One of the biggest hesitations I encounter with people contemplating whether or not to start a new “diet” is the fear of giving up some food(s) they love. These foods (or sometimes beverages) typically fall in the category of “unhealthy” and might involve some of the following: fast food, pizza, soda, alcohol, desserts, sugary drinks, breads/pastries/cereal and various other snack items. For far too many people, the decision to get healthy is viewed as some sort of “all or none” endeavor. They go from the typical Standard American Diet (SAD) one day and then start some diet plan the next day and try to follow it perfectly 100% all the time. We all know how this goes…….it goes BADLY. The new diet is followed for a few days, maybe a few weeks and, rarely, a few months, but inevitably it is eventually ditched and the person is back to a SAD diet, regains the weight, feels crappy and blames themselves or someone else or some dire situation as to why they can’t stay on the healthy straight and narrow. If you ask some of these people, oftentimes they say, “Well, I really missed eating ______ and couldn’t handle it anymore so I just gave in”, and this threw them totally off the plan.
It does not have to be like this. It should not be like this.
None of us are perfect. Not one. I think we can all agree on this. We have different tastes and preferences and weaknesses (food or otherwise). The decision to eat and live a healthy lifestyle HAS to be because YOU want to get healthy, NOT because you want to follow this or that diet to reach a certain weight or because you are in a weight loss contest at work or you are going on vacation in 3 months or because you’ve been pressured in some way to change your eating by a partner, friend or even a doctor. The decision has to come from within YOU to want lifelong vibrant health. Then, and only then, will you start on the path to success and great health for life.
Once that decision is truly made, then you have to have to accept the fact you will NOT be perfect in this endeavor. In fact, for most people I recommend shooting for the “80/20” principle, meaning 80% of the time you are doing things very well and 20% of the time there is a little more flexibility. Now, “flexibility” doesn’t mean binge eating or cramming Oreos and Pop-Tarts down your throat, but just a little more flexibility than following a very strict regimen that does not allow any “bad” foods. For example, during the week you might do really well. You make your healthy lunch for work as opposed to buying food. You prepare healthy breakfasts and dinners. You are really trying to get 7-8 hours of sleep per night. You are getting 10,000 steps in a day as well as a couple of strength training sessions. Friday rolls around. It’s been a long week. The kids are driving you nuts. You decide to order pizza because it’s quick, easy and tastes awesome and you love pizza. Great! Order the pizza. Eat 2 or 3 slices. Have a beer or a glass of wine. Then be done. Get back on track Saturday and have a healthy breakfast, go for a bike ride, eat a decent lunch and…..dinner with friends at the BBQ joint? No problem. Go have some ribs and a handful of fries and enjoy yourself. Pick it back up Sunday. Wait. There’s a birthday party Sunday evening. That’s going to mess it all up. Grandma turns 90. There’s going to be cake. Time to panic. “I can’t eat cake!”. Or…..You do a bit of a prolonged fast and skip breakfast on Sunday. Stay active. Eat a healthy lunch. Have a healthy dinner planned. Go to grandma’s birthday party and enjoy a small piece of cake if you absolutely want some. No regrets. Eat it and be done with it. If you really don’t want any, then don’t eat it. More power to ya. Pick it all back up Monday and do your best to eat super healthy during your work week.
So, let’s do the math as a very simple example. Assume you eat about 3 meals a day so that’s 21 meals in a week. In the above example you had 3 “meals” where you were a bit more flexible: Friday night pizza, Saturday night out with friends and grandma’s cake. That’s 3 out of 21, which is 14.2%. Not bad. So technically you were 86%/14% for the week. If you keep this up for life you will have success instead of constant ups and downs with your weight, mood, and everything else that comes with yo-yo dieting.
Have you noticed I refer to these meals as “flexible” meals as opposed to cheat meals?? That is because I really don’t like the term “cheat” when referring to anything dietary or lifestyle related. Cheating carries with it a very negative connotation, like something really bad was done. Cheating on a test. Cheating on a partner. Cheating on your taxes. None of it ends well (assuming you get caught!) but, more importantly, it eats away at your mental health. No one can live peacefully with themselves if they are a “cheater”. This is when the self-doubt and shame set in if you eat something off of the “diet”. You feel badly and give up and ultimately fail because, “I’m just not strong enough to do this,” or “I cheated so what the heck, I failed”. But, if “flex” meals are a PART of your already healthy lifestyle then there is no room for guilt or shame because you are doing things right 80+% of the time.
So, quit stressing so much and quit being overly dogmatic and hard on yourself. Shoot for healthy nutrition 80% of the time and the remaining 20% of the time allow yourself more “flex”. Be smart about it and plan accordingly. If you KNOW you have a dinner or a birthday or something like that coming up then plan to eat as healthy as possible every meal during the week knowing that on Saturday night you are going out with friends, and then allow yourself to indulge a bit more than usual. No shame. No guilt. Enjoy each and every bite (and sip) you partake in as part of that “flex” meal(s). Life is too short to live with a feeling of failure due to “cheating”. Do things “right” at least 80% of the time and enjoy a life of good health and enjoy a bit of “flex” at appropriate times.