One of the biggest challenges we face living in a culture of abundant food is finding balance within. With constant access to food, especially the indulgent types, it can be difficult to learn how to indulge without overindulging. For myself personally, this was one of the biggest struggles I had in my nutrition journey and one that I am still learning today.
Learning to Indulge Without Overindulging
Balance and moderation are common terms used in nutrition, and although they are useful, they look different for everyone. What balance looks like for me is different than what balance might look like for Jane Doe or Joe Blow. When I’m working with clients, people often ask me what balance looks like; “How many cheat meals can I have a week?”, “How many times can I eat out per week?”, or “How many times can I eat dessert per week?”. I always do my best to provide guidelines to help point people in the right direction, but I think it is important to understand that what “balance” looks like for you right now, might be different in one week from now, one month from now and one year from now. Life happens, things change, we change, and therefore so will our diet and lifestyle, and that’s great. Rather, what is important to recognize is that indulgence is actually an important part of balance.
A scoop of ice cream turns into half the tub.
A handful of chips turns into the entire bag.
A slice of cake turns into three.
Back in the day, when I overindulged I would obsess over it. I would go to a party, eat more than my fair share of the cheese board, and immediately start feeling guilty about it. It almost didn’t matter who I was talking to or what I was doing at the party, in the back of my mind I was thinking about the mistake I had made and trying to figure out how to undo the damage. Well, maybe if I get up early and run tomorrow I’ll feel better. Maybe if I skip breakfast I’ll be ok. I was off my rocker. I would restrict my treats so much and make myself promises that I would never indulge again, so when I did it became a free-for-all. If I eat half the tub of ice cream, I might as well eat the whole thing. If I eat a handful of chips, I might as well eat the whole bag. It was to a point that I wasn’t even enjoying the indulgence, I was just doing so because I could. I had made my own rules so strict that I was rebelling against myself. There was literally nobody else in this conversation. But, over time, when I started to understand that food is just food, and that having a treat does not mean I am doing something “bad”, it just means I am living my life, my mindset started to shift. I can not “undo the damage”, there is no damage and my body is not a transaction, it’s just what I’ve done.
Realize it’s Only Food
I think the idea that there are “good” foods and “bad” foods is one of the biggest reasons people struggle with learning to indulge without overindulging. In fact, it is something I struggled with myself for a very long time and something that took me years to change. The concept that there are “good” and “bad” foods may seem like a helpful way to provide black and white direction, but for me, and many others, it is a slippery slope. The reason being that if you focus on restricting “bad” foods you open the floodgates for overindulging. If you restrict so hard and tell yourself you will never eat these foods, as soon as you do you open yourself up for the “F*ck It'” moment of I’ve already started so I might as well just go for it. If you view pasta, bread, or ice cream as “bad” foods, as soon as you eat them you are likely going to feel you’ve already broken the rules so you might as well just finish what you’ve started when in reality all you did was eat something. Ate a cookie? Cool, you ate a cookie, you didn’t kill anyone. If you indulge, you just indulged, you didn’t do anything wrong, and you don’t need to overindulge to punish yourself for it. If you classify food as bad, restrict and deprive yourself the more you will want it; the forbidden fruit tastes better. This might sound crazy, but if you indulge, just enjoy it and move it. It is often the obsessive guilt that leads to overindulgence, not the indulgence itself.
Eat Food that Makes you Feel Good During & After
For many people, there is literally had no connection between the food that we are eating and how it makes us feel, we just eat it because we can. Co-worker brought in dounuts, sign me up. All you can eat sushi, I’ll be there. If you really think about it, very often when people indulge they treat their bodies like a garbage disposal. You eat things that taste great and then make your body deal with the rest, completing overlooking the fact that it might make you feel bloated, uncomfortable or tired. Back in the day, I was in a space where I paid no attention to my hunger cues, I just ate because something was presented to me. Learning to handle this was hard, but the biggest thing I had to do was slow down. The first bite of cookie is great, but am I still enjoying it at the end? Am I still enjoying the second one? Or am I just eating it because it is there? Training myself to slow down and be mindful of the process of eating helped me understand my own hunger cues, recognize how the food I ate made me feel, and that I can indulge without overindulging. It is possible to have one cookie and be satisfied, and it is ok to take one bite of a treat and not finish the rest if it’s not as good as you had expected.
Celebrate the Days that Should be Celebrated
For people who struggle with overindulgence, the holidays can be a scary time. People often ask me if I indulge at the holidays, on vacation or at celebrations, and you can bet your bottom dollar I do. Holidays are an important part of celebration and that includes food, but it is important to remember that holidays are often only one day. For most people, it is not the indulgence on the actual holiday that is a concern it is the days that you add around it that are less than ideal. Christmas is one day, it’s not the entire month of December. Vacation is one week, not the two weeks after. If you break it all down, you have 365 days in the year, so if you add up holiday, vacations, birthdays, celebrations, events and parties, you are looking at maybe 75 days of indulgence in the entire year, which is about 20%. Those are not the days to be worried about.
Recognize Indulgence is a Part of a Healthy Lifestyle
When clients come to me and tell me they overindulged on the weekend or ate too much at the party, my response is often something along the lines of “Ok”, “Cool” or “Great”. When I do this I am often confronted with a perplexed stare as to why I am not scolding them or responding with an answer more like “OMG, I can’t believe you did that.”. The reason that I respond like this to others, and try to do the same with myself, is because indulgence is actually an important part of creating a healthy well-balanced lifestyle. I do not eat 100% perfect whole foods all of the time, and I would NEVER expect anyone else to either. Where is the fun in that? Eating well is not a linear path of perfection. Creating a healthy long-term lifestyle that makes you happy, makes you feel good and keeps you healthy is filled with fun, laughter and treats along the way. Indulging in the cake at the party, ice cream on a warm summer day or popcorn at the movies with your kids is about more than just feeding your body, it’s about feeding your soul. It is these moments of indulgence that are so important to helping you create a long-term healthy lifestyle. Indulging is not about going “off track” or “off the plan”, indulgence is on track and is part of the plan.
Prioritize the Everyday
Remember that indulgence is not all or nothing, and that you don’t need to “earn” your treats. Learning to indulge without overindulging is a practice that requires mindfulness and indulgence can look different from day to day; some days it’s one scoop of ice cream and some days it’s two, and that’s ok. What my indulgence looks like is going to be different than yours, your friends and your co-workers, and that’s also ok. What is more important is to focus on creating everyday healthy habits that you actually enjoy, and eating mindfully whether you are indulging or not. The more you can focus on whole foods and foods that make you feel good, the easier it will be to be mindful in the process. You don’t need to strive for perfection, that’s not realistic, rather you should strive for a balance that makes you feel good no matter what you are eating.