07 November 2015

Full Awareness, No Guilt: Why I don't like "cheat meals"

When following any diet, fitness plan or overall “healthy way of life”, one thing that is inevitable is to meet instances where the opportunity to eat bad food is metaphorically and literally “on the table”. Whether it’s a matter of judgement, willpower, time, social tact, convenience or motivation, there will always be times where we feel like a big slice of lasagne, a bowl of ice cream or grabbing fast food on the way home from work. This is reality.

Ice cream.JPG
This is not the enemy

A problem exists however, with the aftermath of these, what are often called, “cheat meals”. A few days ago, +Mark Sisson wrote a piece around the concept of cheat meals - more specifically, whether or not they are necessary or good for us. The short of it is that, many people feel that in organising a meal plan for the long term, it can help to outline periodic meals (or days) where we break the rules we’ve set for ourselves. The idea is that it’s too difficult to follow any nutrition goal 100%, and that we need to still allow ourselves small, temporary indulgences to prevent ourselves from going insane, breaking down in a moment of weakness, and impulsively eating an extra large meatlover’s pizza, 2L coke and tub of cookies n cream. There are other supposed arguments for regimented cheat meals, such as metabolism resetting, and the motivation of a reward plate, but again, head over to Marks Daily Apple for the commentary on that.

What I would like to communicate, is a slight, but significant variation to cheat meals, that has worked fantastically for me over the years. It’s built around something I like to call, Full Awareness, No Guilt.

A few weeks ago, as part of my 5 part, Primal Living series of posts, I outlined a typical week in food. Here, I describe everything I eat, or tend to eat in most given weeks. One thing that some have commented on is how much bad food there is -- or at least, how loose I am with the rules and principles of healthy eating. I often find myself in conversations about how funny it is how much I care about my health and nutritious eating, yet can often be found eating a burrito, slice of cake a work friend brought in, or an ice cream bar after filling up my fuel tank. Whenever it comes up, there is usually two stock-standard sentiments that are expressed to me.

Make up for it later
The first is, “I guess you’re going to have to work that off later.” While this maybe a pretty simple concept -- having to work off any bad or excess calories we took in during a bad meal -- there remains a small seed of detrimental thinking. In my opinion, tightly associating “bad food intake” with “have to work this off” creates a negative sentiment and an immediate pressure. What if one of the reasons you grabbed fast food is because work at the moment is just killing your daily timetable and general enthusiasm. Hopefully you get satisfaction and joy from your job most of the time, but I’m sure there are many of us that have to cope with periodic “busy times” where there are so many balls in the air something has to give. In my experience, both first hand and through observation, the “need to work off a bad meal” just adds another metaphorical ball to the psyche that is already legitimately drained.

Fish n Chips.jpg
No big deal
The hazard in this association is in the opportunity for yet another ball to hit the ground, another failed goal and another bout of dissatisfaction. From this, comes further decline in attitude and an increased likelihood of prolonged poor eating and skipped physical activity. Ironically, a self-promise to “burn this off later” actually decreases the chance of doing so

You can’t deprive yourself forever
The other is of course “You have to eat what you like, now and then”, alluding to cheat meals. This sentiment is based more on semantics than function, but it affects the psyche nonetheless, at least for me. The typical diet or nutrition plan explicitly  marks out bad foods as the enemy we love, but can’t live without. Whether it’s chocolate, ice cream, pasta or french fries, everyone has foods they absolutely love, and the thought of giving them up for any prolonged period of time is akin to sacrificing a great life pleasure. As a result, the solution is usually to embrace this attitude and therefore create scheduled cheat days or cheat meals where you allow yourself to “eat what you love”. The problem I’ve always had with this seemed strange at first but as my philosophy toward food and nutrition has changed, I’ve myself to be much more at peace when it comes to eating, whether good food or bad. The challenge with this “you have to eat what you like, now and then” sentiment is the built in implication that while you’re eating healthy, you’re not eating what you like.

This segmentation of the food you eat into “the good foods I like” and “the bad ones I don’t” maintains an attitude of your nutritious eating -- the eating you are supposed to be doing (pretty much) all of the time -- as something you don’t like. I suppose this might be true for some, but really, at least for me, there are plenty of healthy food combinations that I absolutely love. Roasted chicken and a “big ass man’s salad”, steak and vegetable strifry, and scrambled eggs with bacon and spinach are delicious hearty meals most would salivate over, but putting pizza and garlic bread up on the proverbial pedestal as “food I love” tricks your mind into degrading all of the healthy foods you truly love making you forget you love them and less likely to eat them. Again, it’s ironic. Many people brainwashed themselves into thinking they love the fastfood garbage a 15 year old made in under 6 minutes. It may be quick, cheap and easy, and that’s why you got it, not because you like it. Again it’s ironic. No one’s planning on a double burger with cheese and extra large fries for a special occassion, except for people on diets.

There's plenty of healthy food you love eating. Don't forget that. 
Listen to your body
This little switch in thinking allows me two major positives. First, I am reminded to be acutely aware to how I feel while I’m eating and more importantly, how I feel after. Whether it’s a rock in my stomach, unstable energy levels, a slight headache, or just increased hunger later on -- I am conscious of these feelings and then am able to shift back into thinking  positively about my eating habits. It’s quite an empowering feeling to be able to think to myself with complete honesty, “Wow, I really feel out of it today, it must have been all that sugar I had yesterday”. The awareness of the consequences of our choices and actions is the best motivator to make the right ones in the future. Personally, I find these mental checks more fruitful than suffering through a heavy, bloated 5am workout in attempts to burn that ice cream off. What would normally happen, is that my crashed energy levels would overpower my will to make up for the indulgence the night before and I would skip the workout, feel worse, and begin the vicious cycle of undoing a lot of hard work.

Own the reality of your choices
This leads me into the second major benefit of Full Awareness, No Guilt. This is simply, the no guilt aspect. Accepting the fact that I’ve weighed up all of the options and consequences and made a valued judgment on what to eat and why in complete full awareness, I find myself able to make the indulgence without feeling any form of guilt. This downplays or minimise the emotional response a lot of people have with the foods they love. Where embracing a cheat meal might mean someone orders extra portions because they’ve earned their reward, or because they’ll punish themselves later, I just eat what I chose to eat. This frees me from any sort of overdramatic positive association I have with what I’m eating. I’m not thinking about how amazing this meatball sub is or how much I love cheesecake. It’s just food that I’m eating because I was hungry and it’s what I felt like eating.

The overall point that I’m trying to make is this: what’s more important than the rules you set up and the rewards or punishments associated with your actions, is that you know what you’re eating and therefore know what you’re doing to yourself. Eating McDonald’s one night in a week, fortnight or month, and healthy for every other night is great -- but sticking to ratios and rules like that can lead to more stress and end up doing more harm than good.

One day at a time, forever
What I find most beneficial both physically and psychologically, is to remind myself of what I’m doing, in this case, eating garbage, and be conscious of what it’s doing to my body. If I’m in the mood for pizza, so much so that I go out and get, I remind myself that based on experience, I’ll likely feel extra sluggish in the morning and have a heavy gut throughout the day. I’ll also have higher-than-normal cravings for more carb-heavy processed foods. Then, the next day when I feel these things, I remember why, and that usually is enough to make sure I go for a run, long walk, or strength workout when I get a minute. If not, it’s at least enough to make sure I drink plenty of water, and eat something healthy for the next little while. In which case, I’m again being extra conscious of the benefits that come from eating properly. The stomach settles, my energy levels stabilise and I’m more focused and productive.

Long-term habits must be those you're at peace with
The key, as always, is to listen to your body and be honest with yourself. Those are the two most crucial aspects of adopting and maintaining a healthy lifestyle for the long-term. At the end of the day it’s about taking ownership of your health, not just to make bold proclamations of commitment, but to earnestly accept responsibility for the consequences of the choices we make.

I have my reasons for eating this. I know what it’s doing to me. I’ve made this choice, and that’s all there is to it. Full awareness, no guilt.