Why Diet Rules Backfire (and How to Quiet Your Inner Rebel)

The rebellious teen is a cookie cutter stereotype if there ever was one, partly because it's based in reality. You know those in-between years when we battle between lingering immaturity and the desire to come into our own destiny. It's a time when sometimes rules are broken just because they are rules, even if they were meant only to serve us.

Most of us have matured beyond the flagrant defiance of our teenage years (well, hopefully), but most of us still have a little of that rebel left inside us, ready to strike out when rules become too rigid or when life separates us too much from who we want to be.

And when we diet. Always when we diet.

The story goes something like this: XYZ diet is the best diet for me because I should [lose weight, get healthy, detox my liver, purify my soul, etc.]. Therefore, X foods are good for me and I should eat a lot of those. And Y foods are okay for me but should mostly be avoided. And Z foods, well, they are just straight up poison and I should never touch them again. 

The problem? Every "should" you just told yourself is nudging your inner rebel out of hibernation. At first, the inner rebel doesn't say much. It's being squelched by the rush of adrenaline and excitement that comes with starting the XYZ diet. This rush overpowers any rebelliousness (and possibly even common sense) for a few days or weeks.

Then comes the moment you swore would never come again. The moment where the low-carber inhales an entire loaf of fresh-baked bread. Or the low-fat dieter devours ten rice cakes slathered with peanut butter. Or the sugar-buster swallows massive spoonfuls of rocky road ice cream right out of the container.

How did we get here? We knew better. We knew all the rules, about the X foods and the Y foods and the Z foods. How did we know so much and then go running in the opposite direction?

Are the rules just flat out wrong? Sometimes, but not always. Occasionally they are even based on sound science. It's not really the rules themselves that are so wrong, but what you tell yourself about them.

You don't rebel against the rules and suggestions. You do rebel against the idea that you should, you must, you have to follow them.

How to Quiet Your Inner Rebel

To quiet the inner rebel, you first have to know what it wants:

  • Your inner rebel wants you to be safe and accepted. Sometimes your inner rebel exists to defend you. It rears its ugly head when you get the idea that somehow you aren't acceptable or worthy as a human being when you don't follow the XYZ rules. And this is a hidden agenda of many diets, to make you feel morally superior if you follow the rules, and horribly inferior if you don't. Well, I don't have to tell you that no one wants to feel like a worthless sack of manure. It's only natural to want to rebel against this feeling (and then eat a whole pan of brownies to prove it wrong).
  • Your inner rebel want you to be heard and recognized. Diets tell you one thing very clearly: you are unreliable and even dangerous. Listening to yourself is crazy. You are so messed up that the only way you can live a decent life is to ignore your own instincts completely and give yourself over to the XYZ diet rules. Your inner rebel hates this feeling, because it believes you are an intelligent, capable person who can make sound decisions (at least most of the time) with the right information and perspective.

When you look at it this way, you realize your inner rebel isn't really trying to hurt you. It's actually coming to your defense (though not always in productive ways). Its intentions are ultimately positive, though its execution often does more harm than good.

The key to erraticating patterns of rebellious behavior is not to suppress, coerce or threaten your inner rebel (that didn't work on you when you were a teenager, did it?). Instead, work to understand the underlying causes of your rebellion and then eliminate those. Here are some ways you can do this:

  • Accept yourself. It sounds trite and cliche, but don't underestimate it. Being okay with who you are is a vital part living a full life. It's okay to strive for improvement in your life, but in order to make truly positive and lasting changes, you have to accept yourself as you are right now. You can't hate yourself into having a good life.
  • Learn to listen to your body. Don't let anyone tell you that if you listen to your body, gluttony and degradation is the only possible outcome.Your body doesn't want to live on carrot sticks and rice cakes--but it also doesn't have any desire to be stuffed with cheesecake until it can't even walk. There is a healthy balance that can be found through learning what your body wants, needs, and thrives on.
  • Apply your knowledge about nutrition without setting up rigid rules and requirements. I'm a geek who thoroughly enjoys learning about nutrition and biology, but I've also learned that strict eating regimens always backfire. Make what you learn work for you, instead of becoming a slave to your knowledge.

The inner rebel does not want to take over your whole life--it doesn't really have the energy or capacity for that. Instead, it wants your life to come back into a beautiful balance where its presence becomes unnecessary. Rebellion becomes superfluous and simply disappears.

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