We’ve all had days like this: we ate okay for breakfast and we resisted the urge to add the holiday flavored syrup/ creamer to our coffee in the morning, and we did great for lunch but now, after the healthier than usual dinner, we went crazy and had a couple chocolate chip cookies! “What’s wrong with us?!” Or this scenario: we went on vacation and we had decided we weren’t going to “diet” on vacation, but now we’re back and we have to get into our routine again and it….just….feels…so…much…harder….than….before! This is a tough one. I don’t mean the whole ‘eating according to your healthy plan’ routine: I mean cutting yourself a break! Yes, we need to be accountable. Yes, we need to be consistent. Yes, that would be easy if we were all androids like Cmdr. Data or Vulcans like Mr. Spock. (Trekkie here. Sorry!) But, for better or worse, we are simple humans and as both Data and Spock will tell you, humans are susceptible to emotion and are fundamentally illogical. In other words, we know what’s good for us and we do what feels good instead, even if it’s not good for us.
We need to find that middle ground between stepping out of bounds occasionally and actually moving off the reservation. As some of you know, I follow a Paleo eating plan, which means all those yummy crunchy grain products are off my menu pretty much all the time, and especially in the morning, but… I really wanted a breakfast wrap, so I had one. I’d love to say that it was delicious and guilt-free, but as yummy as it was (and it was!), I kept thinking how it wasn’t good for me and I knew it and I still got it and here I am, eating this hot delicious wrap and I’m screwing up my whole eating plan for the day. “What’s wrong with me?!”
Nothing is wrong with me, except my guilting myself for eating what I wanted. Now if I had wraps every day or even more than once a week, then there would be a problem, but one wrap?! So, after a few minutes of guilt, I told myself to knock it off. It’s a choice I made, so own it, and secondly, it’s not the end of my Paleo eating plan! I don’t have to go back to ‘start’ and I don’t have to punish myself for eating off the plan. This is what I mean when I say we need to learn to give ourselves a break!
Too many of us feel the need to punish ourselves for not being perfect. I was good until I had that cookie! I was good until I had a ‘insert off limits food here.’ No mea culpas necessary! You are a responsible individual and you can decide if you want a treat or not. There’s a big difference between looking at the cookies, wanting one and deciding that one (or however many) can be allowed rather than seeing the cookies, having an irresistible craving for them and sneaking off with four or five in your hand. Eating according to your cravings is not good and it’s not responsible eating; making a considered thoughtful choice is something else. I thought about having a wrap and chose to have one. The rest of the day and the next were in line with my eating plan; the wrap was a hot & yummy anomaly!
The other reason we feel the need to punish ourselves is because we aren’t doing ‘good enough!’ We use phrases like ‘out of control,’ ‘get my butt in gear,’ ‘get my head/ game together.’ Why? What are we doing that’s so wrong? We had a couple cookies after dinner? We had a wrap for breakfast? Damn, send in the Marines!! We need to whisked off to the nut house- we are outta control!! Except that it’s not funny and I’m not exaggerating, because that’s how we think of ourselves and that’s how we treat ourselves: “I had cookies- I’m bad! I had cookies- I’m bad! What’s wrong with me?!” Nothing is wrong with you either: you’re a regular person (see above reference to synthetic humans and alien species). For most of us, this healthy eating and fitness lifestyle is still pretty new. I’ve been doing this for two years, and while I may have a little more experience than some of you, I am far from an old pro! I am pretty used to eating according to my Paleo menu and it’s my default routine now. That means it’s easier for me to say to things like cookies and potato chips and crackers because I’ve been doing it for over a year, but I’m still human and sometimes the cheesetoast at Sizzler looks good to me. The chocolate covered pretzels at my friend’s party are kind of tempting. Do I eat them? Rarely. It’s not because I’m denying myself or doing penance for whatever imagined sin I thought I committed. I say no most of the time because I know they aren’t good for me and as tempting as they are, I know that I really don’t want them. They may taste good but they have consequences that aren’t worth it to me. If I do have them, it’s not the end of the world or a fatal diet error; it’s an anomaly, and it usually serves to remind me of why I gave them up. I usually feel kind of blah afterwards that has nothing to do with guilt: it’s like my body is saying “what the hell did you just eat and why did you eat it?!” (FYI: this is the same body that used to go into shellshock when I ate broccoli and now that it’s finally adjusted I go and give it cheesetoast again?!)
This is what Elizabeth Benton (Primal Potential) calls “All or Nothing” thinking, and it’s why so many of us give up trying to eat healthy or get fit. Either you’re in or you’re out. We are either staying on the straight and narrow path or we are off the reservation in the food wilderness! When I was kid I used to play a board game called Aggravation, where we rolled the dice and moved our platoon of marbles around the board. The goal was to get all our marbles to the end before the others did, and if someone landed on one of your marbles, you had to move it all the way back to the beginning to start over. We are not marbles on a boardgame! When we have the cheesetoast or pretzels or anything else that’s “forbidden,” we don’t have to go back to Start! We don’t have to throw the board across the room in frustration! We just have to remind ourselves that really no food is “forbidden” or “off limits.” Eating Paleo doesn’t mean I never eat pasta or crackers again: it means I may eat it once in a while but it’s not a big part of my regular menu. Eating healthy doesn’t mean that you never eat cake again for the rest of your life: it simply means that cake is an occasional treat, not dessert every night! Much of what we eat as every day foods now were never intended to be everyday foods. Things like cookies and cake and chocolate were things made in celebration of a holiday or a special occasion. (This is why we have things like birthday and wedding cakes, Christmas cookies and fruitcake.)
A lot of us get caught up in this dieting “on or off” mindset because this is what most diets teach: you follow this strict regime for X amount of days to lose X amount of weight. Some of these diets are so structured, they set you up with weekly menus or goals you need to hit before you can move on to the next level and when you miss a goal or go off menu, they tell you to start again! Really?? This is why so many of the diet books and programs my mom used to leave on my doorstep ended up in the bottomless pit of unused diets. These diets don’t teach you how to eat for health or nutrition; they teach you to diet! They teach a short term style of eating with one goal in mind: losing weight! It’s not about being healthy or eating for long term nutrition or fitness- it’s all about the quick temporary fix. This is why so many of us have spent so many years losing the same 10/ 20/ X lbs over and over again. This is why I don’t say I am on the “Paleo diet”; I say that I eat Paleo, because I like eating this way and I intend to eat this way for the rest of my life. It’s not about weight loss (although frankly, I think losing weight is awesome!); it’s about being healthier and fitter and feeling really great.
More importantly, it is a PROCESS! Whatever style of eating you decide on, anything that recommends you get up the next morning “fully onboard with their eating plan” is pretty much setting you up to fail, in my opinion. When I decided to try Paleo, I did my research and downloaded some food lists and frankly, was shocked at all the things that were not considered Paleo. It was pretty much everything I had been eating: bread, pasta, potatoes, sugars, grains, etc. It was daunting, and I didn’t begin by throwing out everything non-Paleo from my cupboards. I started by eliminating one or two items: pasta and potatoes. I stopped eating those, until I felt I had a handle on it and I wasn’t going crazy craving them. Then I moved on to breads and crackers, and so on. It took a few weeks (really more like months!) before I had everything non-Paleo off my menu. I didn’t “start over” if I slipped up and had a piece of garlic bread a week or so after I stopped eating bread; it was an anomaly, and I kept going forward. I made note of how after eating it, I started craving it again, and how that was not a good thing, and it reminded me that was one of the reasons I stopped eating it! Learning to eat according to whatever healthy plan you choose is the same as learning any new skill: it takes time and patience but with practice comes improvement. Yes, there will be a few bumps in the road, but you don’t give up. Every master was first an apprentice. At some point in his life, Michelangelo didn’t know the first thing about drawing or painting. Mozart at one point knew nothing about music (although I think he was probably one year old at the time- prodigy!) The same was true of all the great artists, musicians and scientists. Everyone starts at the beginning and works their way forward. We don’t win when we reach our goal weight or bench press X lbs like we did in high school. Fitting into our wedding dress or a size 6 doesn’t make us winners. We win every day we get up and keep moving forward with putting our health first! Even if we have the birthday cupcake or the breakfast wrap, when we keep moving forward, we keep getting better; we keep winning!