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Dietary Self-Regulation: The All-Inclusive Resort Analogy

Personal Perspective: Incentivize "having more" to combat "never having enough."

Key points

  • All-inclusive is the epitome of incentivizing “more than necessary.”
  • The all-inclusive framework is the same one that’s needed to recover from a restrictive eating disorder.
  • Once external constraints are removed, internal self-regulation can resume.
  • The all-inclusive vacation can be a literal contributor to recovery and/or a structural analogy for it.

In October and November of 2021 I spent 15 nights in Playa del Carmen to circumvent the US travel ban and get into the US to see my partner for the first (non-Zoom/WhatsApp) time in 13 months. I decided to splash out, and spent far more on this holiday than I ever have on any trip in my life—especially one on my own.

It struck me right from the moment of typing in my credit card details that this was a nicely anti-anorexic thing to be doing: 1) Spend a lot of money, just on myself, and not because I “had” to, i.e. buying myself something more than I “had” to. What I didn’t realize at that point was how much broader the implications of the all-inclusive vacation model could be for thinking about how to do eating disorder recovery successfully—and maybe even about broader questions around how to do healthy eating and exercise successfully.

Here’s the thesis in brief. All-inclusive is the epitome of incentivizing “more than necessary”: You’re paying to encourage yourself to have as much as possible. You’re paying to put the limits (on eating, drinking, and whatever else your package includes) so high as to be practically irrelevant (I guess you could camp out at the resort bar or restaurant and eventually get told you can’t have any more? but probably not until after you passed out / threw up). The idea is that this is beneficial (e.g. relaxing) because then you get to self-regulate without some major standard constraints (e.g. cost) getting in the way.

In this series I’ll argue that the all-inclusive framework is, structurally speaking, the same framework that’s needed to recover from a restrictive eating disorder (or from chronic dieting): the limit is raised high enough to be irrelevant. (The same applies for a compulsive exercise problem, but switched around: Here the limit is made low enough to be irrelevant.) Only then can you start self-regulating, i.e. start using feedback (e.g. on how you feel, what other outcomes you’re getting), rather than blindly applying rules (e.g. how many calories or minutes or kilometres regardless of everything else).

Of course, the all-inclusive benefits may not, in the vacation or the recovery context, be immediate. Self-regulation may take time to be learnt—maybe a lot of time. I guess some people do all-inclusive and binge-eat/drink in a way that makes them miserable, and some others do it in as miserly a way as if they were paying for every drink and meal, and some people do it just fine but don’t enjoy themselves because too many other things are wrong. Equally, learning how to self-regulate in recovery, and then getting the payoffs for the rest of life, obviously isn’t instant—although in some cases, the instincts for how to do it may snap back into place a lot more quickly than expected.

Emily Troscianko
Source: Emily Troscianko

Letting internal regulation take over

Following step 1 (spend a lot of money on something where everything is included, i.e. the incentive is now to consume more not less) allows for the magic of step 2: Let the self-regulation happen. For me this autumn, the eating-specific effects weren’t particularly salient, because I’m already self-regulating happily in that realm, but the way eating and drinking adjusted effortlessly to the absence of ordinary constraints was a pleasant part of a broader ease in adapting to having pretty near zero limitations or responsibilities. The most strikingly beautiful part of this holiday—even more so than the blue-green Caribbean water, the palm trees, and the ocean sunrises from my balcony—was how everything simply took care of itself, effortlessly, in the absence of almost all readymade guidelines.

I don’t recall any time in my adult life when there were so few requirements on me—self-imposed or otherwise. I had a few coaching calls in the calendar, but I deliberately cleared other work commitments for this fortnight, so otherwise it was empty. And this being all-inclusive, there was nothing practical (shopping, cooking, cleaning, etc.) to think about. There were no pre-decided boundaries in my day. Being on my own, there weren’t even anyone else’s preferences to accommodate. There were, basically, no “should”s.

So, what happens when you take the ought out of your life?

In many senses, of course, two weeks lounging around in a swanky hotel has little to do with the rest of life. But it can provide some important illumination for the rest—clarifying it ex negativo, through the absence of what’s ordinarily present. What it does is remove almost all the accreted habits that normally prevent us from answering that question from scratch. There’s never a blank slate, but the slate is a lot freer of old scrawls when everyday busyness is prevented from fooling us into believing we have no options.

“Ditching the ought” has to become a reflex in recovery from anorexia. For a while, a new version of “ought” (eat more, move less) has to replace the old; later, the whole idea of “ought” has to change its nature, become more malleable by context. This progression obviously applies to the diet and exercise specifics, but it’s also about much broader questions concerning how we choose to live and why—which are what the great excitement of fully recovering really amounts to. Now that I get to choose how to live, rather than an illness always already having dictated 90% of the answer, how do I in fact choose to?

If this still feels a million miles away from you, trudging across the endless grey tundra of recovery, this series may serve two purposes: 1) illustrate the basics of how to make recovery work, via the all-inclusive vacation analogy; 2) encourage you to try out such a vacation for real, as a pleasurably literal way to accelerate the process. At the end I’ll also offer some observations relevant to eating well (in the fullest sense of that term) in the absence of an eating disorder but the presence of all the screechy sociocultural signals that can make it feel so hard to find and maintain personal equilibrium.

Read on to a milkshake-themed Part 2 here.