Let’s talk about cheating, guilt, and fear. Sounds awful, doesn’t it? I mean really, nobody wants to experience any of those things, much less talk about them. Chances are if you’ve ever cheated on anything, guilt and fear weren’t far behind. (Unless you’re some kind of sociopath, and if that’s the case you need to find some professional help, and quickly!) But for the rest of us, cheating on anything leads to guilt. The burden of guilt tends to stay with us, throwing a shadow over everything else in our lives. I’m going to be very honest and share a deep, dark, guilty secret with you. One time in high school, I cheated on a geometry quiz. Yes, it’s true, I’m terribly ashamed to admit it, but I did. I hated geometry and I’d say I didn’t understand it but truth be told, I doubt I did the work necessary to actually learn it. I went through a time where I thought math was stupid and a waste of my time. I do not believe that now, however my teenage self had other ideas. So anyway, back to my cheating incident. I wrote some formulas (or whatever it was) on a piece of paper that was in my sleeve and set it on my lap under my desk. Here’s the kicker, I’m 100% sure my teacher knew that I was cheating while I was doing it. However, he never called me on it, which I always wondered about. But I had so much shame after that test I couldn’t look my teacher in the eye after that and I have NEVER forgotten that day, so I think his decision to let me self-punish was a good one. As a matter of fact, I had anxiety and fear every time I saw him or set foot in that geometry class. I never cheated again, deciding that flunking a test was much more palatable than the feeling of guilt I had cheating. And I’ve never ever forgotten that feeling. It’s almost 40 years later and I still feel guilty about that and if I ever saw that teacher again, I’d apologize for cheating on that quiz. So, I can definitely attest to the fact that cheating leads to guilt and fear. Remember that…
Now we’re going to apply that lesson to the way you approach nutrition and exercise. There are some common phrases that you have probably used or been told to use that I think need to be changed TODAY.
Let’s start with the phrase CHEAT MEALS. I can’t even begin to tell you how much I despise this term. The science of proper nutrition and hormone fluctuations during weight loss has proven that having at least one higher calorie/carbohydrate day built into your fat loss program actually helps your body to continue to burn fat. As you diet, and your calories become lower and lower, your body starts protecting itself against starvation and slows down your metabolism. As a counter for this decline in metabolic activity, stoking the fire, so to speak, on a regular basis is not only a good thing, but a necessary part of your program. Not to mention the boost to your mental health. So I propose that we stop calling it a CHEAT MEAL and instead call it a FUN MEAL. It may seem like a small thing, however, the words we choose to use can have a detrimental effect to not only our progress, but also our perception of the choices we make. Calling it cheating infers that you are doing something bad, something that you should be ashamed of or regret. I propose that we get away from looking at food as inherently bad, and instead look at it as GOOD, IMPORTANT, NECESSARY, and ENJOYABLE! So much of our eating these days is based around what’s right and what’s wrong. With the multitude of diets on the market, foods have been categorized into either good or bad and everything that doesn’t fit in the good category is considered cheating. Psychologically speaking, that’s a very dangerous place to reside. But, if we call it a FUN MEAL, and it’s in the plan, then we aren’t doing anything wrong. We aren’t CHEATING, we are doing exactly what we need to do to keep our mind and bodies functioning optimally. We have re-stoked the fire of our metabolism and of equal importance, we have granted ourselves a mental reprieve, because, quite frankly, there is nothing wrong with enjoying a wonderful meal. By allowing ourselves to have these meals and calling them FUN, we are creating a healthy food relationship that can last a lifetime. People get on and off the diet wagon constantly. Strict diets will always fail in the long term. I wish I had a dollar for everyone that has told me that they’re doing the “X” diet again because it always works for them. Guess what? If you’ve had to do it more than once it never actually worked in the first place. You may have lost weight but you were unable to keep it off, therefore it’s another failed diet. Perhaps you should STOP dieting and learn how to actually eat and stop telling yourself that you’re cheating when you eat something that actually tastes good. Yes, eating nutrient dense foods that will fuel your body and create an environment for abundant health and continued strength is absolutely important. But does that mean you can’t have a piece of cake on your birthday without feeling guilty about it afterwards? Does it mean that you can’t enjoy going out with your family and splitting a pizza on a Saturday night? Absolutely not! It is possible to stay on the path of a healthy lifestyle your entire life and still enjoy many wonderful things along the way. Your body will be just fine with it, trust me. And by allowing yourself those enjoyable moments, your desire to completely jump off the path and set up camp at the first bakery you pass by will be greatly diminished, if not disappear altogether. But once you’ve given in to the notion that you’ve cheated, then just like my geometry quiz, what follows is guilt and self-punishment and fear. Fear that you are incapable of ever being successful, fear that others will see you as a failure, and fear that your unhealthy relationship with food will always control your life.
So that moves us into the next phase of self-punishment, the GUILT workout. I’m going to give you a little scenario. So, let’s say you are on a diet to lose 25 lbs. You’ve been very good for a whole month now, not straying even a calorie from your plan and you’re so proud of yourself! You’re down 8 lbs. so far and feeling great. It’s your birthday and your best friends come over to help you celebrate and they’ve baked you your favorite cake! At first you say, “No, I can’t have that! I’m not allowed to eat that on my diet!” But as the night goes along, the willpower gets weaker, and you get a little bit mad that you CAN’T have things that taste good until you finally give in a get yourself big slice of cake and eat it. It tastes great, but as you’re eating it, the guilt starts to set in. You can almost feel the fat forming on your body with every bite. After your friends leave and you see the leftover cake, the self-punishment begins. You were weak and you failed. Instead of remembering how great that cake tasted and how awesome your friends are, instead you start focusing on how that slice of cake probably ruined your whole diet. So you decide that you’ll have to head to the gym tomorrow and work extra hard to burn off that cake and hopefully mitigate some of the damage that was done. And maybe it would be a good idea to skip breakfast, too. When you get to the gym you do twice as much cardio and work 3 times harder than usual, but get discouraged by the relatively small amount of calories the treadmill actually says you’ve burned off! The GUILT workout is in full force.
Let’s review what just happened. First, you let your fear of food take over the enjoyment of your time with your friends. You started the whole evening off with I CAN’T and all it did is make you feel like you’ve drawn the short straw when it comes to your metabolism. When you finally give in to the cake, you’re hit with a feeling of anger that you’re overweight and one of failure because you cheated and are incapable of sticking to a plan. Then you used the gym as a punishment for your failure. Sound familiar??? This. Needs. To. Stop. It’s a vicious circle with no successful outcome. Don’t EVER go to the gym as punishment for something you ate. Let me say that again. Don’t EVER go to the gym as punishment for something you ate. All you did was associate the gym with failure. Just as the phrase CHEAT MEAL associates eating something you enjoy with cheating, working out under the guise of burning off that so called cheat meal now associates the gym as a place to punish yourself. Here’s a fact. Going to the gym is a gift. If you have the ability to walk into a gym, then you are blessed. There are a lot of people that would give almost anything to be strong enough to go to the gym and exercise. Instead, go to the gym because it will make you stronger and healthier. Go to the gym because you LOVE how it makes you mentally stronger and because it gives you a healthy outlet for your stress. But DO NOT, I repeat, DO NOT go to the gym to punish yourself. This is so incredibly important because how we label these things in our lives greatly affects our perception of them in the future. And adding a negative connotation to exercise and food will only lead to feelings of frustration and guilt, and a fear of ever reaching our goals.
Even some people in the fitness profession feel the need to justify eating something that is in the BAD column of foods. They’re eating something decadent on vacation and post it on social media, but make sure to tell everyone that it’s cheat day lest anyone be led astray by their questionable choice to eat a pastry. Guess what, that one pastry isn’t going to break them or you! In fact, what it will do is keep the desire to overindulge at bay leading to a lifelong healthy relationship with food. It’s IMPORTANT and NECESSARY to enjoy small pleasures along the path of a healthy lifestyle.
Enjoy your cake, take pleasure in time spent with friends and family and don’t let your fear of food control the situation. Exercise your body because it’s a gift to have the ability to do so. And run away from diets that have strict GOOD and BAD labels when it comes to food and exercise. We are all individuals, unique in our strengths as well as our weaknesses. It doesn’t matter what your fitness journey looks like, protecting your mental strength is the key to success. Understanding why you need to eat healthy foods the majority of the time, but also understanding how very important it is to allow yourself to enjoy the wonderful things life has to offer in order to keep moving forward is crucial. Being mindful of the things we say, our governing thoughts and the labels we put on things is so important. We must learn to be respectful of the process, forgiving of our missteps, and above all, focused on starting each day with a step forward and a thankful heart.