Amongst people who diet, the term ‘cheat’ is used most often to refer to any food that does not fit the description of clean eating, or which deviates from the eating plan that the person might have. I like to take this one step further and to split up the labels further, as I think that lumping everything in together is doing us a disservice, because not all cheats are equal. Whenever I approach a cheat, rather I have a choice between having a treat, or having junk.
The foods that I call treats are calorie dense foods: you do not want to be shoveling down these in large quantities, because there is no way you will be burning that off and it’s going straight to ‘dat ass’ if you go overboard. However, and here is the important part, these are still foods that in small quantities are delicious but not harmful to the body in any way. An example of this is natural peanut or other nut butters. It is very high in fats – eat a jar of this every day and you will not be fitting into your clothes for much longer. However these are largely monounsaturated fats, which are not culprit of all of the major health issues that plague the Western world. Similarly fruit is high in fructose, so large amounts will make you gain fat, but this does not react in your body in the same way as added sugar does. This brings me to junk – this is the label that I give to all foods with the added sugars, the trans fats and any other highly processed food. These are the ice creams, deep-fried food, chocolate, pizza, soft drinks etc. I will be writing lots about these over the coming months but in this post, my focus is on these labels, so I’m going to move on.
So what is the purpose of these two labels?
This separation provides me with a simple mechanism that helps me to choose the best food possible when it’s time for a cheat meal. Cheat meals are exciting for clean eaters, excitement can lead to snap decisions, and snap decisions require short-cuts. Usually this means going for the first thing in front of you. By having a mental list of treats and junk, I am easily able to direct my attention towards foods I have already labeled as treats, and consider eating one of these before considering anything labeled as junk. Most of the time, I will find something in that list that is appealing, and then I can have that cheat meal and have avoided putting anything rubbish into my body.
Interestingly, this labeling also does a few things on a cognitive level, which can really help avoid eating junk too often. A common problem with eating habits is an underestimation of how often one is actually consuming foods that are damaging for the body. By using this strategy I am highly aware of every time that I am eating junk: in order to end up in that situation I have first had to consider many other options and consciously decide that I would instead like to eat junk. Additionally, junk is not a nice word. It is associated with garbage and unwanted goods. By always calling this food junk I am actually slowly conditioning my mind to associate these foods with these unpleasant characteristics. As strange as that may sound, over time these associations will start to pick up some valence with the foods and the foods will actually become less rewarding to me than they were before. That is not to say that they will taste horrible, but rather the hedonic response that I will experience when I eat these foods will be smaller than if I didn’t do this. This is further enhanced by informing myself about what these foods actually do to me and ensuring that I regularly remind myself of these things. It is all about recalibrating reward. I want to delve further into this in coming months, but just wanted to touch on it here.
Some of you may be thinking “why would I ever want to do that?” – well, because I’m hoping you would like to take care of your health. It’s not all about how you look, and you only get one body so be careful with how you go about feeding it. Of course that is not to say that you cannot ever indulge, but it is all about knowing when enough is enough. Think of it like other junk – like watching trashy reality TV or letting your home get messy. It has its place and a bit of it is not going to kill you, but a lot of it can slowly lead to other consequences that creep up on you. I hope that this strategy will be helpful to you – please feel free to use it or to use the thoughts shared here to create your own. I would love to hear what you come up with.