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Cheat Or Treat?
Mmm…vices. Pizza. Beer. Burgers. Cocktails. I’m not sure how anyone on earth could permanently let go of such beautiful gifts of pure indulgence. Some of the simplest pleasures in life are the ones that pass the lips.
Why is it so hard to give up these wonderful things when we know that most of them simply aren’t ideal for us?
It helps to look at a bit of science behind this first.
The mesocorticolimbic circuit (or ‘reward system’ for those of us whose tongues can’t quite get around that 'meso' part) in our brains motivates us to engage in behaviour that increases fitness (sex, calorie-dense foods, etc.). Most animal species' survival depends on maximizing beneficial stimuli and minimizing the harmful ones.
Then there's the well-documented fact that when people are feeling stressed, they tend to go for more energy-dense foods as a coping mechanism.
So you see, our love and need for treats are quite literally built-in parts of us.
The problem with the yumminess is not the stuff itself really, but our thought processes around how to 'treat the treats'. Especially while being directed towards them by our very nature.
Without doubt, many of those delicious items can certainly impact our body composition and overall health negatively if they’re abused. Anything can. The good news, however is that they don’t have to be eliminated from your life if you choose to forge a path of fitness and health as you move forward.
Gather ‘round, it’s Story Time!
One day while I was working out with my trainer, he casually mentioned something about me not eating dairy products anymore.
I was confused at first because this was news to me. I very much love dairy products. For me, cream in my coffee just lifts the spirits in the morning and takes me from grumpy to joyful…well, almost joyful, but definitely better than before enjoying my morning elixir. I also don't think I could effectively exist in a world without cheese.
It turns out that my trainer was under the impression that we had a conversation about this before (which we didn't). I mentioned to him that that’s all really nice but if he's thinking about asking me to cut out dairy, he's wasting his time. That is a non-negotiable.
Being an incredibly intelligent individual with many years of experience in the world of fitness and nutrition, he told me that nothing that he asks me to stop consuming is necessarily permanent. It's just a momentary action that serves the purpose for a period of time. Once the desired goals for whatever current phase or cycle I'm on (muscle building or fat loss) have been reached, I can consume the stuff in question again.
That familiar feeling that’s akin to hating when a parent turns out to be right came over me, because despite my resolute stance of dairy staying in my life, it crumbled before this reason and logic.
But the conclusion that stuck with me from this odd but important exchange was tremendously beneficial for the long term:
You don't have to let go of any food or drink permanently.
Rather than just giving up something because it’s “bad” for you, I'd say a smarter recipe for a truly happy life is to find the middle of the road.
That said, certain foods and beverages can and do harm your body and can definitely slow down your hard work that you do on your health and fitness.
Highly processed, salty or very starchy foods such as white bread, pastas and white rice would be in this category.
Junk food - there's a reason it's called 'junk'
Red meat - sure, it's high in protein but comes at the cost of all kinds of potential negative health effects
Foods high in gluten can negatively impact gut health.
Dairy foods and nightshades (such as tomatoes, peppers and eggplant) can create inflammation which then can trigger a wide variety of health concerns. Not to mention fat storage
This is by no means a full list of foods that can do harm, but I'm sure you get the idea.
When framed in this scary way, of course it's something that deserves at least a little bit of attention, but again - it's not something that has to be given up entirely.
Great nutrition vs. Optimal nutrition
I suspect some people are probably scratching their heads after reading the nightshades part above. How can innocent vegetables be bad for you in any way? I'm calling them out to support this side rant. Personal trainers and nutritionists will always guide you to optimal nutrition and behaviours. That's to ensure you keep aiming for the stars. Nothing wrong with that approach, but please keep in mind that very, very few of us can eat optimally every day for the rest of our lives. It's simply not realistic even if 'Will Power' (I'm proud of that one) is your superhero alias.
As for myself, I eat peppers and tomatoes almost daily. Again, great nutrition and optimal nutrition are not the same thing. The choices are ours to make, but they should always be educated ones.
Let’s be clear: there is a definite scale to all of this. If you want to be healthy and look great in a swimsuit or whatever you love to look good in, great nutrition is the most powerful tool you will ever have to meet that goal.
If you want to go into bodybuilding competitions or other highly competitive sports, your path would be more along the lines of a Tom Brady-esque optimal nutrition plan. Good bye nightshades and coffee cream among many other things. If you're not familiar with his method of eating, I urge you to look it up as a frame of reference. Seriously, I don’t know how anyone can live like that, though it seems to work for him.
But I digress.
My recommendation is that a healthy, balanced diet tailored to your fitness goals be followed 6 days out of 7 (a.k.a. the cost of indulgence is 6 days of work).
The concept of a “Cheat Day” or “Cheat Meal” comes into play here. I’m sure you’ve heard of this term. This is where people who work out with both weight lifting and cardio take one day, a few meals or even just one meal and make them whatever they want them to be.
Most people do this once a week. Some less frequently. Some not at all. Again, there is a scale based on your desired goals.
As far as I’m concerned, if you are committed to working on your fitness, you deserve a delicious reward. You’ve worked hard on yourself and you may have achieved a few important milestones here and there. Whatever the reasons may be – make sure you give yourself at least one meal (but no more than 2 meals) per week where you indulge in whatever food you love.
Personally, I hate the word “cheat” for any of this. I prefer the term “Weekly Treat”. ‘Cheat’ is too negative and there is no reason for you to feel guilty in any way at all because you earned this reward.
In fact, there are a few concrete advantages to a weekly treat beyond just the mouthfeel of that double cheese pizza!
A weekly treat is actually a proven way to boost metabolism and control any perceived feelings of deprivation by boosting your level of leptins. Those suckers are the “anti-starvation” hormones responsible for sending hunger messages to the brain.
It also helps because no matter what you crave, you can always say to yourself "I may not be able to have this now, but hey, in a few days I can and will crush me one of those". It's always nice to have something great to look forward to.
What really anchors the mindset around this type of balancing act is a fundamental understanding of the fact that your best possible health is a lifetime path. You’re not doing this for the next 2 weeks, but you're growing and nurturing incredibly beneficial habits for life.
You absolutely can, and in fact should enjoy your vices. There is no reason that these treats can’t exist alongside your commitment to a strong, healthy life. After all, if we can’t indulge in the wonderful flavours and textures we so love, our very quality of life tanks. That runs counter to what we’re trying to achieve here, doesn’t it?
A Word on Alcohol
Booze is unfortunately one of the most damaging substances you could ingest. Among many negative health effects, it has the distinct misfortune of being a preferred fuel source for the body. When you drink the stuff, your body will use it as easy fuel over any other type of macronutrient, thereby leaving fat stores in peace. Generally, not what we want.
However, it too can be balanced in much the same way as food.
Like everything else on this journey, we’re not aiming for perfection but for improvement. Try to cut down on your servings gradually if you feel that it’s a lot. I have about 2-4 servings of alcohol per week and it is almost always on Saturdays. This just allows for easier participation in social settings, but you can time it however it suits you best.
So, can you really have your cake and eat it too? The answer is a definite ‘yes’ but with smart strategies to make sure that your body and mind have both the clean fuel and the pleasure that they deserve.
Do you have any tips on the concept of periodic treats? Drop a line or two in the ‘Comments’ section. I always love to hear other perspectives.
Also, is it Saturday yet?
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