According to Merriam-Webster dictionary cheat means to deprive of something valuable by the use of deceit or fraud; he cheated the elderly couple out of their property.
To influence or lead by deceit, trick, or artifice; a young man who cheated young women into marrying him when he was already married.
To practice fraud or trickery denied the accusation that he cheated; to violate rules dishonestly cheat at cards, cheating on a test or to be sexually unfaithful.
Pretty unlikeable and some might say despicable behavior associated with cheating. But nowhere does Merriam-Webster use this same word we use when we eat pizza or a cupcake, the sugar-filled, gluten bomb of creamy “sin”.
It’s food, it’s not sleeping with your best friend’s husband, stealing someone’s ideas at work and passing them off as your own, cheating on a test or any myriad ways that something untoward and dishonest can be enacted. It’s a cupcake, a slice of pizza, macaroni and cheese, fried chicken, whatever calorie laden food item one considers sinful and worthy of self-contempt or condemnation of the moral sort. Moral, being you are bad for eating said food or you are tempting “sin” for even thinking about said food.
I am all for nourishing real food that supports your body and makes you feel good when you eat it and gives you energy and pleasure. But, I’m not ok with food becoming a morality play where we become either good or bad because we’ve eaten a particular food that doesn’t pass the “clean” test. All or nothing thinking when it comes to life and food is rarely helpful. The words we use and how we talk to others and ourselves does matter. It hurts us emotionally and does nothing to further our growth to walk around berating ourselves for eating a cookie. It also sets the stage for disordered eating. It puts us in a mind frame where food is only about calories, perceived benefits or perceived harm.
Food is ritual, comfort, sustenance, pleasure; it provides energy and fuels us to do what we want with our lives. Food is a way to get curious about our life and explore areas that may need attention. By categorizing food as just good or bad and that we’re cheaters, we miss out and dismiss an opportunity to dig deeper and look at what our food issues may be trying to tell us.
Chronic dieting and extreme restriction can lead to orthorexia or eating disorders. Monitoring every bit of food and then using that food to either justify or denounce yourself as a person is a slippery slope and takes up so much brain space that could be spent living and enjoying others and your life. To think that the occasional cookie eaten with pleasure and enjoyment is going to make or break your life or add 5 years to your lifespan is misguided, and there is no science to back this up. We’ve all heard stories about Uncle Pete who eats bacon sandwiches and drinks bourbon every day and is 95 years old.
We haven’t cracked the code yet on nutrition or the secret to longevity. There are so many studies that back up different styles of eating. But there are a few things that come into play and yes nutrition and movement factor in, but the researchers have found that what factors in even more is connection. So if you’re missing every social occasion because you can’t eat what is being served then you’re missing out on a whole other level of living in the name of “clean” eating, being virtuous and not cheating. If you go to that party and eat everything in sight because you’ve been restricting so much and then feel guilty and stressed about what you eat at the party during your cheat day you’re doing yourself a disservice too. You end up feeling physically ill as well as emotionally unwell. Too much time was probably spent obsessing about the food at the party that you’ve been denying yourself as opposed to spending time with friends and loved ones and making connections with them, where food is the side note, a nice addition, but not the main event.
To be clear this isn’t about not eating foods that you’re sensitive or allergic to, but about taking whole food groups and crossing them off your list in the hopes of gaining the perfect body or health. Though food is important, it isn’t the only thing that determines or guarantees health.
Ritual, connection, pleasure, relaxation, stress, genetics all contribute to our health. Labeling food as good or bad and that you’re a cheater when you go “off the rails” only creates stress and judgment on yourself and others. Your friend isn’t a bad person or less than because she ate corn chips with her gluten sandwich. You are not good because you ate a salad with grilled chicken and steamed broccoli. You may be a good person for a myriad of other reasons, your sparkling personality or how you help out at work, but not because of what you eat.
Balance isn’t as sexy as complete restriction, but it’s where the peace lies and where the judgment lets go. Being able to relax around food and listen to your body and incorporate pleasure into your meals and life is where to find balance. So where can you relax the reigns and incorporate balance and pleasure and let go of the myth that living off of kale smoothies will get you the perfect life and perfect body and any deviation from your perfect diet makes you a cheater. Let’s be clear and intentional on how we use our words and acknowledge that words have power and how we speak to ourselves informs our actions and emotions. What would happen if you ditched the guilt and false labels and invited in kindness, compassion and flexibility into your life instead?