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Trick or Treat?: Unwrapping the Rebellion in Our Candy

Restriction can haunt your health decisions. This is how to exorcise it.

Key points

  • Research shows that overly restricting our eating in celebratory times often boomerangs into rebellious overindulgence, followed by regret.
  • Believing that we need more self-control can actually undermine our sense of efficacy and thwart our self-control.
  • When we learn to see the true forces haunting our eating choices we become freed up to exorcise them.

I got an interesting email last week related to Halloween. It went something like this:

“My husband has always struggled with sweets. (You know the old story.) But we have two kids, and we always buy our Halloween candy a couple of weeks earlier to enjoy this fun holiday a little longer. Last night, when we were each picking our piece after dinner, my husband took one piece, unwrapped the candy, and cut it in half. He smiled and said, 'I’m picking the Joy Choice.' He looked proud of himself, grounded in some way. There was no going overboard or regret to be seen. This phrase has become a mantra in our household — even our kids are starting to use it.”

I've been telling this story since then and getting interesting responses. Some wonder why this is an interesting story at all. Others tell me they worry that they or others they know would never be able to just take half a piece, that they wouldn’t have enough self-control to “resist” more. And some research suggests that there might be hardwired individual differences among us — meaning that some people may have greater difficulty with this type of self-control or moderation.

The Candy Is Wrapped Up in Rebellion

Yet, how can we really know? For so many of us, eating the candy is wrapped up in rules (just one piece!) and guilts (I’m weak if I eat this!) and shoulds (I should be able to resist eating this). So when we unwrap it, instead of just plain old candy we mindfully choose to eat a piece of — or two or six or 13 or none at all — a forceful, ghostly energy is released: Rebellion. Because our psyche has evolved to rebel against and overindulge in what we feel restricted by.

At this moment, the candy is not just the candy: It embodies the rules we've learned to believe about how much we can eat and whether we can eat it at all — rules against which we are innately motivated to rebel. This is the Rebellion Decision Disruptor, and it prevents many of us from being in touch with our body's natural sensations of hunger and satiation.

Rebelling against whatever intends to thwart our desires is a tricky goblin. It's an intense energy that prevents us from knowing how much candy we actually want; we just want it, dammit! This energy is a reaction to cultural norms and pressures that overwhelms our body's intuitive wisdom. It can often lead us to overdo it, and then — this reaction might be familiar — we blame it on ourselves and our lack of self-control.

But research suggests that believing that this scenario is about your “lack of self-control and need for more" actually, and ironically, undermines self-control. And I've also seen that this belief energizes rebellion, overindulgence, and regret.

Don’t misunderstand me: I am wholeheartedly in favor of intentionally eating for pleasure and indulging in the full-bodied sensory world of taste, texture, and aroma that accompanies the enjoyment of food. In fact, I'm a fan of the saying, "Everything in moderation, including moderation." And I am just as strongly opposed to continually feeling bad about ourselves for engaging in things that are basic requirements of life: eating and enjoying.

Exorcise Rebellion to Free Yourself for Resilience

Let’s get back to that email. The husband was finally free to eat candy without needing to rebel, without the need for regret — not because he ate half a piece, but because he decided to toss that wrapper covered in rules and shoulds and see the candy for what it was: just a piece of candy he wanted to eat some of at that moment. This clear-eyed, neutralized vision freed him to make a decision based on what would let him participate in the family ritual and also allow him to feel good about respecting the way he wants to eat. And mounting research suggests that his decision strategy would be better associated with staying on the path over time with his overarching eating goals than the restrictive alternative.

The moral of this story? Our choices don't have to be a “trick-or-treat” binary. Instead, when we learn how to make more flexible choices that take into account all of our unique needs of the moment, both internal and external – what I call “the Joy Choice” tactic — we begin to build the self-trust and the resilience that makes each choice part of our continually evolving self-care journey.

If rebellion is a force in your choices, try this quick quiz to learn if any other decision disruptors are haunting your eating or exercise decision-making, and most importantly, how to exorcise them.


The heritability of self-control: A meta-analysis - Y E Willems 1, N Boesen 2, J Li 3, C Finkenauer 4, M Bartels 5

Communicating eating-related rules. Suggestions are more effective than restrictions - F Marijn Stok 1, Emely de Vet 2, John B F de Wit 3, Britta Renner 4, Denise T D de Ridder

The Self-Control Irony: Desire for Self-Control Limits Exertion of Self-Control in Demanding Settings - Liad Uziel and Roy Baumeister

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