trying to stop smoking or start recycling. Dr....

Continue Learning about Dieting For Weight Loss

Dieting For Weight Loss

Dieting For Weight Loss

Losing weight quickly is OK as long as you do it safely, not through a crash diet. You can lose three or more pounds a week by burning more calories than you eat. If you burn an extra 500 calories per day through eating less and i...

ncreasing your physical activity, you can lose about one to two pounds of fat per week. Dietitians recommend a daily minimum of 1,200 calories per day (a 200-pound person might need 1,400 calories). Anything less makes you lose muscle as well as fat, which slows your metabolism. Instead, minimize your intake of starches, added sugars like high fructose corn syrup and animal fat from dairy and meats. Focus on eating fruits and vegetables, soy products, egg whites, skinless poultry breasts, shellfish and fish, nonfat dairy foods and meat that is 95 percent lean. Drink lots of water, don't skip meals, and eat only from a plate while seated at a table.

Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.