“Saturday is my favorite day – it’s my cheat day!”
“I can’t wait until dinner tonight. It’s my cheat meal!”
“I’m so excited for this weekend when I can finally have that burger I’ve been craving! I’ve been good all week.”
How many people do you know who live by this philosophy? Or maybe you’re doing it yourself. There seems to be a trend lately of forbidding certain foods from regular consumption and then eating them only when it’s a designated cheat day.
Let’s address that term for a second: cheat day. Or cheat meal. Or cheat whatever. The term implies that the food eaten during this arbitrary time is somehow bad, detrimental, or something to shun at any other time. It assigns a negative connotation to a food item – it places feelings of guilt and failure on an inanimate object.
Food is fuel. Food is enjoyment. Food provides life.
Food should not cause guilt, shame, or behavior that can affect not only your social interaction (“I can’t go to dinner with you because I have to be good until my cheat meal.”) but also your self-esteem and self-perception (“I have no willpower. I can’t believe I just ate that! I suck.”). I’ll let you in on a secret: food doesn’t have that kind of power! Food is nourishment – food is not a judge of character or your personal worth!
It’s time to throw the whole idea of good vs. bad food out the window. I want you to start looking at food in terms of a continuum. The entire continuum provides energy (all food has some combination of macronutrients – carbohydrate, protein, fat – which simply equal caloric energy). One end of the continuum provides no real health benefits. The other is the holy grail of nourishment.
No part of the continuum has “guilt” or
“deprivation” written on it.
If you choose a dinner of grilled fish, brown rice, and steamed vegetables, you’re nudging toward the side of the continuum that provides a ton of micronutrients, phytochemicals, and all the other magically wonderful things food can provide for our bodies. If instead you choose to eat two donuts, you’re heading toward the other end of the continuum. Either way, your worth or overall health has not changed from this one choice. Your next meal shouldn’t be skipped because you ate the donuts. You don’t need to go run 4 extra miles because you ate the donuts. And you don’t need to give it a whole lot of more thought. Move on.
The magic of having a healthy relationship with food starts the moment you stop assigning good vs. bad descriptors to different combinations of macronutrients. All food can fit into a healthy diet. There is room for a donut or a burger or whatever your choice. Here’s what you need to remember:
A calorie is a calorie is a calorie
when it comes to energy intake.
In theory, you could eat donuts all day and lose weight – as long as you stayed under your body’s daily calorie need. A donut eaten within your daily calorie needs does not cause weight gain. When it comes to body fat, your metabolism only cares how many calories it gets. Too many calories (from donuts or from fish and rice!) means the “extra” gets put into storage (i.e. body fat). Now, on that continuum, the donut doesn’t give you a whole lot of anything else beyond caloric energy. So is it “healthy”? Well, no. Should you devote an entire day to eating just foods that don’t provide a whole lot of bang for your buck? Not really. But can it fit into an otherwise balanced diet?
And most importantly, you shouldn’t restrict it from your diet or banish it to a randomly designated time-frame that somehow “doesn’t count.” Most people who decide they want to fuel well and honor their bodies think certain foods have to be off limits (the foods they’ve labeled as “bad” foods). We all know what happens the second we tell ourselves we can’t have something: we crave it. Because we’re human. We want what (we think) we can’t have.
So what would happen if you told yourself you can have that chocolate, or that donut, or that order of fries? What if you just called it all food, and you knew that food = fuel, and it can all fit in the grand scheme of things? Suddenly that obsession with the food item is gone, cheat days are a thing of the past, and food is just food. And life is happier.
“We are what we repeatedly do.
Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”
If most of the time you are choosing foods that are at the end of the continuum that has all the health benefits that nutrient-dense food provides, then the rest of the time, don’t worry about it. Individual meals don’t make a big difference. It’s what is repeated over time, what becomes the norm, that has the impact. Unless you have a medical reason to avoid certain foods or food components (like gluten if you have celiac disease), save yourself the heartache of deprivation! It’s just not necessary.
Allow your body – and mind – the luxury of balance. Aim for mostly things that give your body health along with energy. And sometimes when the mood strikes, allow yourself to just enjoy some things that are nothing more than calories.