I’m a registered dietitian in private practice, and I’m more or less a food therapist. The gig wasn’t exactly what I was expecting, coming out of my clinical-nutrition graduate program, but I’ve fully embraced the role. In grad school, I pored over organic chemistry with serious gusto. But after finishing my dietetic residency, I realized just how much the science takes a backseat to the emotional aspects in real life.
Early on, I noticed a recurring complaint among my clients that’s still ongoing today: Most can immediately rattle off all the things they ought to be doing — limiting added sugar, exercising portion control, making more thoughtful food choices at restaurants, etc. The issue is that they’re not actually doing those things on a regular basis. There’s a gap between their intentions to get healthier and their day-to-day eating behaviors. So before we get to the actual meal planning, the crux of our initial work plays out more like a food therapy session, getting to the bottom of why they aren’t doing those things.
Ironically, the “why” is never what people fear it must be — lack of willpower or ability — not even close. The reality is, it’s complicated. For most of us, what we choose to eat is loaded. Consider this: Beyond using food as a way to nurture and bond with people, we also see it as a pretty powerful symbol of security and comfort, good times, and even courtship and seduction. Plus, we are taught as kids that food is how we reward ourselves (getting pizza for good school marks) and how we self-soothe (ice cream after a shot at the doctor’s office). We take these lessons into adulthood and continue to use food as an expression of a whole lot of feelings: good, bad, and everything in between.
The interesting thing, though, is that we don’t often do much introspection in this arena. Many of us tend to analyze our romantic relationships at length, but we don’t really spend time peeling back the layers when it comes to our relationship with food. Instead, we chalk up our intention-action gaps to unsavory character flaws and beat ourselves up for not being better at life. But the only real mistake here is not digging deeper. Because the more self-knowledge we have about our food hang-ups, the better we are at moving through them, rather than having them stand in our way, making us feel like crap.
One of the most loaded topics is the way many of us think about indulging. As far as I’m concerned, indulging involves making a conscious choice that takes into consideration your long-term goals and your right-now wants. We all have both. Meaning: most of us want to look and feel our best three months … six months … a year from now, and at the same time, we want the intoxicating donut this minute. The big misconception is that being healthy is dependent on always choosing the long-term goal over the right-now want.
Instead, it’s about having the ability to consider if having the donut is really worth it to you. If it is, put the donut on a plate and enjoy the absolute #$%& out of every morsel. Of course, depending on your big-picture goals, you have to be willing to forgo some of those right-now wants some of the time. But indulgences are a part of being human.
The problem is, instead of owning our indulgences, enjoying them thoroughly, and then moving on with our lives, we often bring wonky logic and ethics into the equation. We use tactics like moral licensing and loopholes to rationalize acting on our right-now wants. Moral licensing is the idea that “good” behavior offsets or legitimizes “bad” behavior, as in “I’ve been so good, I deserve to be bad.” Similarly, loopholes are another common way we use flawed logic to explain why we should be excused to indulge. “This doesn’t count”; “It’s the weekend”; “It’s summer”; “I’m on vacation” — you name it, we use it.