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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.