The question comes up frequently, “What should I do if I cheated on my diet?” Via instant message, text message, email, Facebook group post, smoke signal, or carrier pigeon, it has become a topic that seems to be poorly addressed. To begin with the end in mind, let’s address the five key points up front. We will tackle each in more depth below, but here they are in all their radiant glory:
- Review the circumstances that lead to the decision.
- Understand and own the consequences of your decision.
- Don’t get caught in the cycle of binge and punish.
- A diet is not made or broken in a single meal or a single day.
- Your choices define your outcome, but they don’t define your worth.
Each of these will be addressed in a five-part series, the fourth of which is below. If you haven’t read the first part, please click the hyperlink above to read it.
You Are What You Eat…Consistently
So we’ve come to the point in the conversation where the damage is done. You’ve (hopefully) made yourself weigh the consequences, made the decision with eyes wide open, and taken captive the inner monologue that begins to call you names…and now you’re left sitting in the glow of the television screen in an otherwise dark room, sitting in your underwear, with an empty container of Ben and Jerry’s between your legs, watching a late night infomercial, and thinking to yourself, “You know, I really could use a kitchen appliance that cooks a whole turkey in under 2 hours.”…Or maybe that’s just me.
But here we find ourselves, and as the voice begins to pick up in intensity, and to pass judgment, this week is about some encouraging news that you need to hear…you may have made a poor choice, but don’t let one poor choice become a stream of them in some self-destructive nuclear chain reaction where one poor decision becomes the basis for rationalizing a whole series. Don’t think it happens in our diet? Let’s see…tell me if this sounds familiar:
- Well if I eat this small cup of ice cream now, and I don’t eat any carbohydrates the rest of the day, I’m still within my macros…
- Oh man, that ice cream had fat and carbs, and I’m short on my protein, but I can’t eat any carbohydrate or fat the rest of the day…hmmm, maybe if I just eat a plain chicken breast by itself…
- My. Word…I’m still hungry, and this tastes terrible. (followed by 15 minutes of foraging through the pantry, refrigerator, cabinets, the trash bin, under a log for some mushrooms, and bartering with a local dairy farmer for some fresh whey)
- Well, I guess I screwed up my macros today…I’ll just call this a “refeed” and I’ll get back on the plan after this.
- Ugh, I’m still hungry, and I’m bloated, and (welcome back Mr. Craving) that was the BESSSST chocolate cake I’ve ever eaten in my life.
- Well, I mean I’ve already blown my day, so I’ll just start back tomorrow. Hello French Fries!
- Lather, Rinse, Repeat.
Then the day of reckoning comes. Maybe it’s a weigh-in at your accountability meeting, or perhaps it’s trying to squeeze into the dress you bought for a wedding or party from before you went off-plan, or maybe it’s just that moment when you look at yourself in the mirror and you see the puffiness, swelling, and sloshing of a stomach that looked much less bloated just a few days or weeks ago.
To that person, here’s some tough love – “tomorrow is another day” but it’s going to be just like the one before unless you change the behavior that drives your habits. And here’s the good news that I promised – the meal you just ate full of cookie dough and tears, in about 4 hours, it’ll be in your intestines, and within 12-18 hours out of your system. Within 48 hours, you should be showing signs of diminished liver glycogen, and within 72 hours (for even the most stubbornly slow metabolisms) you will be right back on the horse. That good news comes with one catch, though…stop permitting one poor decision to trigger another.
So the question then is how do we do so…what’s the magic formula. I know you’re going to be surprised by my answers:
- Perform an after-action report and be honest with yourself about your commitment to your stated goals.
- Take every thought and decision captive in your mind, and scrub it against context and call out the truths and the untruths.
- Stop eating things which are not in keeping with your goals.
The first two are largely philosophical, but the last one is pretty direct. I once read a piece where the author said: We are not horse thieves because we steal horses. We steal horses because we are horse thieves. Do you see yourself as a victim of circumstance (I couldn’t help myself…the pizza was calling my name!) or a victor over circumstance (I chose to do this and it was not beneficial, so I chose not to do it again)? You cannot live in both roles – you have to make a choice. And here’s a pro tip for you – it isn’t a one-time decision! In every moment of every day, life is going to happen. Something isn’t going to go right. Perfection will escape your grasp. And it’s at those moments – where you have to choose if you are a victor or a victim.
Obviously I don’t want to leave you with the impression that breaking a promise to yourself is a good thing. And ultimately that’s all a diet is. A promise you make to yourself that you desire change so you are changing your behavior. But, as stated above, we have this puritanical approach to dieting where we say, “So long as I live, I’ll never eat McDonald’s again!”…and then we do. And it sets up the cycle of failure and punishment that I discussed in Part III of the series. What would benefit all people who desire to be victors over their circumstance is to stop promising themselves 2 hours, 2 days, 2 weeks, or 2 months into the future. Promise yourself that, “Right now, I am making the choice not to eat this food again.” And repeat that promise every time the thought comes into your mind. Leverage the tools at your disposal to permit the meal to be a lesson learned, in the past, about what triggers poor decisions, and seize on the time after the meal but before the feelings of guilt or shame get the inner monologue worked into a frenzy…and *gasp* put the decision into context, shift it into the past tense, and move forward.
And at the end of the off-plan meal or day or week or month, here is truth – the outcome you will experience is not about a single decision made in a vacuum, it is about the sum total of a number of decisions made in context.