How Is A Diet Like a Budget?

I never know where I will find inspiration for a blog post, and this time it came from an article that appeared in the Money section of the New York Times.  The title, “Why a Budget Is Like a Diet – Ineffective“, presents an interesting comparison of financial budgeting and dieting.

Why do people have trouble sticking with a budget?  The writer says that humans are not very good at carrying out plans, especially when the plan gives a feeling of deprivation and rigidity.  The fact is that everyone has limits on their spending, and that applies to money AND calories.  Spend more money than you have, and you will end up in debt, have creditors harassing you, or worse.  Continually eat more calories than your body can use to stay healthy, and you will have more body fat than you want and a higher risk of many illnesses.

The issue is not whether or not we have a budget.  Whether or not we choose to call it that, or whether we even know how much money we can spend or how many calories we can burn, we all have definable limits on our money and our eating.  As the article points out, the psychology of budgeting has a lot to do with how successful we are at managing our resources.

As such, in order to stay within budget,  we need a “plan” that balances the budget overall, whether the plan involves counting or not.  I have seen all kinds of eating plans work, from very detailed accounting and planning to “touchy-feely” plans that allow for sensing the balance.  I have also seen people successfully blend the two extremes, either both at once or alternating methods.

The characteristic that will make a plan effective is that it somehow accomplishes the budgeting process in a sustainable way.  An overly restrictive budget will not work, at least in part because it tends to create a habit of  “binge responses”  brought on by discomfort and deprivation.  This is obviously easier when a person has a relatively large budget to work with, but the truth holds for all of us.  No one likes to feel squeezed so tight that there is no enjoyment and no lee-way.

Let’s take a look at a few strategies for sustaining a plan.  The article says, “Start by becoming more conscious of your spending, whether you jot it down in a notepad, on a spreadsheet, or on Web sites like”  Similarly, research shows that being aware of what we eat is key to healthy, sustainable eating habits.  Food journaling, either in a notebook or using a program on your phone, can bring needed mindfulness to eating.  It need not be continuous to be effective; even a week of entries can help.

Another strategy mentioned in the article states, “For there to be sustainable change, there needs to be some sort of positive motivation.”  As I say continually, a positive goal for weight loss is so important.  Fear, guilt, shame, and disgust may spur action temporarily, but these emotions will eventually derail your efforts.  Feeling more energetic, a more positive self-image, smaller clothes – these positive motivators will keep you focused on reasonable changes.

“From a psychological standpoint, there is merit to having a separate account for entirely discretionary or luxury spending,” suggests psychologist Steve Levenson.  When it comes to eating, this may be a great strategy.  It is important to keep a “slush fund” for important treats.  Some of my clients like to add a little extra on the weekend, because it allows a chance to succeed.  They are willing to watch the budget a little closer during the week  when temptations may not be as great.

It may be best for some of us to “set up broad goals and automate all savings and other priorities where you can.”  In terms of food, it may be helpful to “automate” breakfast, because that is a time when motivation is usually high and there is not as much leisure as there may be in the evening after work.

A standard breakfast that satisfies hunger can work at a time when most people are just trying to fuel up.  Why eat a calorie-laden fast meal you are not likely to really savor when a quick functional meal will work as well.  Save the calories for when you can sit and enjoy them – possible a small dessert after dinner or a glass of wine?  (This is actually a strategy that I find very easy to follow.)

Bottom line:  You DO only have a limited calorie budget that is unique to you, but the key is to figure out how to GENERALLY (over time) stay within budget without the negative vibes associated with limits.  This is an individual journey, so begin exploring!  Be forgiving of short-term disappointments.  They will happen.  Just like spending money, no one has exactly the same daily budget.  Overall, long-term management is what’s important.


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