Expert tip: Don’t feel guilty about that cupcake



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The approach to a healthy lifestyle can’t be “all or nothing.” You’re human, not a robot. When a sweet craving hits mid-afternoon, you might be able to overcome it nine out of 10 times. But what happens when you give in? If you’re beating yourself up over a piece of cake or scoop of ice cream, you’re probably doing more damage than the actual cake is. By getting stressed and feeling depressed about your “mistake,” you’re inviting a cloud of gloom to sit over your head. Instead, chalk it up to a battle lost and move on to the next one. 

Your food and your mood are closely intertwined. Instead of punishing yourself, focus on moderation and decrease the multitasking. Eat your favorite vices without sitting in front of the TV or at your desk. Enjoy them and make them worth it.

The psychology behind eating is 50 million shades of gray. Consider a plate of roasted veggies and grilled chicken over some pasta. If you’re trying to lose weight, you’ll avoid the pasta and question the marinade. If you’re an athlete prepping for a race or workout, you’ll down that pasta, no questions asked. You can train yourself to associate certain foods with specific feelings, negative or positive. Those feelings are reinforced with chemicals, like serotonin, released from a part of the brain called the hypothalamus.

According to the Institute for the Psychology of Eating, the summary of this process is as follows:

“Any guilt about food, shame about the body or judgment about health are considered stressors by the brain and are immediately transduced into their electrochemical equivalents in the body. You could eat the healthiest meal on the planet, but if you’re thinking toxic thoughts, the digestion of your food goes down and your fat storage metabolism can go up. Likewise, you could be eating a nutritionally challenged meal, but if your head and heart are in the right place, the nutritive power of your food will be increased.”

There’s something called counterregulatory eating, or the “what-the-hell effect,” uncovered by researcher Roy Baumeister. You’re probably too familiar with this: You slip up and eat a slice of pie and then feel so guilty about it, you say, “What the hell?!” and eat another one.

In a Q&A between Baumeister and the American Psychological Association, willpower is listed as a limited resource. He uses an example of having a long, exhausting day at work dealing with stresses from every angle, then coming home with a piece of cake on the table. Your willpower might have been depleted during the work day, so you give in to the cake.

Instead of beating yourself up over one unhealthy choice, just forget about it. Remember all of the fabulous choices you have made this week already. Provide yourself with fresh fruits and vegetables, lean meats, good fats, and essential vitamins and minerals. If you’re doing that and getting up and out to exercise at least 20 to 30 minutes a day, you’re doing it right. So what if you give in to the guacamole or that raspberry sorbet? It’s not about the independent choices, but the bigger picture.


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