Back in the nineties, Laura and I used to eat at a place called Campus Pizza near the U of M. We would order a large pizza which was approximately the size of a wagon wheel. Laura would eat a single piece and then watch in horror as I inhaled the rest. All of it. We never had take home boxes. My stomach was the take home box.
I had issues.
When I started to clean up my eating I tried many things including 30 day challenges and strict paleo. Once I went extremely strict paleo for five months. It was hell. For five months, not a moment passed when I didn’t dream about pizza. Why? Because I hadn’t yet changed my relationship with food. That requires self-work, which is the hardest work of all. You don’t do that self-work in the context of a 30 day challenge. You can’t because all you’re thinking about is making it to the finish line. Where pizza awaits.
For me a much better option was 90/10 or 80/20. In other words, eat clean but designate one cheat day or cheat meal. The cheat day is effective because it gives you a break, but only within a defined time box. Over years, you accumulate a huge volume of time within a healthy eating pattern and compress the amount of time that you can toxify yourself.
The interesting thing about my cheat day is how it evolved over the years. There are three distinct stages, which track neatly to my changing relationship with food.
Stage 1: At first I would gorge myself with massive quantities of low quality food like pizza, ice cream and cookies. It was as though I was trying to store it in my hump like a camel. My cheat meal was all about scratching an itch. At this stage food still functioned as a reward mechanism and during my cheat window I would reward myself without stint.
Stage 2: Over time my cheat meal became smaller and quality improved. Rather than fast food, I would opt for something like a fancy pastry or a pasta dinner. At this stage I started to differentiate flavors and quantities. I started to think of certain foods as a treat, rather than as a form of narcotic.
State 3: Currently my cheat meal is pretty dull. Typically I’ll go to a barbecue restaurant or eat fish tacos. I confess that I’m indifferent to my cheat day and frequently forget to do it. At this point I see food as nutrition and it serves no other function for me. Oddly, this is the first time in my life that I’ve truly enjoyed eating…because there’s no baggage involved.
Now here’s the kicker. I’ve been working on my nutrition since 2007. It took me five years of self-work to develop a healthy relationship with food. Not thirty days. Not three hundred days. I’ve been pecking away at this for five years. Not everyone will have to work at it for five years. You can see from the picture how far I had to go. The point is, don’t waste time with thirty days of self-imposed torture. The real way to change behaviors in a durable and meaningful way is to change your relationship with food. You have to do the self-work.