eating · fitness

Do we have a reset button?

For the past month, I’ve been in Sydney, Australia, working with other researchers on a qualitative social science project to understand the experiences of people on very low-energy diets (also called very low-calorie diets).  I’ll be posting in more detail about the study and our results later on, but for now, I’d like to solicit feedback from you, the readers about a topic that came up in the interviews with the participants.

Some of them talked about how going on this diet “hit the reset button” for them with respect to their eating habits.  That is, they reported having the experience of going through a period of severe restriction, and emerging from it able to rethink their eating preferences and patterns in a new way, less encumbered by the habits of their eating past.

Let me say now that I’m not advocating for any particular diet here, very-low-calorie or otherwise.  I’m not saying that this diet actually does what the participants report.

But:  the idea that we could have a “reset button” that can get pushed when we want to clear out old habits (whatever they might be) and start afresh is mighty appealing.

I’ve experienced something like this recently.  In May, I attended a workshop on mindfulness and eating at the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in western Massachusetts.  I blogged about it here.  The experience of being away from my home,  from access to my usual foods and behavior patterns around them, was intense and interesting.  One goal I had was to get rid myself of my Diet Coke and artificially-sweetened beverage habit (that has come and gone over many years).  After spending five days not drinking Diet Coke, I came home, feeling ready to tackle that change.  And I did.  And I don’t drink Diet Coke or use artificial sweeteners.  It has not always been easy; I have occasionally craved it, and twice I’ve had a can (for absolute emergency caffeine intake :-).  But I felt like my enforced no-diet-coke period helped me get some perspective and figure out how to substitute other beverages.  In my case, I had delicious iced teas.  I make my own now.  It looks like this:


Screen Shot 2016-09-04 at 8.50.11 AM


Of course we’ve all made resolutions for behavior change.  Some of them stick for a while.  Some of them don’t.  Some of them may stick forever.  And they happen for a lot of reasons and under a bunch of different conditions.

It really felt to me like I had somehow found a “reset button” for my beverage habit in May.  And when I’m confronted with beverage options, it feels like that “reset” experience and the way I think about it helps me move in the direction of my newer habits.  But these intuitions are tricky and not always reliable.

I’ll be thinking and writing more about this issue, but for now, I can use some help from you.  Have you had any of these sorts of “reset” experiences?  What were they like? What do you think about them now?  Did they work for you?  I’d love to hear any of your stories.

22 thoughts on “Do we have a reset button?

  1. Really interesting. I’m not much of a “reset button” person, but I do belief that intentionally sticking to a new regime for a while can retrain your habits. I’m not talking about things like juice fasting or paleo, but rather, 22 years ago, I started a whole fitness thing that included both running and thinking about my food for its fueling properties (ie nutrition, how does it make me feel the next day) as much as for its deliciousness. I lost 32 lbs over a year, 22 of which has stayed off for two decades (about 8 of that is fairly recent, with post 40 metabolic changes/making less deliberate food changes).

    It’s less a reset button than putting yourself into a deliberate lane for a while, so decision making changes. Even now, I don’t have dessert if it’s not something I really love, and I’ll make choices about a healthier option whenever I can, most of the time. That year or so of real focus completely took away my taste for and ability to digest really rich food, and made me appreciate and like a high plant diet even more.

    I’m lazier now about it — the other night I chose a pizza with fancy salami instead of the nicoise salad — but I did have that moment of weighing the choice, thinking about whether I would really ENJOY the pizza, and what I was doing the next day that it might influence.

    Same thing goes for booze — I do drink, but most of the time a decision about wine will be accompanied by “what do I have to do tomorrow? what if this disrupts my sleep?”

    So it changed my decision-making, and the kinds of food I enjoyed the most, and led to to a multi-decade habit of mostly choosing healthier foods. Mostly ;-).

    1. Thanks for the description of your processes of change. Yes, this sounds more deliberative, iterative, and more like what long-term behavior change requires, which is work and attention and retuning your desires and rewards. I wonder if this “reset” notion is more applicable for isolated habits– in my case Diet Coke, but maybe it could work for a single habit that someone wanted to change. In your case, you have made and sustained whole eating and activity patterns, which is a different kettle of fish…

  2. Very interesting! I have done “detoxing” drinking only liquids and although I hated going through it, after I appreciated what I was eating in a more respectful way.

  3. I find that time away from my usual routine, whether a retreat, a trip, a really long car ride…whatever…gives me a chance to gain perspective. It does feel like a reset.
    And I’m going to throw a not-so-healthy way I reset out there. A hangover when I just can’t move or after a really bad migraine. Just being super still and feeling like I really can’t do anything at all but chill feels like a reset too.

    1. Yes, Natalie– that makes a lot of sense. Maybe this reset thing is about taking a break from regular life patterns (or a pattern) completely, and seeing what life is like outside of that pattern. People talk about taking technology or TV vacations to get away from too much electronic interaction, and your idea of even a long care ride does actually take you away from the rest of the world for a while. Interesting– thanks for the thoughts.

  4. It sounds like your diet soda experience was cold turkey combined with finding a suitable replacement. I don’t think that works with eating as a broad strategy (as in, you can replace an individual food that way, but a wholecloth radical transformation of eating habits is unlikely to succeed in that way).

    As well, from what I’ve read and heard of this so-called “reset” button, it sounds like an extension of disordered all/nothing thinking around food and diet that I think is unsustainable (thus why people go on multiple cleanses, diets/resets a year) and not something we should be striving for. Rather, a flexible approach to eating that takes into account how it feels while we eat it and after, what we have access (geographical and financial) to, if we actually like it, and the signals our bodies are sending around hunger and satiation seem much more like something to aspire to.

    1. You’re probably right that changing one’s eating patterns globally wouldn’t happen via some resetting or isolation period. The all-or-nothing approach certainly lends itself to binge eating and other disordered eating. I’m just wondering how to understand the study participants’ perspectives on how being away from the world of food changed their experiences of eating when they restarted regular food again. This was a global approach (rather than my isolated diet coke case). And maybe it won’t hold up over time, but it’s interesting to hear others’ views on this. Thanks!

  5. The more I think about it, the more I am bothered by the framing of

    “Let me say now that I’m not advocating for any particular diet here, very-low-calorie or otherwise. I’m not saying that this diet actually does what the participants report.”

    Given the acceptance and championing of low-calorie and long-term restriction as “normal” or “acceptable” ways of eating in mainstream culture and fitness movements, this feels like the kind of situation where neutrality is colluding with a problematic status quo.

    1. I agree that attempts to normalize the use of diets that severely restrict calorie intake or particular food types is troubling; I find this idea troubling too. As a researcher who decided to do qualitative work on an already-in-progress quantitative comparative study on diets, I have thought long and hard about the ethics of being involved in processes that I have qualms about. Right now, I think that the chance to learn what it is like from the inside to go through these diets can inform us more fully (including the scientists) about whatever harms and benefits come with dieting. And this kind of work puts the experiences of the participants front and center; they get to be heard. So that’s something.

  6. Now that I think about it, I’ve had a similar sort of experience that could be framed as a sort of ‘reset’ with pain medication. I suffer from chronic sacroiliitis, and during my recent pregnancy, I wasn’t able to use my usual pain medication, and with the types of medication I was allowed to take during pregnancy, I was way more cautious. I would always ask myself whether I really really couldn’t stand it any more, and I would say to myself something like “I’ll wait untill tomorrow, and if it’s not better by then, I’ll have xyz”. And eventually, the pain did get a bit better by itself. I ended up not taking a lot of pain meds at all, and even now, postpartum, that I am allowed more of the painkillers, I havn’t had any since (though the pain is not gone, I just feel like I’m able to stand it a bit better). So one could say that I did have a ‘reset’ experience there.

    1. That does sounds like a “reset” experience. Thanks so much for your story. And I’m glad that this process, as you describe it, seems to be pretty positive in your view. It also reiterates the idea that this may apply to one isolated thing– in your case, the pain meds.

  7. Great that you re-set the button for diet pop drinks to something else.

    I have had reset buttons but it’s a gradual thing and not something resolutely think: “Start now”. It’s more starting in a semi-absented minded way.

    Reset negative: I tend to eat more little desserts now than I ever did 30 years go.

    Reset positive:
    *In my early 20’s, I suddenly dropped out of putting in any sugar in my black coffee or black teas. I haven’t since then had any desire to throw in sugar into coffee nor tea. (But that’s off-set by the negative.)

    *| dropped out having white rice in my meals. Recognize that I grew up where 80% of my dinners for lst 30 yrs. were white rice. That was when my near diabetes 2 reading ( 2 tests) made me realize that rice made me feel tired because of the sugar rush.

    *Since childhood, I never acquired much taste for soda/pop drinks. Can you call this a re-set?? Or just cultural influence?

    I do think micro-changes can happen more easily and this may be key for some folks looking to make useful incremental changes in some food changes. I agree that complete diet makeover might be too drastic and result in some disordered eating. So “re-setting” food button might take a few years for all changes to in place permanently AND feel happy too combined with exercise that one naturally loves to do, not as a chore.

    1. Thanks Jean– I love hearing you describe your experiences around life habits of eating (and of course physical activity, too). It does sound gradual, and must have involved lots of micro-changes. Tracy and Sam have both blogged about this, and it does seem appealing. Your idea of implementing these small changes over years makes a lot of sense. It will be interesting to see how these people in my study do over time.

  8. Isn’t there some evidence for the body to physically reset following fasting periods? There’s a European researcher who does this work I think and the 5:2 is a modified version of it… Sorry can’t remember the name but a recent catalyst talked about the potential for new cell growth out of fasting being quite beneficial.

    1. Thanks Rachel and Sam for mentioning this study and posting some links. Looking carefully at it, the study postulates that 3 days of fasting may help boost white blood cell production in chemotherapy patients. There’s no evidence (or claims by the scientists) that this would be a good idea (or useful, or even effective) in the general population. The science of human metabolism is complex, as we know. Also, intermittent fasting for a few days might trigger serious hunger (not enough time to settle into ketosis, which suppresses appetite), and it’s not clear what effects on resting metabolic rate, muscle or bone loss could occur. In the study I’m working on, all participants are followed clinically with respect to RMR, bone and muscle mass, various rates of physical activity, hormone biomarkers (blood is taken regularly), etc. Just want to be clear that these sorts of regimens can have major effects on our systems (which we know, but it’s important to say it anyway).

  9. Personally I have a combination approach myself. I incorporated a bit of aversion therapy into mine by sheer luck. Diet coke, etc., didn’t seem so delicious after learning that the sweetener was the fecal matter of e-coli, no matter how much I enjoy the taste. I still find that slightly disturbing that someone decided that was safe to taste, let alone put into food products.

    I replaced a lot of my destructive habits with healthier ones, like walking with short spurt jogging intersparced, various strength and stretching exercises, meditative observation, writing, and photography. I lean toward the blood type diet, which for me is pretty much a paleo diet.

    As far as new habit formation or reformation, I believe psychological studies have suggested that it takes around 30 days to form a new habit. You can create your own reset button of sorts, usually the hardest part is within those first few days or weeks of changing. (depending upon the change and addiction level)

    Many muslims use the month of Ramadan for such a reset purpose. Currently, its 15plus hours a day of no intake of food, beverages, inhalants, and or sexual activity for the majority of non-exempt practicing peoples. 30 some days of this combined with the intent to change could provide a highly successful and powerful impetus for change. Similarly, people who observe lent could also utilize a similar strategy. At their core, I do believe practices such as these provide people a structure to be successful in personal transformation. Restraining oneself helps you to realize what it is you actually WANT and NEED, not just habitually do, eat, or say.

    1. Thanks for the helpful comments. I hadn’t thought about Ramadan as a time for resetting– that’s a good case to check out. The reset idea I’m thinking about is a case in which you disengage with your regular life completely (in some fashion) for a period of time, and then resume with some new perspective on some aspect that you might want to change. The Ramadan experience might be just such a case. Cool– I’ll start looking around for some articles on this.

  10. There’s a really interesting Freakonomics podcast on this- about how the ‘fresh start’ effect works on us (birthdays, new year, etc) and how we can replicate that so any day can be a new start day. It’s called “When Willpower Isn’t Enough” -give it a listen and let me know what you think!

    1. Thanks for the tip– just bookmarked it and will check it out and let you know what I think.

  11. Definitely an interesting idea – i wonder whether it is producing a similar effect, like how we treat addictions. We begin thinking about why we make the choices we do, we contemplate those choices and their effects on us before ‘indulging’ ourselves, and through this rational analysis we begin to make different choices for a different, better outcome. Perhaps without all the sugars our guts and brains are able to perform with more clarity?

  12. I have done some resets – a “14 day detox” that had a quite restrictive diet (no sugar, no gluten, etc.), and variations on that. The 14 day detox “worked” in that I felt great, and felt, like the participants in the study did, that the cravings had gone away and my relationship with food had changed.

    Or, I should say, it worked…for a while. I eventually started going out to dinner with other people in restaurants (which I had avoided in order to stay “on track”), and I eventually worked late one night and was starving and hadn’t prepared anything so resorted to ordering in, and, and…in other words, life set in, and the “old” ways of eating re-surfaced, perhaps not quite as bad. But it was basically an unsustainable way of being; and once the restrictive part of the detox was over, eventually the habits crept back.

    I would be very curious to know what the time lag was between the end of the restrictive diet and the survey results. And what the answer would be 6 months, a year, two years later, five years later. And for what it’s worth, I think that longer period of time has to be part of any study on diets and bodies.

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