Treat vs Cheat: A Paradigm Shift

The key, as simple as it sounds, is to choose wisely most of the time. If you choose to treat yourself, resume your normal behaviors at the next meal. Where most people get carried away is when a “bad” meal turns into a bad day and then into “I’ll start fresh on Monday” and finally into “I’ll get on track the first of the year.”
By: Gillian Ward, BLOC Head Nutrition Coach

Treat versus Cheat: A Paradigm Shift

Cheeseburgers, french fries, juicy ribeyes! Ok, I got your attention. 

Most of us classify these foods as indulgences, things that we are not supposed to eat if we are following a “diet.” We consider those foods to be cheating and regard consuming them as a setback, a weakness, a loss of willpower, an act of rebellion against ourselves.  We feel pangs of guilt afterward, punish ourselves, and even experience self-loathing at times. It doesn’t stop us though. A few days, maybe a week or a month pass, and we find ourselves “cheating” again. The cycle continues. 

The problem is that there are so many different kinds of diets, and most of us interpret the word diet as deprivation, exclusion, restriction, and have preconceived notions about what foods are diet-friendly. Are you cheating if you have a fatty cut of meat or a block of cheese? Not if you are on the keto diet. Are you cheating if you have a large bowl of pasta with marinara sauce? Not if you are following a low-fat diet. You can see where I am going with this. There are literally thousands of “diets” out there claiming to have both health benefits and be ideal for weight loss. For each diet that we come across, we can find another that is the polar opposite.

All diets “work” if you stick to them because they all restrict intake in some capacity—whether it is by eliminating a macronutrient, eliminating meals, eliminating specific foods, or drinking shakes instead of eating. What we typically think of as a diet is really just a sustained caloric deficit of some form. In simple terms, it is consuming less than our needs for homeostasis.

So, let’s come back to this notion of “cheating” and setbacks. Cheating with regard to a diet does not have a universal definition in the same way that cheating on your taxes or on an exam does. Cheating is a dirty, negative word associated with failure, weakness, and even desperation. Cheating on your diet is defined by your own mental construct of what your diet is and what it isn’t.  

Did I fail because I consumed a bacon double cheeseburger and fries? No, I made a conscious choice to eat a calorically dense food that I recognize I will need to work around to stay in a caloric deficit (as that is what determines the success of weight/fat loss). For a diet to be sustainable and results maintainable, there must be flexibility in the approach. We must learn how to eat the foods that we love in a healthy manner because it is unrealistic (and unnecessary) to believe that any food needs to be given up forever. We are not cheating by eating. Instead, we have a treat that is planned for and special because it is not something that we do all of the time. 

One way to look at a treat meal would be to compare your food intake to your budget. Let’s say that you are saving up for a big purchase. Something important to you. You make small sacrifices with regard to your spending for a period of time until you have accumulated the funds that you need to buy what it is that you want. Essentially, you trim the excess, knowing that is the only way that you are going to obtain what you desire. 

If what you desire is a maintainable, favorable change to your body composition, I’m here to tell you that you can have your cake and eat it too…if you budget for it.  Most of the time, you need to be smart and cautious with your spending/eating—like putting the money in the bank. Occasionally, though, you have saved up enough to treat yourself and indulge within your budget.  After you spend a little bit, go back to saving again.

However you choose to view dietary indulgences—a piece of birthday cake, a glass or two of wine, a holiday meal—they should not be a source of stress and internal angst.

You get the opportunity to make a choice with every meal. Most of the time, we want to choose the “best” or “healthiest” option to fuel our bodies, but occasionally even the most strong-minded of us may choose a lesser option to nourish the soul. This is normal and healthy. 

Incorporating occasional splurges into our nutrition plan has a multitude of benefits:

  • preventing us from obsessing about “off-limits” foods
  • keeping us from being socially isolated by the parameters of our “diet”
  • teaching us to control portions and avoid binges because we know that we will get another opportunity to eat this food
  • teaching us to plan around real-life obstacles and joyous events that involve food 
  • preventing food sensitivities by not allowing our diet to become so limited that we lose the ability to process different foods
  • revving the metabolism up after long periods of being in a deficit
  • making the plan sustainable for real life

The key, as simple as it sounds, is to choose wisely most of the time. It is an expansion of the quality over quantity diet approach. If you choose to treat yourself, resume your normal behaviors at the next meal. Where most people get carried away is when a “bad” meal turns into a bad day and then into “I’ll start fresh on Monday” and finally into “I’ll get on track the first of the year.” 

Start budgeting your intake now, even if you have a party in three days where you know that you are going to “treat” yourself. Shifting your paradigm from “Cheat” to “Treat”—and planning for it—is one of the best steps you can take in building healthy nutritional habits.

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