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Treats and Cheats: Re-Thinking “Forbidden Foods”

This post is part of the Tips From a Student series. The student lifestyle can sometimes be non-conducive to health. In this section I share my own strategies for balancing health, school, and social life.

Fruit Salad

Last week, in my post about orthorexia, I wrote about how important it is to think about food in a healthy way. No matter how healthy the food you’re eating is, mindset is key — especially if you have a history of disordered eating habits like so many of us do. Having a healthy mindset, however, is much more difficult than it sounds: there’s no switch you can flip to suddenly change the way you relate to food on a subconscious, emotional, or psychological level. This week, therefore, I want to share some tips about how to alter your mindset to think about food, especially treats, in a healthy, sustainable way.

In a search for health and/or fat loss, it is inevitable that you will stumble upon a program (or many programs) that advises you to eliminate something, to treat something as “forbidden”. This may be a particular group of foods (meat, grains, dairy, etc.), a particular micronutrient (fat, carbs, or protein), or something else (calories, sodium, cholesterol, etc.). Any program that wants to help you gain health or lose weight will almost certainly eliminate (or dramatically reduce) at least one of these elements. Leaving aside the issue of whether any individual program’s recommendations are in fact conducive to health, we can assume that these recommendations are at least intended to be healthy.

By categorizing any food or food group as “forbidden,” however, these recommendations have the potential to feed into the disordered mental processes of many individuals. An obsession begins over foods that are “allowed” and “not allowed,” and things like self-worth begin to hinge on those choices. On one end of the spectrum, this can lead to orthorexia: obsessive adherence to a way of eating characterized by self-punishment at the prospect of failure. On the other end of the spectrum, it leads to failure to adhere to the program: overwhelming guilt and often resignation from the program after a supposed “cheat”.

A low-carb dieter might sometimes give into the temptation of a bowl of pasta. A low-calorie dieter might binge on chocolate bars and ice cream. These are common experiences, but they create the illusion of a lazy, weak-willed population, unable to resist temptation. I personally, however, find it hard to have so little faith in humanity: I refuse to believe that all of those people out there trying so hard to get healthy are failing just because of a lack of will power. (NOTE: This is a multi-faceted issue that lies at the very heart of my interest in health and nutrition. Today I’m looking at the mental health side of the problem, but in future posts I will address the issue further).

How, then, can we change the way people are thinking about these “forbidden” foods? How can we avoid self-punishment, guilt, and failure? The following are four tips that helped (and continue to help) me immensely in fighting my disordered mindset.

Reframe the Question

One useful way to avoid thinking about “forbidden” foods and therefore opening yourself up to ideas like “failure” is to reframe the project in your mind. Instead of thinking about the foods you can’t eat, think about the ones you can. Instead of thinking about eliminating/reducing carbohydrates, think about adding protein, fat, and non-starchy vegetables. Instead of thinking about avoiding sodium or trans fats, focus on choosing real foods like vegetables and unprocessed meats (they’ll have less sodium and trans fat than low-sodium processed food anyway). By thinking about food with positive statements instead of negative ones, you set yourself up to be more positive about your food choices.

Make Things Clear

If there are specific foods that you have chosen to avoid, make sure you know why you have eliminated them. Decisions really only have power behind them when you make them for you. Just because your doctor (or partner, or friend, or diet guru) tells you something is healthy, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you really believe them or that the choice was really yours. Before deciding to avoid something, make sure you really believe it.

Food intolerances and allergies make this part really easy. If you know that a certain food is going to send you running to the washroom, give you a rash, or put you into anaphylactic shock, it’s a lot easier to avoid it: there is a clear, short-term consequence. Similarly, moral, ethical, or religious food decisions are easy to make because there is strong mental structure behind those choices.

On the other hand, avoiding something just for the heck of it or because someone told you to will be extremely difficult, setting you up for failure. If you’re in this situation, think carefully about why you are really eliminating those foods. Are you reducing your carbohydrate intake to lose fat? Are you avoiding soy and corn products because you oppose genetic modification? Whatever your reasons are, make them clear so that you know why you’re making the decision to avoid that food.

Turn It Into a Lifestyle

We’ve all heard it before: this isn’t a diet, it’s a lifestyle. Often what people mean when they say that is that it’s a long-term diet program and/or that it incorporates lifestyle factors apart from food, like sleep and exercise. When I say lifestyle, I’m talking about something much more encompassing: a mentality that allows for sustainability. In the space of a three-week detox or a quick fat-loss plan, you might be able to avoid a long list of “forbidden” foods entirely. In the space of a lifetime, however, total avoidance is difficult to maintain without falling prey to some form of mental disorder. Sometimes, as in the case of allergies, intolerances, and moral/ethical/religious convictions, it is necessary (and therefore easier) to avoid certain foods. For others decisions, however, like avoiding sugar or genetically-modified products, it is sometimes better to be flexible and make peace with the idea of occasional treats — it will depend on the food and your own situation how often these treats should be incorporated.

NOTE: Be careful not to turn these exceptions or treats into rules (for example, I can have one piece of chocolate cake each week or I can only have french fries on days that I also go to the gym). These sorts of rules have good intentions behind them, but they can easily be incorporated into an orthorexic mindset. Think instead about what treats are acceptable to you and give rough guidelines about how often you can have those treats without interfering with your original goals. Most importantly, don’t think about the treats as “cheating” or “falling off the wagon”: if you can have a slice of cake now and then without de-railing your health goals, GO FOR IT!

Make Conscious Decisions

The biggest factor in all of this is woven through all of the above tips: make conscious decisions. The difference between a treat and a cheat, between a choice and a failure, is the level of involvement you had in that decision. A craving for a bowl of chocolate ice cream is fine and completely understandable: does that mean you should grab the whole carton and a spoon and start chowing down? Probably not. Does that mean you shouldn’t have any ice cream? Not necessarily. Food tastes great–there’s no denying it–but the taste only lasts a few moments: after that you have to deal with the consequences to your health. By giving into cravings for taste without thinking about the long-term consequences, we set ourselves up for guilt and self-punishment. By making a conscious decision to eat something, despite any negative consequences, we can fully enjoy it and then move on to make a lifetime’s worth of healthy decisions. Similarly, we are empowered by decisions to avoid something or to opt for a healthier option.

None of these tips will necessarily change anything about what you’re eating, but by incorporating these elements into your mindset surrounding food, you will set yourself up for success and for healthy mental processes.

Getting Lost In the Science: How the Health Industry Is Leaving People Behind

Awhile ago, I read a blog post by Kevin Geary on The Rebooted Body whose title read, “The Health and Fitness Industry Is Dead. (And that Includes You, Paleo).” My first thought on seeing that title was that it would be another off-the-mark criticism (like Paleofantasy or Sally Fallon’s arguments in the WAPF newsletter) of this lifestyle I’ve chosen to adopt. What I found, however, was an incredibly insightful critique with which I almost entirely agree.

In the article, Geary attacks what he terms “high fact diets” — the sort we’ve all been exposed to from all different angles. Everywhere you look in the health and fitness industry, people are throwing “facts” at you. Someone is always trying to tell you what your macronutrient ratio should look like or how long you should exercise and at what intensity. One person might cite a study about how red wine prevents cancer and then another person might cite a study about how any alcohol at all leads to nutrient deficiency. It can get confusing and — more importantly — it can hinder people’s progress towards health.

Focused on facts, facts, and more facts, the proponents of real food diets like Paleo, Primal, Weston A. Price, Clean Eating, the Specific Carbohydrate Diet (SCD), Perfect Health, and even Raw Food and Vegan get caught up nitpicking about issues of carb and protein sourcing and whether agave nectar is a legitimate form of sweetener. They get so caught up in this that they forget about all the people out there still stuck in an endless cycle of yo-yo dieting and poor health. As Geary states, “This [paleo] revolution failed because it got lost in the science — it got lost correcting the record of mainstream medicine and forgot about developing a way to help people who are alone in the trenches, bruised and muddy from years of trying and failing.”

Now, being a nutrition nerd, I personally love learning about the science behind food choices, but even I confess to being frequently overwhelmed by the amount of information out there. And let’s face it: even if we were somehow able to find the perfect formula that would give everyone in the world perfect health, there would still be people who wouldn’t follow it. Why? Because issues of food choice and fitness are a lot less dependent on facts and information than on psychology. “The new revolution is about the psychology of success,” asserts Geary.

I’m happy to say that this fact has already been recognized in many areas of the paleo community. Bloggers like Stefani Ruper from Paleo for Women, Stacy Toth from Paleo Parents, George Bryant from Civilized Caveman Cooking Creations, Sarah Ballantyne from The Paleo Mom, and Jason Seib from Everyday Paleo have all been talking about issues of psychological motivation, disordered eating, and body image, among others. More people, however, need to join in.

This is an important issue for me because one of the major reasons that I have fully adopted a paleo lifestyle is that it helped (and is continuing to help) me work through a lot of psychological and emotional issues associated with both food and exercise. By talking about these issues, by focusing on psychology rather than nitpick-y facts (like whether or not to eat rice), real food diets like Paleo and many others can affect people’s lives in bigger ways than through health and fitness alone. As Geary states, “[T]he information alone isn’t helping people: it stands no chance when confronting the enemies of addiction, dependency, low self worth, unhealthy body image, low confidence, depression, anxiety, and learned helplessness. It can’t correct the consequences of physical, mental, and emotional abuse, which in varying degrees is far more pervasive than anyone wants to admit.”

It clearly won’t be easy, and there isn’t just one way to address this issue, but what is clear is that it needs to addressed. We need to stop getting lost in the science and reach out to real people who are dealing with issues much bigger than whether or not potatoes are “paleo”.

 

(To read more about this, take a look at the original article on rebootedbody.com/health-fitness-dead, buy Jason Seib’s book The Paleo Coach, and check out The Paleo View and EP Lifestyle and Fitness podcasts).