No, You Don’t Deserve That Indulgence Today

by | Mar 29, 2017

“I’ve had a really hard day…”

“I went to all my workouts this week…”

“I ate a salad for lunch…”

“I’ve put up with my in-laws for four days and didn’t snap once…”

…I deserve it.

On the surface it seems to make sense. In so many parts of life good behavior is rewarded with some kind of treat, whether it was a sticker in kindergarten or a bonus at work. It’s natural to want to apply the same logic to the food you eat, especially if you’ve ever adopted a dieter’s mindset (or trained a puppy).

I’m here today to shatter this illusion.

First let’s consider the assumptions made in the statement, “I had a hard day so I deserve some chocolate.”

“A hard day” implies that you experienced an above average amount of stress in a single day, which of course is a bummer. Also implicit in the statement is that stress must somehow be balanced out with a positive experience. And finally that food is an appropriate reward for enduring abnormally high stress.

Similar assumptions can be derived from a statement like, “I was good today so I deserve some chocolate.” The implication is that being “good” takes work and deserves a reward, and food is an appropriate reward.

Some correlates can also be deduced from the logic of these statements, which is where things get a bit more disturbing. One is that if you deserve chocolate on “stressful” days or “good” days, that implies that on regular days you do not deserve chocolate. Another is that indulgent foods (like chocolate) are intrinsically more rewarding than other foods.

Both of these deductions are demonstrably false, yet are consistent with the logic of moralizing your food choices.

When you moralize your food choices you create categories in your mind that some foods are “good” and some foods are “bad.” Typically this also stokes a subconscious belief that the bad ones are really the best ones.

When this is the frame you put on your food choices, your designated “bad” foods become rewards because most of the time you are using willpower to resist them. Eating bad is a respite from being good, and who doesn’t deserve a break every now and then? Especially on a hard day.

This frame also turns choosing your designated “good” foods into a chore, because it is no longer a choice you are making out of intrinsic motivation. Whenever you’re doing something “to be good” instead of “because I want to” it requires willpower. Research has shown that reframing things you naturally enjoy into things you are “supposed to do” undermines your natural feelings and causes you to actually like the thing less.

Are you starting to see the problem here?

When you start asking yourself if you deserve to eat a specific food at any given moment, you are fueling the very mentality that causes you to seek that food (a reward) in response to stress. In other words, moralizing your food is kindling for emotional eating.

In the moment your mind may try to convince you otherwise, but emotional eating is not a form of self-care. Self-care is restorative, while emotional eating usually leaves you feeling worse. In my experience, emotional eating is rarely even enjoyable while it is happening.

I’m not arguing that food can never feel like a treat. I’m not even arguing that you never deserve to have an indulgence. To the contrary, my belief is that you always deserve an indulgence.

When you find yourself asking, “Do I deserve this special food today?” Remind yourself that you deserve special food every day, and this is not the right question. If you’re in need of self-care the appropriate thing to ask is, “What will restore my peace and energy?” You’ll likely come up with very different answers.

Eating for pleasure shouldn’t be reserved for days when life kicks the shit out of you. Tuesday is a good enough reason to eat something amazing. Enjoyment is a perfectly valid reason to eat anything. It’s just not the only reason.

Eating nourishing, satisfying food that fuels you well feels entirely different from eating rich, heavy or sugary foods. They can both feel awesome when the food is delicious, and when you don’t choose high-quality versions, both can be terrible. Flavor (and your subjective enjoyment) is a completely independent variable.

Rich, indulgent foods can be truly amazing. And you should eat these foods sometimes, because life should be awesome.

Of course it’s that sometimes that causes problems. The faulty logic is that categorizing foods into good and bad is what makes that sometimes possible, by giving you a moral compass to guide you. But in reality it makes sometimes harder because your categories make healthy foods feel less rewarding than rich foods, and because you have to choose when you’ve been worthy enough to deserve it.

When you stop moralizing your food choices you quickly realize that the reason not to eat rich foods every day isn’t because it’s bad for you or will make you fat, but because it feels so much better not to.

Now that my body is accustomed to being fueled by fresh, delicious, and nutrient-dense foods, heavier or more processed foods will crush my energy levels anywhere from a few hours to a full day. Sometimes this is worth it and is a choice I consciously make, but I’m always delighted to go back to the habits that keep me feeling my best.

Of course no matter what I choose, delicious is always part of the equation.

This wasn’t always the case for me. Before I stopped dieting and became a foodist I rarely made the connection between what I ate and how I felt afterward. Also back then, “delicious” and “healthy” were entirely incongruous ideals. So if you’re reading this thinking, “Well that won’t work for me because I feel fine after I eat indulgent foods and still prefer them,” don’t dismiss this so quickly.

Remember that if you’re moralizing your food you’re likely enjoying your “healthy” choices less than you would naturally, had you not subconsciously labeled them a chore. Maybe you put less effort into making sure they’re delicious, because you don’t expect them to ever be. Or maybe you’ve never given them enough of a chance to truly know what it feels like to fuel your body well consistently. For me, it was all of the above.

Even if you do honestly love nutritious foods, food moralizing can still undermine your efforts by making certain foods preternaturally appealing and lead to overeating.

If some delicious and indulgent food is presented to you, don’t tell yourself you can have it because you’ve been good or had a hard day. Simply ask yourself if this particular food is worth it to you right now, and how much of it you need to be happy.

Make the question about the food quality and your goals, not your worthiness.

Do you moralize your food choices? Have you found it helps or hurts your decision making?

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22 Responses to “No, You Don’t Deserve That Indulgence Today”

  1. Neil says:

    I’ve struggled with this for pretty much my entire life. “I worked out today/I had a long week at work/I’ve been good this week, it’s okay to crush an entire pizza” is very common for me. I try to take a step back and remind myself that this isn’t the right solution and to look for something truly rewarding, not just some “comfort food” that will probably make me feel terrible later. I totally agree that labeling foods as “good” or “bad” makes us want the “bad” foods that much more.

    Thanks, Darya!

  2. Pat K. says:

    Thanks for that info. At one time I too was of the mindset that I should treat myself to an unhealthy dish after going through some stressful “drama” of life or accomplishing a very taxing goal. I considered that having the same big fast food meal that I used to have before I changed my eating habits would be some sort of a relief to compensate what I had went through. However, after eating it the guilt would set in, plus, I would also feel sick afterwards because my body had adjusted to my healthier eating habits.

    Then it dawned on me. Rewarding yourself with unhealthy foods is pretty much like an alcoholic or drug user rewarding themselves with a big drink or drugs because they’ve been sober or drug-free for a reasonable amount of time. In other words, why reward yourself with the same things that got you messed up in the first place? Now, I reward myself with other things instead of food like maybe buy myself something or go to a fun event.

  3. Kristi says:

    Love love love the message behind this article. I am constantly trying to reframe my thoughts about “good” and “bad” foods…

    In my mind there are really just “better” and “other” foods.. foods that nourish your cells and your body are “better” and I try to focus on the better, but then there are “other” foods that in a substantial quantity may not nourish my body the way my “better” foods do, but feed my desire to try something new or indulge in a pleasant childhood memory. It isn’t “bad” to partake in these “other” foods, but I’m trying to be as mindful as I can about why I want to partake and how it will really make me feel. Your article really helped clarify some of that for me!

    Thank you :)
    Kristi
    Did I use enough parenthesis??

  4. Miriam Kearney says:

    I don’t seem to ‘moralize’ as you put it but I definitely have days when I am craving ‘comfort food’. My idea of comfort food does change as I change my food choices in general but it is usually for something creamy or gooey OR popcorn with butter and salt.

    I get excited when I am able to produce a ‘healthy’ choice that hits any of those buttons and I make a note to remember that I can do this again!

    This was a great article and I agree with virtually everything you said. Well done.

  5. Tara says:

    Thanks for this article! It’s a great articulation of something I’m working on this year. 2017 is my Year Of Service. Part of that is thinking about how my healthstyle choices will SERVE ME in the short and long run. I struggle, in moments of stress or fatigue, to make the choices that will serve me best. I have put a poster up in my kitchen of a mnemonic from Roshi Joan Halifax: GRACE. It stands for Gather Attention, Remember Intention, Attune to Self (and others), Consider what will SERVE, and Engage. She created this tool for hospice/palliative caregivers, but I’ve found it can apply when I am about to emotionally eat. I’m not catching myself every time, but sometimes…more and more often.

  6. Lori-Ann says:

    This is so true. I feel as though a lot of often reward themselves with food which isn’t a good thing. I find myself trying to rationalize that often. I try and limit treats/sweets to one meal a week. It doesn’t always happen but I feel as though I enjoy it even more as I look forward to it all week.

  7. Donna says:

    Excellent article Darya. Relating in a ‘light-bulb’ way to this spot-on comment:

    “Remember that if you’re moralizing your food you’re likely enjoying your “healthy” choices less than you would naturally, had you not subconsciously labeled them a chore. Maybe you put less effort into making sure they’re delicious, because you don’t expect them to ever be.”

    Yes…recognising food ‘banalisation’ on my part…I tend to look at healthy foods as “allowed/safe” foods and fail to herald them with creative (or even decent!) cooking techniques demoting them somehow as simply fuel for the bodily fire. Thank you for this wake-up call. Healthy food can be delightful and ‘more-ish’ if we allow it to!

  8. Cindy Bohn says:

    I struggle to remember this too. But indulgence in sugary stuff is no treat if it makes me sick, and that what happens. When I have a rotten day, maybe I do deserve something to feel better, but it’s not food. I deserve to be nice to myself, to refrain from self-criticism, to skip the stressful activities that night, to get a good night’s sleep. Those are real treats.

  9. stephanie alaine says:

    Such good insights! I am definitely guilty of this type of thinking. It seems like having even one key question to ask myself (such as your recommended “What will restore my peace and energy?”) is good ammunition for such an engrained response.

    Are there other good tactics for tackling the habit of moralizing food choices?

    • Darya Rose says:

      You can start dismantling the entire idea in your mind by generalizing less and getting into more specifics. For instance, are carbs really “bad”? Can you think of no benefits whatsoever? What about sugar? This may force you to come face to face with the idea that you don’t believe eating for pleasure is valid. If that’s true, why do you believe it? It’s a rabbit hole worth following.

      • stephanie alaine says:

        Good thoughts! I will follow them down the rabbit hole… as they arise, which is, inevitable—at least at this point in my journey :)

  10. I couldn’t agree more!

    When we think of certain foods as forbidden, we just want them more! Think of what the Prohibition did in our country. It created a mindset that alcohol is forbidden, so now people binge rather than have a healthy relationship with it.

    That’s why diets don’t work. It just creates a mindset of “forbidden” and then when you have that cookie you feel like a failure. Just have the cookie! Because, the alternative would be having the whole bag if you feel like you failed with just one treat.

    I just discovered Summer Tomato and I’m now an avid follower! Thank you Darya for providing an insightful and intelligent healthy living site!

    –Megan Dorfner

  11. Molly says:

    Hi! Does anyone have any ideas of real “rewards” for a hard day. I ALWAYS reward myself with food or Netflix, both of which are detrimental. Something like going for a walk isn’t plausible because I can do work during food & Netflix, but not during a walk. I really wish there was something to switch in, I really struggle with this. It’s especially hard because I prefer foods like raspberries or grapes to chips or chocolate (kind of at least), but I genuinely can’t afford them and I live on a college campus so they are impossible to ascertain. Also, Lays chips come free with every meal swipe and free food isn’t really something I can pass up. Thanks for any responses in advance!!!

  12. Natacha says:

    I noticed that after some hard day, or a stressful or very emotional event, I often overlook the tiredness and hunger that is there. Therefore I used to think of a food reward and blame myself for it, when I ACTUALLY needed food, and making a nice healthy meal at this time would have been better than waiting and overlooking this need.

    Then, a hot tea is a better reward, and my stomach is satisfied in a healthy way to :)

  13. Paulina Owens says:

    Such a well thought out article, Darya! Very logical and challenges my beliefs that I’ve been harboring about certain foods. Good point about not working to make the healthy foods as delicious as they can be, if totally focused on feeling deprived of the “rich” options. It’s all about reframing our focus.

  14. Deborah Miller says:

    My emotional eating manifests itself differently. Instead of wanting to go for the rich or highly processed foods, when I am emotionally needy I go for the healthy, fresh, delicious, nutrient dense foods I am already eating and simply eat HUGE volumes of them. It is the volume that I go for, not anything that I might think of as a “bad” food. So instead of eating one 32 oz. tub of Greek yogurt for breakfast I will eat three 32 oz. tubs of Greek yogurt. Instead of one 16 oz. bag of broccoli I will eat five 16 oz. bags of broccoli.

    The questions: “Is this food worth it to you right now?” and “How much of it do you need to be happy?” are still valid and helpful questions even though the volume eating I do is done with such healthy foods. When the volume is excessive even health foods are not worth it…and when the need is emotional and not physiological [not true hunger] no amount of food will ever be enough.

    While my struggle is somewhat different…I found your advice to be so helpful. When things are hard the key thing I need to remember is not to go into “automatic pilot” volume eating but to do the hard and honest and emotionally healthy work of being mindful, naming what I am feeling, identifying what I truly need, and giving myself just enough of what I need to care for myself.

  15. SuzyQ says:

    Darya,

    You say in Foodist that you can probably get away with 1-2 treats per week while maintaining your weight. How do you define a treat or indulgence?

    • Darya Rose says:

      Intentionally choosing pleasure over health, which usually means something with mostly processed ingredients like sugar and flour. Everyone is different though. If you’re currently eating 7 indulgences per week, even cutting down to 5 would likely result in weight loss.

  16. Marilyn B says:

    This is soooo me. I got a soda from McD today because I survived having lash extensions. So stupid. I need to just say I want a soda and drop the “deserve because I survived good/bad today.” Mindful consumption!

  17. Eno says:

    Yes you deserve it elsewhere, not in America where food is not as good as in Europe.

    I recently took a trip by train to Europe. Along the way I saw many many farms where cows and sheep were feeding on grass only. Imagine how healthy are their products.’
    Eating pizza in Italy is healthy. Italians eat pasta everyday and they are still slim and happier.
    Germans eat sausages and cheese and yet they are slim.
    French drink wine and they are slim.

    So the bottom line is: You cant afford that only in America.

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