“I’ve had a really hard day…”
“I went to all my workouts this week…”
“I ate a salad for lunch…”
“I’ve put up with my in-laws for four days and didn’t snap once…”
…I deserve it.
On the surface it seems to make sense. In so many parts of life good behavior is rewarded with some kind of treat, whether it was a sticker in kindergarten or a bonus at work. It’s natural to want to apply the same logic to the food you eat, especially if you’ve ever adopted a dieter’s mindset (or trained a puppy).
I’m here today to shatter this illusion.
First let’s consider the assumptions made in the statement, “I had a hard day so I deserve some chocolate.”
“A hard day” implies that you experienced an above average amount of stress in a single day, which of course is a bummer. Also implicit in the statement is that stress must somehow be balanced out with a positive experience. And finally that food is an appropriate reward for enduring abnormally high stress.
Similar assumptions can be derived from a statement like, “I was good today so I deserve some chocolate.” The implication is that being “good” takes work and deserves a reward, and food is an appropriate reward.
Some correlates can also be deduced from the logic of these statements, which is where things get a bit more disturbing. One is that if you deserve chocolate on “stressful” days or “good” days, that implies that on regular days you do not deserve chocolate. Another is that indulgent foods (like chocolate) are intrinsically more rewarding than other foods.
Both of these deductions are demonstrably false, yet are consistent with the logic of moralizing your food choices.
When you moralize your food choices you create categories in your mind that some foods are “good” and some foods are “bad.” Typically this also stokes a subconscious belief that the bad ones are really the best ones.
When this is the frame you put on your food choices, your designated “bad” foods become rewards because most of the time you are using willpower to resist them. Eating bad is a respite from being good, and who doesn’t deserve a break every now and then? Especially on a hard day.
This frame also turns choosing your designated “good” foods into a chore, because it is no longer a choice you are making out of intrinsic motivation. Whenever you’re doing something “to be good” instead of “because I want to” it requires willpower. Research has shown that reframing things you naturally enjoy into things you are “supposed to do” undermines your natural feelings and causes you to actually like the thing less.
Are you starting to see the problem here?
When you start asking yourself if you deserve to eat a specific food at any given moment, you are fueling the very mentality that causes you to seek that food (a reward) in response to stress. In other words, moralizing your food is kindling for emotional eating.
In the moment your mind may try to convince you otherwise, but emotional eating is not a form of self-care. Self-care is restorative, while emotional eating usually leaves you feeling worse. In my experience, emotional eating is rarely even enjoyable while it is happening.
I’m not arguing that food can never feel like a treat. I’m not even arguing that you never deserve to have an indulgence. To the contrary, my belief is that you always deserve an indulgence.
When you find yourself asking, “Do I deserve this special food today?” Remind yourself that you deserve special food every day, and this is not the right question. If you’re in need of self-care the appropriate thing to ask is, “What will restore my peace and energy?” You’ll likely come up with very different answers.
Eating for pleasure shouldn’t be reserved for days when life kicks the shit out of you. Tuesday is a good enough reason to eat something amazing. Enjoyment is a perfectly valid reason to eat anything. It’s just not the only reason.
Eating nourishing, satisfying food that fuels you well feels entirely different from eating rich, heavy or sugary foods. They can both feel awesome when the food is delicious, and when you don’t choose high-quality versions, both can be terrible. Flavor (and your subjective enjoyment) is a completely independent variable.
Rich, indulgent foods can be truly amazing. And you should eat these foods sometimes, because life should be awesome.
Of course it’s that sometimes that causes problems. The faulty logic is that categorizing foods into good and bad is what makes that sometimes possible, by giving you a moral compass to guide you. But in reality it makes sometimes harder because your categories make healthy foods feel less rewarding than rich foods, and because you have to choose when you’ve been worthy enough to deserve it.
When you stop moralizing your food choices you quickly realize that the reason not to eat rich foods every day isn’t because it’s bad for you or will make you fat, but because it feels so much better not to.
Now that my body is accustomed to being fueled by fresh, delicious, and nutrient-dense foods, heavier or more processed foods will crush my energy levels anywhere from a few hours to a full day. Sometimes this is worth it and is a choice I consciously make, but I’m always delighted to go back to the habits that keep me feeling my best.
Of course no matter what I choose, delicious is always part of the equation.
This wasn’t always the case for me. Before I stopped dieting and became a foodist I rarely made the connection between what I ate and how I felt afterward. Also back then, “delicious” and “healthy” were entirely incongruous ideals. So if you’re reading this thinking, “Well that won’t work for me because I feel fine after I eat indulgent foods and still prefer them,” don’t dismiss this so quickly.
Remember that if you’re moralizing your food you’re likely enjoying your “healthy” choices less than you would naturally, had you not subconsciously labeled them a chore. Maybe you put less effort into making sure they’re delicious, because you don’t expect them to ever be. Or maybe you’ve never given them enough of a chance to truly know what it feels like to fuel your body well consistently. For me, it was all of the above.
Even if you do honestly love nutritious foods, food moralizing can still undermine your efforts by making certain foods preternaturally appealing and lead to overeating.
If some delicious and indulgent food is presented to you, don’t tell yourself you can have it because you’ve been good or had a hard day. Simply ask yourself if this particular food is worth it to you right now, and how much of it you need to be happy.
Make the question about the food quality and your goals, not your worthiness.
Do you moralize your food choices? Have you found it helps or hurts your decision making?