English is a funny language. A word may have a meaning in one context, but a completely different connotation in another. Take the first sentence of this post. Of course, you know that when I said English is a “funny” language, I didn’t mean that English is actually hilarious, but that it’s strange and baffling. So the word “funny” can mean different things in different contexts.
There’s great book of grammar rules named “Eats Shoots and Leaves.” That title is funny (this time I do mean hilarious) because it brilliantly illustrates the point I’m making. If you put a comma after “eats” and “shoots”, the sentence suddenly has a sinister, violent meaning. Eats, shoots, and leaves. However, without those commas the phrase simply refers to a woodland creature that dines on vegetation. Thus, the words “shoots” and “leaves” can mean different things, depending on the context.
I would argue that the same principle applies to the words “diet” and “cheat.” For many, those words have an understandably negative connotation. Most people think dieting involves starvation and strange, unpleasant food combinations. And cheating is even worse, conjuring visions of lecherous Congressmen.
However, for many, a successful relationship with food involves a more benign understanding of these two terms, for reasons I’ll explain below.
This is considered by many to be one of the most obscene four-letter words in the English language. For them, it’s a source of conflict, guilt and shame. That’s because most people associate “diets” with desperate, ill-advised attempts to “prepare for swimsuit season” by eating nothing but kumquats and pickles for a month. Of course, these efforts are doomed to fail, leaving the “dieter” miserable and worse off than ever.
However, as I’ve said before, a diet is simply a way of eating. That means that anyone who eats is on a diet, whether they know it or not, because everyone has a way of eating. All of God’s creatures are on a diet. A Panda’s diet consists almost entirely of bamboo shoots and leaves (that’s right, they eat shoots and leaves.)
Some (if not most) people eat whatever’s put in front of them without really thinking about it. Make no mistake, they’re on a diet too. It’s just a bad one. But it’s not the only bad one. Many people are on overly restrictive diets, fad diets or diets that feature packaged, processed food.
The best diets help us understand and appreciate what we’re eating. They focus on real food that has either come out of the ground or walked on it. Good diets take into consideration that we’re all going to have varying dietary requirements, but that there are certain foods that are bad for everybody. They teach us how to make wise decisions about our consumption every day.
A good diet isn’t a temporary fix. It’s not designed to help you fit into a dress for a wedding or make your ex jealous. A good diet is a permanent feature of your life. It’s the way you eat.
A beneficial diet will do far more than affect your waistline. It will, more importantly, show up in your skin, your hair, your sleep, your breath, your bones, your blood.
The problem is, so will a bad diet. And nowadays a bad diet is so, so much easier. We are surrounded by hyper-palatable food that’s at once cheap, delicious and deadly. A bad diet lurks on almost every aisle of the grocery store, in every vending machine, at every restaurant. It’s what our mothers prepare for us, and what our friends serve for dinner. It’s inescapable.
What can a person do when trying to maintain a healthy diet, while surrounded by deadly temptations? That brings us to our next “forbidden” word…
I know that, in one context, this word is terrible. After all, cheaters hurt people–their classmates, their spouses. But in this context, we’re thinking of cheating in a completely different way. After all, your diet won’t be insulted if you cheat on it.
In this context, cheating gives you permission to do something you wouldn’t normally be able to do. Look, we all know that processed carbohydrates and excessive sugar are evil. See, for example, this article in Time magazine. Or this one. But are we really supposed to spend our entire lives without eating a doughnut? Are we expected to turn down that piece of pie mom spent 3 hours making? Are we supposed to accompany our friends to a restaurant renowned for serving the best pizza in town and order a salad? Please.
Our bodies won’t disintegrate if we occasionally break the rules. The key word here is occasionally. A renowned nutritional scientist once said “the dose is the poison.” That is, basically, most things won’t harm us if we don’t overdo it, if we don’t overdose. Take Vicodin, for example. It’s a powerfully addictive poison. But if taken as prescribed for that searing toothache, Vicodin can be a godsend.
The same principle applies to food. Our bodies can take a lot of abuse. Even sugary carbs can be consumed without much damage if we keep them in their place. Take, for example, the doughnut holes you see on this page. You know these fat pills are going wreak havoc if you eat them every day. Yet, it would be a shame and a sin to go your entire life without tasting one of these bad boys.
Many successful dieters regularly schedule a “cheat meal.” Tim Ferriss, author of “The 4 Hour Body,” goes so far as to recommend a cheat day (I’m not sure if I’d go that far). He actually asserts that it’s good for you, ensuring that your metabolic rate doesn’t downshift.
But how much cheating should you do? Obviously, it depends upon your metabolism and your goals. Many, including former First Lady Michelle Obama, leader of the Let’s Move health and fitness campaign, adhere to the 80/20 rule. That is, eat well 80 percent of the time, cheat well the other 20 percent. So, if you eat about 20 meals a week, that gives you 2-4 ha-le-lu-yers.
Why use the word “cheat” though? For me, it’s a gentle reminder that the doughnut, burger, pizza or beer I’m consuming is an aberration rather than a regular habit. It’s a brief scenic detour on the road to vibrant health.
Don’t think that adhering to a healthy diet, even with cheating, will be easy. It will still take discipline, perseverance and patience. Eating well, even just 80 percent of the time, is a herculean task in today’s world. Remember, you’re gonna get only 2-4 cheats a week, so make it count! Is that bag of Fritos really worth it? Save it for the deep dish pizza!
Of course, I’m not recommending eating foods forbidden by your doctor, or to which you have an allergy or intolerance. I’m severely allergic to pecans, so pecan pie is out of the question for me, even as a cheat.
But done with care, cheating can be a way to make maintaining a healthful diet accessible and sustainable for everyone. So don’t get bent out of shape by the use of the word “cheat” when it comes to your diet. Look there are plenty of words that are bad in one context, but have a favorable connotation in another, including the word “bad”!
Oh, if only we were Pandas. We’d be a member of a protected species, and would instinctively adhere to a healthful diet. Plus, we’d be really cute. Pandas aren’t tempted by margaritas or chips and salsa. But, since we’re big-brained humans, we’ve created an astounding array of delicious foods, many of which are hazardous to our health.
We’re going to have to adhere to a diet, a specific, intentional way of eating, if we are to maintain our health. You may not like hearing that, but it’s the truth. Of course, a sound diet can (and should) be absolutely delicious! I’ve posted several suggestions for healthy dining when eating out on these pages. And there are several blogs, like this one from Juli Bauer, that teach us how to make scrumptious, wholesome meals at home. Well-timed and thoughtful cheating, though, is a wonderful way to maintain our diets without having to subsist on eating shoots and leaves.