Today, I want to touch on several related points, all going back to the main point of eating healthy, yet still being able to have a great social life and enjoy some of your “off limits” foods. So first I’m going to look at cheat meals and how to do them. Next, I’ll show you how I eat to not need to worry about scheduling cheat meals. Finally, I want to dig into the dietary OCD that too many people seem to have that keeps them from actually enjoying what they eat.
I’ll go ahead and tell you that I hate the term “cheat meal”. It implies that you’re doing something “bad” and since you’re being “bad,” you probably need to somehow punish yourself to make up for it. However, since it’s a common term, I’ll work with it. The way I see it, there are two basic ways to deal with cheat meals.
The First Way: Scheduled Cheat Meals
Some people go with the method of planning out their cheat meals. So every week or two, they’ll go out for pizza or beer and chicken wings or ice cream or whatever their particular poison happens to be. I think this is fine when you’re first starting out with shifting to a healthier way of eating because it gives you something to look forward to. It’s easier to stay on course during the week if you know that you can have whatever you’re craving on the weekends.
I also like this way in the beginning because the beginning is when the cravings hit the hardest. I think it helps people stay on course if they know they can give in a little once or twice a week.
But for a lifelong way of doing things, I think you should eventually move away from a strict eating schedule and go to a pattern of eating that lets you be flexible, eating right 90% of the time and still enjoying whatever life brings your way.
The Other Way: Flexible Eating - Eating In Chicago And Boston
Basically, I don’t schedule my cheat meals. I know that I’m going to go out to eat once or twice a week and it might entail some non-Paleo foods. And if I don’t go out to eat or if I go somewhere and end up eating Primally, then I just avoided cheating just because it was scheduled.
Vacation is one time when I know I’m not going to stick to 100% good eating. For one, there are too many good restaurants and two, without a kitchen in the room, it’s hard to stay strict. I look at vacation as a time to enjoy what other cities have to offer me.
For instance, I was in Chicago for a long weekend back in September. Here is a sampling of a few of my meals:
How exactly can I justify following a dinner of pizza and beer with a breakfast that includes pancakes and syrup, a couple more beers that night, a burger the next day (with a few more beers), and then fried potatoes with my final breakfast? Here is one tip I wish people would remember: it’s not the single data points, but the overall lifestyle that matters. I balanced my eating with 20-25 miles of walking over 4 days and only ate twice each day because I was busy seeing things and hanging out with friends, as well as not being exceptionally hungry due to eating big meals already, even if not completely “Primal”.
And I followed up my Chicago trip with a trip to Boston a couple weeks later. After the above list, you might be scared to see what I ate there. Here you go:
Feeling The Effects Of A Blow-out
And what were the after-effects of all of this? Nothing. No decrease in my performance. In fact, I came back and killed it in the gym and after the Chicago trip, I set a 1-mile PR (5:50). No increase in body fat. Nothing. So you see, you can “have your cake and eat it too,” so to speak. You can cut loose and enjoy some of the delicious foods available in other cities (or in your own) without worrying about whether every bite you take is Primal, Paleo, or Zone-conforming. As long as you keep your overall lifestyle healthy, you are free to go out and dig into some pancakes, pizza, and beer now and then.
I think a lot of people get way too worked up about “staying in the Zone” and “being Paleo” when they should really just focus on enjoying life. I know that the way I eat the other 90% of the time that I’m not vacationing allows me to cut loose and try some new things, have a few beers, eat pizza, and open my day with some of the best pancakes in Chicago with no concern of ill effects. In fact, I won’t even lie and say that I felt like crap from what I ate. I felt just fine.
Now I know that someone is misconstruing what I’m saying and probably thinking “How can he say that you should have a blow-out just because you’re on vacation?” Someone is probably also thinking that I’m casting aside my previous advice and saying that it’s okay to eat garbage because I didn’t see a performance decrease. Nope. Not at all. I know that if I did that all the time, I would feel it, I would see performance decreases and body fat increases.
The key here is that when I’m at home, my meals are as healthy as can be. I don’t make pancakes at home. I don’t make cannolis at home, nor would I go to a bakery in Louisville and get one because there are no “must eat cannolis” here. And I certainly don’t fry fish at home. It’s pretty much all meat and vegetables, fruit, nuts, seeds… real food with some occasional sushi or Mexican food. And since I’m unfortunately not on vacation all that often, you can see how the percentages work out and why I don’t even have to give a second-thought to how I eat on vacation.
Is Your Diet Too Restrictive To Just Live?
I have actually seen people ask how they can eat Paleo or stay “in the Zone” at a baseball game. You can’t, short of smuggling your own food in. If you want to go to a baseball game and have a hot dog or nachos, do so. And deal with clean eating before and after. Or eat beforehand and just enjoy the company. Do you really want to count out 15 almonds when you should be just hanging out with your friends? Is that what life is about?
The ultimate goal should be that you are able to step off the wagon for a day or two, then jump right back on without punishing yourself or stressing out. If a friend drops in town and wants to go grab a drink, can you do that or is it not on your plan so you have to turn them down?
Dietary OCD: Orthorexia?
Okay, so it’s time for a quiz. When you looked at my vacation meals there, did you gasp that I ate pancakes or notice that even when I dug into a stack of refined flour and sugar, it came beside a plate full of meat, eggs, and fruit? Did you ask yourself, “how can he eat all those potatoes?” several times or did you notice that they all came with meat, eggs, and typically fruit or vegetables?
Don’t be obsessive-compulsive about your eating, my friends. I have literally seen questions like “do I need to count the carbs in two tablespoons of basil when calculating my Zone blocks?” Yes, you read that right. There are people that are concerned over the carb content of basil leaves. If basil leaves are wrecking your metabolism, you should probably see a doctor. I’m betting that an entire pound of basil leaves can contain no more than a few grams of carbs.
I’m reminded of people that argue over whether carrots or squash or bananas are “favorable” or “unfavorable”. Really? Our girl Melissa Urban derailed The Carrot Train To Crazytown a few months back and I couldn’t agree more. (It’s cool that you had better things to do than hang out when I was in Boston, Melissa. No, really…I’m only a little raw about it.)
Arguing about whether carrots, pineapple, sweet potatoes, and acorn squashes are “good” or “bad” is a serious Nuke The Fridge moment for anyone proposing healthy eating. It may be “healthy eating,” but it’s not a healthy relationship with food. Worrying about the carbs in your herbs and spices or whether something like a carrot or a squash, which I’m betting have not made anyone fat in the entire history of obesity, are good for you is taking navel gazing to a higher level.
It’s Really Not That Serious
So how you deal with cheat meals is up to you. I know that they’re going to happen, so I don’t go out of my way to schedule them. I eat clean 90% of the time so that the other 10% of the time, I can relax and do whatever. I can eat sushi without being concerned about the rice. I can dig into the chips and guacamole at a Mexican place before my plate-load of carnitas. I can have a drink or two while watching football with friends.
I don’t count blocks, calories, grams of carbs, or grams of fat. I simply eat real food most of the time and my performance and health are great. There’s really no reason to make eating such an obsessive-compulsive thing. I doubt the Okinawans, Inuit, or Kitavans ever measured a gram of their carbs or fat, yet they’re some of the healthiest cultures ever.
On the other hand, if I’m going to dig into something I wouldn’t normally eat, I go for the best of the best. I don’t eat pizza very often, but when I’m in Chicago, I’m going to get some good pizza since it’s pretty much the Pizza Mecca (sorry New Yorkers). You won’t find me at a pizza buffet eating a bunch of not very good pizza though. A Snickers bar does nothing for me, so I don’t eat them, but a nice fluffy stack of pancakes a few times a year sure hits the spot.
How do you handle cheat meals? Do you ever just cut loose and dig into something really processed and refined?