I've Been A Health Coach For 20 Years. Here's What Most Diet And Exercise Plans Get Wrong.

"Your assignment is to eat a pint of ice cream every night before bed," I told my client.
"We don’t need control. We need relief. How we find it is as unique as we are," the author writes.
"We don’t need control. We need relief. How we find it is as unique as we are," the author writes.
Schafer & Hill via Getty Images

“Your assignment from your health coach is to eat a pint of ice cream every night before bed.”

Even as the words came out, I knew how absurd they seemed. But this was not an attempt at reverse psychology. It was an invitation to experience ice cream for what it is — to explore the pros and cons of a sizable nightly dose of sugar and cream.

A health coach is not a therapist, and a well-trained one offers concrete guidance only when asked, in response to a client’s needs. This particular client was already eating a pint of ice cream most nights. She loved the nightly indulgence but hated the long-term impact on her health. She felt stuck and was pushing for solutions.

As a Mayo Clinic- and National Board-certified health coach, I work with people who are stuck in habits they’d rather lose and are interested in building new ones.

“The whole pint, every night, until we meet again,” I said. “Take note of the effects in the moment and after. If you do that, we can get a clear, guilt-free assessment of how it feels.”

My client was embroiled in a classic struggle: Wake up with all the “best” intentions and set a bunch of rules for how to get through the day and night. Decide in advance how much to eat (and when) and what calisthenics to perform. Grow frustrated as the day wears on, abandon the goals in exchange for promises of tomorrow, heavily indulge in anticipation of upcoming deprivation, and sleep fitfully before doing it all again the next day.

To be clear, this was not an eating disorder by her own or any doctor’s assessment. Unlike binge eating disorder — which is a clinical diagnosis characterized by shame, hiding food, eating excessive amounts in short periods of time, and withdrawing from friends and meaningful activities to allow for binging — this was a rut, paved with rocky road. (If you are struggling with symptoms of BED or any other eating disorder, you can find help through the National Eating Disorders Association.)

My client wanted an escape hatch from the nauseating carnival ride of diet culture. She wanted to be healthy, functional and confident in her body. She also hoped ice cream could continue to be part of her life.

“My client wanted an escape hatch from the nauseating carnival ride of diet culture.”

The traditional way to “get healthy” in the United States over the last century has been to exert control — to set and comply with rules that are purported to help achieve this elusive goal. The problem with that is two-fold: (1) life is stressful and triggering, and (2) most people don’t like being controlled, even by their own rules. They want autonomy, to make their own decisions on their own time and to deal with stress however they see fit.

A “bad” habit is just a coping mechanism. And for those of us lucky enough to have stable jobs in relatively peaceful, developed countries, food is one of the most reliable “quick fixes” there is. It delivers an accessible, easy hit of pleasure — consequences be damned.

Trying to banish soothing balms in a blaze of chronic stress is a recipe for frustration and failure, even if those balms don’t feel so good in the long run.

We’ve been told: Stop eating late at night. Cut out all your favorite foods. You’re lazy if you don’t work out, and God forbid you simply don’t like to cook. You need to control yourself! Send in the self-care apps, trackers, diets and fitness plans that will transform you into a “better” person.

If I could fossilize any word on the self-help landscape and shatter it with the power of Medusa’s snakes hissing wildly atop my head, it would be the word CONTROL. “Self-care” that feels more like prison than a step toward freedom is bound to send you ricocheting blindly back to your old “bad” habits.

We don’t need control. We need relief. How we find it is as unique as we are.

When I started out as a personal trainer many years ago, I was broken-hearted over an ex-boyfriend. I worked out aggressively every day to render my heart shatterproof. I dragged myself out of bed and raged at the gym for an hour each morning before plunking down behind a desk at my temp job.

Pounding his memory out of my body felt like a relief, but, as time passed, the routine began to feel like a trap. He owned my mornings, even after he was gone. The habit served its purpose at first, but, eventually, I was faced with a choice: stick with a tired routine, give up and feel like a failure, or honor the situation for what it was and move on to something new.

I chose the latter and went hiking instead.

Through all of this, I was stuffing myself at night: bowls of homemade cookie dough and large pizzas for one. The food felt like a different kind of relief, and I discovered that no good ever came of trying to “control” myself. It sent me into a deprivation mindset where I generally ended up swinging from the ceiling fan with a box of Krispy Kreme howling, “Oh yeah? How do you like this, Buzzkill?”

Again, I was faced with a choice: I could keep eating reactively and hating myself for it, keep stuffing myself and enjoy the comfort, or start exploring alternative ways to get that nightly relief.

I couldn’t decide. I knew I didn’t want to hate myself, but the other two choices left me stumped. Was the food making me feel good enough to justify the pain of acid reflux and bloating? It was a definite maybe. I really did love the high of a sheet cake and a fork (and still do). But what if there were other ways to feel just as good at night, if not better?

I needed to investigate, and in order to investigate, I needed to eat — on purpose, judgment-free, with curiosity — to root into the old habits for a while (and play around with new ones) to figure out what “good” and “bad” actually felt like. I was eating that way anyway, so I might as well find out precisely how a bowl of cookie dough and a large pizza felt in my body.

Turns out, it felt uncomfortable to be so full at night. It messed with my sleep. It didn’t feel great to abuse myself at the gym in the name of an absent ex-boyfriend, either. These truths are now self-evident.

Meanwhile, my clients faced all kinds of health challenges. I had folks with kids and folks with none. I had attorneys, gardeners and designers, and they all wanted to know the same thing: How can I change my bad habits, and why is changing so hard? They wanted me to provide the answers, but I was a 26-year-old personal trainer with a volatile relationship with food. I didn’t have answers yet, but I was hellbent on finding them.

Over the following 20 years of health coaching and personal training, what I found is that prescribed diet and fitness plans breed rebellion in most people, but it’s often a quiet rebellion. If I created a plan for them, they didn’t tell me not to bother. They took it home and printed it out. They dutifully stuck it on the fridge or the bathroom mirror. They blamed themselves for not following through, but — at the end of a long day — my well-intended directions didn’t hold any relevance for them. Relief did.

People tell me about the things they’re doing “wrong” all the time. They imagine taking command of their bodies and impulses is the only way to change, but when I ask what they’re looking to achieve, the answer is usually about freedom — freedom from dieting, from procrastination, low body image, discomfort, or physical aches and pains.

In my professional experience, control doesn’t lead to freedom.

Rules can certainly offer relief, but only if they’re established to fill a need. They can serve as a kind of scaffolding to feed cravings for new healthy habits, but the decision to follow any rule has to be made again and again, day after day. If it feels like a chore, what are your odds of following through? Rules are infinitely easier to follow when they serve up a hit of pleasure or relief.

Destructive habits aren’t personal failures. They make evolutionary sense. People return to activities that have eased stress or suffering in the past. Research on behavior change is complex, but, to start, it shows the most effective way to change is to:

  1. gather evidence about what matters to you and why (in other words, identify what fuels your motivation) and

  2. create conditions for easy access to the new choice.

We need visceral, dependable, unbiased data to determine which routines enrich our quality of life — and which ones detract from it — and convenient, alluring alternatives. The most trustworthy place to find that data is in the habits themselves. They have a lot to teach us, but we can’t receive the messages while silencing them and demonizing ourselves.

“If it feels like a chore, what are your odds of following through? Rules are infinitely easier to follow when they serve up a hit of pleasure or relief.”

When my client came back a week after receiving her ice cream assignment, she was full of apologies. She had failed to complete the mission. Knowing another pint of ice cream was coming the next night, she found herself satisfied with a half or third of a pint. She let her body do the talking and discovered she did, in fact, like ice cream, but not as fanatically as she thought. When she figured that out, the battle fizzled — the one over ice cream, anyway. She had robbed it of its fuel.

Most folks I work with want to maintain flexibility or pleasure in their lives, so we start by identifying what pleasure actually means for them. In the case of this client, a whole pint wasn’t it.

She set aside “control” and put herself in a position of power to choose — “good” things, “bad” things, or whatever things made her feel well. She didn’t have to comply with declarations she made the day before or pretend she knew in advance what choice she would make tomorrow. Without the threat of deprivation, the impulse to overindulge withered.

Bad habits can be good fun, until the repercussions add up to something worth changing. When that happens to me, I head straight back into the bad habit until the desire for something new is indisputable. From there, I go looking for relief and invariably find it in something a little kinder for my body.

It’s a scavenger hunt for satisfaction, and relief is just around the bend at the intersection of wellness and pleasure.

If you’re struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorder Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237.

Sarah Hays Coomer is a Mayo Clinic and National Board Certified Health and Wellness Coach and author. She writes a biweekly column for Forbes Health called “Hey, Health Coach.” Sarah has spent nearly 20 years helping nonconformists build personalized systems to support their health and ease chronic stress. She has contributed to publications including Forbes, HuffPost, Triathlete Magazine, Utne Reader and Thrive Global. Her books include “The Habit Trip,” “Physical Disobedience,” and “Lightness of Body and Mind.” She lives in Nashville, Tennessee with her family and two rescue pups. You can find her at www.SarahHaysCoomer.com, Instagram @sarah.hays.coomer, or Twitter @sarahhayscoomer.

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If you’re struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorder Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237.

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