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Mind Games

Every day at 4 p.m, a voice pops into my head and lists the contents of the vending machine down the hall. Fritos. This has been a really stressful week, the voice whispers, Fritos will help. In the middle row are salt and vinegar potato chips. You ate a healthy lunch; one bag is okay. And down near the bottom, there's that pack of chocolate-chip cookies. You can start getting skinny tomorrow. What's one more day?

Some afternoons, I find this nonsense perfectly convincing.

Using rationalizations to legitimize less-than-healthy eating is very common, and often accompanies strict diets and zero-tolerance approaches to foods like sweets, says psychologist Susan Albers, author of Eat, Drink, and Be Mindful. When eating becomes an all-or-nothing scenario -- you're either a "good eater" (celery and beans) or a "bad eater" (ice cream and pizza) -- anytime you want to indulge, you have to come up with an excuse.

But this pattern can sabotage our healthy eating efforts, notes psychologist Pavel Somov, author of Eating the Moment. "If you say, 'I'm just going to do this once and I'll be better tomorrow,' day after day, you lose your sense that you can ever change anything."

We spoke with experts about six common scenarios. With their suggestions, you'll learn to work with your body and your emotions instead of cajoling yourself into behavior that undermines your health.

I Deserve This
Scenario: You went to the gym, ate a salad for lunch, and didn't lose your temper when your coworker dismissed your ideas. Now it's dinnertime, and you want a big brownie for dessert. You earned it, you tell yourself.

Solution: Distinguish between enjoying a treat and rewarding yourself. "Often when people use food as a reward, they also use it as a punishment," says Albers. So along with thanking yourself for a job well done by overindulging, she notes, "if you feel like you've done something wrong, you might say, 'Well, no dinner for me.' " It's a potentially harmful dynamic.

To break the pattern, write a list of nonfood rewards. Consider the tangibles, like a new pair of earrings, as well as simple pleasures, like giving yourself permission to take a break.

When you have a treat, try not to link it to "good" or "bad" behavior, says Junelle Lupiani, a nutritionist at Miraval Tucson Resort and Spa. That means acknowledging that sometimes you just want a particular food (say, a Fudgsicle), no justification needed.

I'm Upset
Scenario: It's 10 p.m., and this is the first moment of downtime you've had all day. Flooded by stress and fatigue, you search for comfort in a huge bowl of chocolate ice cream.

Solution: Remember that emotional eating does not have to be emotional overeating. "In that moment, you might be aware that you shouldn't eat [the ice cream]," says Somov. "But at the same time, you have a competing desire to regulate your sense of well-being." So you justify your choice.

To break this pattern, accept that sometimes you're going to eat to cope with your emotions. But when you do, make self-care your first course. "Simply sitting down to eat tells your body to chill and feel better," he says. "You can ride that out and make it work for you." To that end, relax as much as you can before you start eating. Take a few quiet moments to breathe deeply. Light a candle or put on some nice music. By taking the edge off your feelings, you may not need as much food to feel better: a single cookie, for instance, instead of the whole box.

I'm too busy to eat well.
Scenario: You're juggling extra hours at work and an ailing parent. You know you should eat well, but if you add one more thing to your "should" list, the balancing act might collapse.

Solution: Take small steps that don't require much thought or effort. When you're overwhelmed by life, piling on detailed diet requirements makes things even more complicated, says Albers. Change doesn't have to be drastic. Put an extra apple in your bag, for instance, so you have a healthy snack at the ready. Or resolve to eat a couple fewer bites at every meal. You'll find that better eating comes naturally -- and it won't feel like another thing on your to-do list.

I Paid for It
Scenario: You're at an all-you-can-eat buffet. You tell yourself it would be a waste not to eat as much as possible.

Solution: Think of your budget in terms of calories rather than cash. All-inclusive cruises and buffets prove especially challenging for some people, says Albers. "They'll often tell themselves, 'I paid for it and I want to get my value.' But you should focus more on the calories than on the cash." The same principle goes for free food that comes your way, such as pizza left over from the meeting at work or bagels at the school function.

It's a Special Occasion.
Scenario: It's yet another coworker's birthday, so for the third time this week, everyone's standing around the office eating cake. Since it's a celebration, you let yourself have a piece.

Solution: Distinguish between routine celebrations and truly special occasions. The latter occur infrequently and involve a food or a moment set apart from your routine -- a monthly dinner date with your best friend, perhaps, or Christmas, when your mom bakes amazing gingerbread cookies.

When you're tempted to indulge at the next office party or happy hour, remind yourself that you're not compelled to partake at every gathering. When the genuinely significant days come up, plan for them; eat lightly before and after, for instance.

This Is My Last Hurrah
Scenario: You've decided to give up refined carbs -- tomorrow. So tonight, you order a pizza and a Coke.

Solution: Let go of all-or-nothing eating regimens. "Deprivation is a big pitfall," says Lupiani. "You decide you want to lose 10 pounds, and the first thing you give up is your favorite food." But abstinence works only in the short term; then you're back to rationalizing and "cheating" on your diet. If your eating plan leads you to binge on pizza, it's not sustainable.

It's entirely possible to eat healthfully without making your favorite treats off-limits. If your neighborhood cafe has to-die-for carrot cake, plan an outing every couple of months. Bring a friend, enjoy the conversation, eat a reasonable portion, and allow yourself to savor the cake because it's delicious, without inventing excuses.

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