This is a thought that has been rolling around in my head over the past few days: Are occasional indulgences better for your longterm health (both mental and physical) than complete abstention? Conversely, are these intermittent indulgences simply a form of cognitive dissonance that enable us to cheat on our diets and lifestyles by eating things we know we shouldn’t without the burden of that pesky guilt?
Example: Over two months ago I cut out all forms of fruit, nuts, seeds, and legumes. This was part of my effort to eliminate foods that can be unhealthy when consumed in excess or prepared improperly. Theoretically, if I never ate any of these foods for the rest of my life, I would be better off for it, all else being equal. The one potential caveat to this plan? I love fruit, nuts, seeds, and legumes… a lot. I used to demolish bags of peanuts and mixed nuts as though they were being outlawed the next day. A simple banana with peanut butter after a meal was like a junky’s fix for me (albeit slightly less pernicious…) Even though my lifestyle revolves around a form of intermittent fasting in which I eat nothing during the day, then literally eat as much as I want in the evening (as much of the right foods, of course)… even though my ketogenic, low-carb diet leaves me feeling fully satiated with no sugar crashes… even though I look and feel better than ever before… these delectable foods were literally the only forms of snacks or sweets that were permissible after I completely eradicated all fast food, processed food, refined carbs, gluten, etc., nearly a year ago, so the allure of a fresh apple or humble bag of nuts should really come as no surprise.
As much as I love these foods, once I made the decision to eliminate them (at least temporarily), I honestly wasn’t even tempted to cheat for several months due to the otherwise very satisfying nature of my diet and my high degree of self-discipline. Of all the changes and improvements I’ve made in my life, I can honestly say that simply making the decision to change is invariably the hardest part; adhering to the new resolution tends to be a by-product.
Then again, we all have a primal brain… And, with a primal brain comes primal cravings…
Flashback two weeks ago. I’m at my cousin’s Going Away party two states east in Virginia (I live in Ohio). Lots of friendly people having a good time. Plenty of decent wine… and, this food doesn’t look half bad… should I try some? I wonder what’s in this ‘stuffed ham’… that looks good… MEATBALLS! I can’t remember the last time I had one of those!
You get the idea. Now, bear in mind, I could have just as easily sipped a bit of pinot noir politely without eating a thing, but I honestly felt that even though having a human indulgence might be opening a messy can of worms on a precipitous, slippery slope, I also thought it would be a great test of my will power (can I occasionally eat a few “grey area” foods with my fellow man without going off the deep end? How will this affect me, if at all? How will I feel? Can I justify this, or will I feel like a failure?)
After establishing that the ham and meatballs were both gluten-free, I decided to have a taste. No, the animals these dishes were produced from were not naturally-raised on local farms (at least I don’t think they were), and the meatballs were prepared in a cranberry sauce glaze (call it “strike two”), but I was like 8 hours from home! Nothing we do out of state counts… right?
Three servings of this foreign dish known as “stuffed ham”. The stuffing was a blend of kale, spices, and some other form of vegetable I don’t recall at this point. Delicious. And, after allowing myself to “taste” one… two… three of those meatballs… I slowly and methodically destroyed them. If I had allowed myself to feel any guilt over this carnal indulgence, it would have been disgraceful. But, hey! Everyone was basically done eating by the time I got there, so they would have gone to waste if I hadn’t eaten all of them! Now, THAT would have been guilt-worthy, right?!
And… I didn’t die. And, I didn’t get sick. Nor did I feel ashamed. On the contrary, I actually felt proud of myself for allowing a bit of flexibility in my diet, which up to that point had been mostly theoretical. The next day I had a full-day fast, and I returned to my regularly-scheduled programming happy and content without skipping a beat.
Now, backtrack a few days ago. I have one of my short, high-intensity evening workouts following by a big meal. Then, as I prepare a kefir coconut cream cheese vanilla shake (don’t knock it ’til you’ve tried it), I get this maniacal, pregnant lady-craving for peanut butter and bananas. It was the most compulsive craving I’ve had in recent memory. Peanut butter and bananas… my kryptonite… the bane of my existence… so innocuous, yet so devious… This was a craving so compelling I knew that it must be addressed and not ignored. I had been so proud of my abstinence of fruit and nuts over the past few months that I didn’t want to sabotage my efforts for a few minutes of bliss… BUT, I also didn’t want to further sublimate this craving and wake up in a Kroger produce department surrounded by banana peels and apple cores a few months from now. Besides, I had just proven to myself that I could have these little indulgences without being swayed back to the Dark Side. I deserved to treat myself, right? And, I did… with not one, not two, but THREE bananas, and what top scientists can only describe as “a shitload” of peanut butter, with a few mixed nuts for good measure. And, it was… awesome. One of the most memorable meals I’ve had in months. I don’t recall what I had for dinner that night, but I’ll remember those fresh bananas and mashed legumes for some time… and… isn’t that appealing? Can’t that heightened appreciation of a food you love be reason enough to abstain from it temporarily or moderate your intake of that food? That’s one of the things I love most about fasting; its tendency to increase your appreciation of food, and it makes you more mindful of your choices and needs. And, let us not forget that when we get that primal, overwhelming craving for a certain food, it is often (though certainly not always) our brain’s way of telling us to eat that food because our body is deficient in something that food contains. So perhaps I was low on potassium a few days ago… perhaps not. What I do know is that life is too short to chronically deprive one’s self of things they love, so long as those things do not inflict irreparable damage on the body. Food is one of life’s great sensuous pleasures, and one we may all indulge in sans guilt when we eat mindfully of whole, real foods.
I feel grateful for having had these recent experiences in “healthy hedonism”, as they have solidified the belief that I really can have my cake and eat it, too (so long as the cake is made with coconut flour and sweetened with stevia or xylitol). I’ve resolved to have more of these intermittent indulgent days for now, but in a healthy, mindful way, i.e. I’m still not going to consume anything patently damaging like gluten or trans fat, and the odds of me lighting up a crack pipe are still much greater than those of catching me at McDonald’s, but if my body is screaming for some fruit, I will happily and dutifully answer the call… occasionally.
What do you crave?