“Yesterday I was bad: I had a cookie.”
“Last night I cheated and had some ice cream.”
If you’re anything like my clients, sentences like these have become second nature to you. Unfortunately, when we view a particular food as off-limits and then “cheat” to eat it, we feel guilt or regret. This can trigger a cascade of nutrient-poor food choices. Suddenly, we’re three cupcakes in, feeling crummy (physically and emotionally), and thinking that we failed.
So how do you “bounce back” after a cheat before it devolves into an all-out, guilt-ridden binge?
Step 1: Explore what contributed to your less-nutritious food choices
Were the “healthy” choices you were attempting too restrictive? Did they leave you feeling deprived? Are you not resonating with the values, goals, or reasons why you were trying to make more nutritious food choices in the first place?
Reconnect with why a healthy diet matters to you; not why it matters to your doctor or some family member or friend. If the only reason you load up on veggies and pass on chips is to appease someone else or to try to resemble some Hollywood ideal of beauty, then of course you’re going to struggle! Unless the motivation comes from within, you’ll wear yourself ragged trying to choose the food you think you “should” eat over the one you really want.
Consider what else is going on in your life as well. We often use food as a coping mechanism, turning to comfort (“cheat”) foods when we’re lonely, overwhelmed, or struggling financially (just to name a few instances). The food soothes us, but only temporarily. And it may cause guilt, physical discomfort, and long-term health problems.
Instead, try meditation, yoga, relaxation activities (bubble baths, listening to calm music, knitting), exercise, talk therapy, and journaling.
Also, consider your environment. Do your friends and family respect your goals, or do they often leave you with gifts of your favorite trigger foods? Are nutritious foods convenient and in plain sight, or is it easier to grab the box of cookies? If a food is a strong trigger for you to make food choices that you later regret, remove it from your environment. We don’t force alcoholics to spend all day staring at a bottle of wine without touching it. Set yourself up for success.
Step 2: Stop looking at your eating pattern as something you can “cheat” on in the first place!
This process requires a shift away from the diet mentality, where you follow a restrictive set of food rules temporarily in order to achieve some promised, generally aesthetic result. The good news is that diets don’t work anyway, and it’s high time we break up with them for good. Whenever I ask my clients if their favorite diet worked for them, they say, “Sure! While I followed it.” Eventually, though, they’re no longer able to live up to the unrealistic demands of the diet’s rules, and so they cheat or quit.
When you say good-bye to the diet mentality, food is no longer a moral battleground. There are no rules, so you can’t do anything to break or cheat on them. You may have principles that guide your choices (like being vegan) or help you achieve goals (like lowering cholesterol). Occasionally straying from those values isn’t cheating; it’s just part of life. You’re in charge, replacing judgment and guilt with freedom and, most importantly, choice.
Stop saying, “I can’t eat [blank]” and start saying, “I choose not to eat [blank].”
Step 3: Forgive yourself and move on
You can’t change the choices you’ve already made, but you can learn from them. Practicing mindfulness can help you become more aware of what influences your choices; then you can understand where your cravings and decisions originate.
Once you realize that “cheating” is really just your brain’s cry for help when it feels deprived or uncared for in some way, you can start treating yourself with the compassion you deserve.