Nearly every time I meet with a new client, he or she asks something like “can I have this salad dressing?” or says abashedly, “I know I shouldn’t have eaten ice cream on Friday, but it was my birthday and it’s my favorite.” And while I completely understand what they mean, it pains me to hear people talking about food as if they were children being punished for not following the rules, or as if there were moral implications of restricting food intake to only the healthiest choices. I’ve got news for you: you’re not bad if you eat a cheeseburger, just like you’re not good if you eat a salad!
Why beating yourself up backfires
What happens when you tell a child “you can’t go to the park”? He kicks and screams and can only think about wanting to go to the park, right? But what happens when you say, “you can go to the park and play for 5 minutes, or you can stay at home and play a new game for an hour, which is going to be more fun because you get more time”? Many times, the child will choose the latter. This is just like your brain … if you frame each health decision as a choice, and explain to yourself why the healthier decision benefits you more, you’re more likely to stick to your goals. After all, the rational side of our brains understands that the momentary pleasure of the store-bought cupcake brought into the office for a coworker’s birthday is less than the pleasure of not having an afternoon slump and not sticking to our goals. It’s that child-like impulsive side of our brains that throws a temper tantrum when we say we “can’t” have something.
Similarly, what happens when you tell yourself, “you blew it” after an indulgent brunch? You’re far more likely to order in pizza rather than cooking yourself a healthy dinner, right? That black-and-white mentality when we tell ourselves we’re already “bad” doesn’t serve us in any way – it makes us feel emotionally terrible, and leads us to continue to make less healthy decisions that don’t make ourselves feel best.
How to talk to yourself instead
Rather than saying “can’t,” “bad,” or depriving yourself of things that you want, I suggest figuring out what works for your body, then giving yourself the gift of treating your body well. If you think of a cookie as a “150-calorie cheat,” then you tell yourself it’s OK as long as you’re “good” the rest of the day. But if that cookie makes you feel awful, or if it’s prohibiting you from reaching your goals, it doesn’t even matter what you eat the rest of the day! If instead, you realize that the cookie spikes your blood sugar and insulin, puts you on the blood sugar roller coaster that keeps you feeling unstable and craving more sugar the rest of the day, and sets off an inflammatory cascade that leaves you feeling puffy for the next 3 days, it’s clearly a positive choice to skip it.
Now trust me, I’m not saying you should “eat perfectly” (whatever that means!). I’m just asking you to figure out what works for your body, then choose to treat it well. I personally feel fine eating chocolate in moderation (thank goodness!), but give me a slice of pizza and I look and feel as if I’ve swallowed a bowling ball. Does that mean I can’t or shouldn’t have pizza? No! I’m an adult; I can do what I want, and my decision to eat pizza or not isn’t hurting anyone else, so there’s really no morality involved. But if I’m in a situation where pizza is offered, you can bet that I will choose to find something else to eat, because I love my body enough to give it what makes it feel great.
But how do I figure out what works for my body?
My job as a health coach and nutrition consultant is not to be a food police, but rather to be a guide to help clients find the lifestyle and health choices that help them feel their absolute best. We do this through experimentation, by trying different patterns that I’ve seen work in people with similar goals and habits. And then we celebrate every single step along the way towards feeling amazing. But even in the absence of working with a coach, you can do this experimentation yourself! And most importantly, attaching morality to your food decisions isn’t helping you at all. Remember, you’re not a good person if you eat a salad, just like you’re not a bad person if you eat a burger.
Want to practice this positive thinking on yourself?
Try making some of these wording swaps when you catch yourself using judgmental language…
|Good food / bad food
|Healthy food / less healthy food
|“I was good” (regarding food choices) / “I was bad”
|“I was focused on my health” / “I lost focus” or “I prioritized other things”
|“I can’t have that”
|“That doesn’t make me feel great”
|“I know I shouldn’t…”
|“I know this isn’t helping me reach my goals” or “I know I would feel better if I chose something else”
|“This food will make me fat”
|“This is a food I don’t have every day, so I’m going to enjoy every bite mindfully and guilt-free!”
|“I blew it today … I’ll start again on Monday”
|“Now is a great time to give my body the veggies it’s craving. Every day, every meal, every bite is a new opportunity to make myself proud!”
|“I was bad … I need to punish myself with extra exercise or vegetables today”
|“I love my body enough to make healthy choices today”
Want to make health choices a positive experience? Join my Revitalize Health Accelerator TODAY! Register at: www.thelyonsshare.org/revitalize!
Now it’s your turn … Do you beat yourself up over your food choices? Which of these wording swaps can you commit to making?