Beth Lipton is a writer and certified health coach. She is a contributing editor at Clean Plates.
Cheat days, cheat meals, guilt-free foods, guilty pleasures—these expressions are so commonplace, we hardly even know we’re using them. They seem harmless enough, like the shirts you never wear that still clog up your closets or the stack of papers piled on your desk that you’ll get to sometime, maybe.
But as we’ve learned from the life-changing magic Marie Kondo has brought into our lives, if we don’t tidy up those bits of clutter, they tend to add up and suck the joy out of our lives.
It’s time to bring unadulterated pleasure back into eating by clearing out the mess in our minds. If our thoughts around our favorite indulgences don’t spark joy, let’s toss them.
First: The Why
Food is one of our primary relationships. You can go a few days without seeing your partner, spouse, or children, but you eat every day, multiple times. If we have a relationship with food that involves guilt, shame, fear, pain, or any other difficult emotions, it can lead to a whole lot of negative self-talk.
That doesn’t sound like a big deal, but it is. Negative self-talk is toxic and can lead to increased stress, depression, low self-esteem, anxiety and more. Multiply that out by the number of times a day that you eat, and you can see why repairing this relationship is critical.
Plus, when we place value judgments on food—or on ourselves for what we eat—we take ourselves out of the experience of enjoying the food. This is problematic for two reasons: One, we lose the experience of really enjoying one of life’s great pleasures—eating. And two, the less we experience the indulgence, the more we need to have it. Imagine eating a brownie (or whatever your treat of choice is) while walking down the street, and thinking the whole time about how “bad” you are for eating it. Now picture sitting down and really letting yourself have that brownie, with no thought other than how rich and luscious it is. With the latter experience, you end up much more satisfied, and as a result, you need fewer brownies. Research bears this out: A small 2013 study found that adults who practiced mindful eating ate smaller portions.
Keep this in mind: Food is just food. Some is more optimal for your body, some less so. But it’s just food. It isn’t inherently good or bad. And you aren’t good or bad based on what you eat. After you’ve eaten that brownie, you’re still kind, loving, a good friend, etc. You’re not bad.
So: More enjoyment, fewer negative thoughts. Win win.
Second: The How
Obviously it’s one thing to decide to clear out the clutter, and another to actually do it. Here are some strategies to get you started.
- Be mindful around eating. We touched on this above. Paying attention as you’re eating can help you enjoy the indulgence more, which in turn can help you crave it less. Plus, when you’re more mindful, you catch those negative thoughts sooner and can shut them down.
- Automate your pain points. Are you hungry and craving sweets every day at 4 p.m., and then berating yourself for hitting the vending machine? That’s a pain point. Instead of fighting that craving every day, and ending up in the vending machine half the time, plan ahead and always have a good snack ready at that time. Buy enough for the whole week, pick it up on the way to work, whatever makes the most sense for you. Take away the chance to put yourself down. You know this pain point is there, so you can fix it in advance.
- Remember: Perfection is not a goal. Perfection is a fantasy, and kind of a crap one at that. What does it mean to be “perfect”—that you never eat a brownie again? That’s no way to go through life. My meditation teacher, Emily Fletcher, always says, “Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good.” The key here is to aim to do what’s best for you, knowing that sometimes what’s “best” is at odds with your normal healthy approach. Sometimes it’s socially appropriate to have the indulgence (e.g., one of those cute pink cupcakes at your BFF’s baby shower), or having it is part of a larger experience (eating pizza in Italy, having your grandma’s stuffing at Thanksgiving). This is part of life, so your best bet is to let yourself enjoy these experiences fully and then move on, rather than riding yourself for not being “perfect.”
Remember that our healthy habits don’t exist to test us, or to make us suffer. You don’t get points for depriving yourself. Our healthy habits are there as a tool, to help us live our best lives, to give us the vitality and energy to enjoy ourselves as much as possible. Whoever has the most fun wins.
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