A while back, I discussed the topic of hedonistic compensation. I still believe it is one of the major reasons we gain weight and have trouble maintaining a healthy weight. What surprised me was that my son – who hears me talk about healthy living all the time, came home from his 3rd grade class and said,
“Calories are these bad little things we eat.”
This is a huge misconception that many adults also share. Calories are simply a unit of measuring energy. Calories are neither good nor bad. We need calories to function. As I’ve shared in the past: If you were to see a starving child who was literally starving, you would not withhold giving a Snickers Bar to that child. We need calories for energy. It’s when we – suffering from our first-world struggles – choose poor quality calories over real, healthy food choices far too often.
Within my grandfather’s lifetime (so not that terribly long ago), our country was in a Great Depression. Food was actually scarce. Food insecurity still exists today – but it’s not generally because food isn’t available. Most of our illnesses are due to the over-abundance of food. Furthermore, when we discuss “Super Foods” and which diet plan is “best”, we are splitting hairs. It’s a very first world problem with which we struggle. If you were walking down an inner city street and saw a homeless person who looked hungry, you wouldn’t think twice about giving him or her a candy bar from your backpack. You wouldn’t think “Oh my, this isn’t the healthiest choice!” It’s just food. Calories are important. They provide energy.
What Is Hedonistic Compensation?
Our hedonistic desires push us to strive for pleasure. We want to enjoy life – friends, career, family an God. It’s in our nature. We’re wired that way.
As with any pleasure – or blessing – it can become a curse if it is abused.
Compensation is when you try to repay – or compensate – for something perceived as negative.
As far as your waistline is concerned, here’s how hedonistic compensation comes into play:
A Story of Hedonistic Compensation:
Someone who struggles with hedonistic compensation may have an internal dialog similar to the following:
- “Today was a rough day. I made it to the gym. I deserve this fast food meal on Taco Tuesday with all the fixings!”
- “I skipped lunch, and walked instead, so I deserve this chocolate cake for dessert.”
- “It’s been a long week. I deserve these 4 glasses of wine on Saturday night.”
Hedonistic compensation is when you justify something pleasant because you have endured something unpleasant.
The Issue Of Estimates
The calories we consume are almost always an estimate. Let’s say I’m a 150 pound woman, and my goal is to stay at my current weight. As per this recent blog post, we know women who want to maintain their body wight multiply their weight by 10, so 1,500 calories per day is a great goal.
I use a calorie counting app on my smart phone to keep track of my calories. For lunch, I go to a moderately priced quick service food establishment. (Not necessarily “fast food”, but a quick service chain). Their menu says the salad I purchase is 500 calories or less. However, when the restaurant franchise owner provided the sample for calorie testing, he/she was under scrutiny. The portions were strictly measured. When I get my salad, it may be larger, have more almond slices, or use more dressing. The point is, the calories – at home or out in a restaurant – are all just an estimate. That 500 calorie salad that I added to my calorie counting app may have been closer to 600 calories – which over time can make a difference.
The Over/ Under Rule of Nature
It turns out – also part of our human nature – that we tend to over estimate how many calories we utilize (or burn) during a workout. (“I just ran on the treadmill. I must have burned 1,000 calories!”) We also tend to under estimate how much we consume. (“I am going to eat this tiny piece of cake. I’m sure it’s under 100 calories.”)
This is one of the reasons so many people struggle with counting calories – their estimates are off – often way off. Have you ever “saved your calories” at the end of a day for a treat? “My calorie counter says I have 300 calories left. I deserve this ice cream sundae.” But that ice cream sundae may just be 500 calories or more! If you do this weekly, you will struggle to reach your weight loss goals!
How To Overcome Hedonistic Compensation:
The key to overcoming hedonistic compensation is to find pleasure in fitness. When exercise is viewed as a chore or perceived as negative, you are likely setting yourself up to want to compensate. It is important to find movement / exercise / fitness that you enjoy. When you enjoy it, you won’t view yourself as “deserving” of a treat.
Think of when you were a child. Sure, you’d get hungry – that’s the way the body is supposed to work! But you didn’t view “play” as a chore. When school lets out, kids are eager to play. That joy is your quest!
Don’t Overthink “Exercise”
There is a lot of marketing today that gives the impression that exercise “needs” to be high impact and highly energetic. The truth is that we just need to move! If you enjoy hiking or walking – get out and do it! If you enjoy dancing – go do it! Sure, there are benefits to getting some impact. There are benefits to resistance training. There are benefits of getting that heart rate up from time to time. More importantly, than all of those is to start where you are. If you are doing nothing, start doing something. If you are bored, find something new. If you need a push, find someone to push you.
We too often miss the forest for the trees – we get overwhelmed with options so we never start.
There are 3 ingredients to success: Move regularly. Eat well. Be consistent.