There’s a trend weaving its way through the wellness-sphere right now that screams, in capitol bold letters captioning filtered – but totally candid – photos of fit girls eating greasy grub and sugary sweets, Eat Whatever You Want.
But what happens if, when presented a choice between pizza or salad, for example, Whatever You Want is the not the bubbling cheese and crispy crust, but the big bowl of leafy greens behind Curtain Number One? Do you feel shameful or question your holistic wellbeing for making the nutrient-rich choice among equally (if not more) accessible nutrient-poor options? Do you feel like you have to snap a photo of yourself spooning up ice cream or slinging back fries for the sake of proving a picturesque point about upholding an arbitrary, external expectation about “balance”?
Unpopular Wellness Opinion: sometimes you have prioritize your needs in favor of your wants.
Before you go unfollowing me on the basis of promoting restriction, please allow me to explain.
If you are a human who is in the process of, or thinking about, adopting a healthier (where I’m defining healthier as supporting your physical, mental, and emotional needs through an intentional approach to diet and exercise) lifestyle and identity, you need to exhibit the habits of a healthy human. It might seem as simple as “I’ll just get up and go to the gym each morning” or “I’ll just pack my lunch everyday,” but when you get down to it, behavior change is no joke. It involves consistent, persistent, intentional choices that support new habit development – such as daily movement and consumption of minimally processed foods – and break or bury existing ones.
It’s the age old principle, fake it til’ ya make it. As in, if you want to become a healthier human, ask yourself, “what would the healthy human do?” And then do that, over and over again, until you become the healthy human.
At first, it might mean making the difficult choice. It will most likely mean fighting against instinct. It probably means getting a little uncomfortable. That’s because you’re working to uproot deeply burrowed existing habits. And even though you know these habits (i.e. seeking out empty calories to cope with your emotions, over indulgence, impulsive food intake) don’t serve you, it doesn’t change how intertwined they are with your identity. But each time you tackle resistance, you set a new standard for yourself until it becomes the norm. Until no longer are you acting like the healthy human, you simply are the healthy human.
To do this, you have to understand the difference between a perceived immediate want (an impulse) and a deep-rooted, real-deal want (an intention).
An aside: It seems to me, as I scroll Instagram on the reg, that the folks who promote Eating Whatever You Want as extreme, disproportionate, impulsive indulgence have already achieved the behavior change described above. They’ve gone through the process of restructuring and rebuilding their habits, so at this point – the perfectly posed Instagram you’re double tapping – in what is known as the Termination phase in the Transtheoretical Model (or Stages of Change), engaging with a less-nutritious food item is not a great risk to the trajectory of their lifestyle or goals. But for someone in the infancy of behavior change, someone who may be in the Action or even Maintenance phase, new habits require constant reinforcing and nurturing, and impulsively engaging with less-than-nutritious food items is more likely to cause disintegration of the discipline, skills, and systems necessary for success.
It is insanely confusing to see a fitness model with six-pack abs chowing her way through a six-pack of donuts. But here’s the science behind it: when your body reaches a certain percentage of body fat and lean mass, the way you metabolize food changes. So, not only is the fittie you’re following far more intact with their healthy eating and exercise habits, but this individual biologically processes nutrients differently than someone in the beginning stages of behavior and body composition change. If you’re looking at someone with the muscles and curves you’d like to see on yourself, you can not eat how they are currently (to support their body composition) – you have to eat how it takes to get there.
Eating whatever you want does not necessarily mean eating whatever is in front of you.
In the beginning stages of change, you might “want” to eat an entire pizza pie, six donuts, and a super-sized soda for breakfast. But what you really want is to take pride in your choices, practice self-respect, and feel + function your absolute best. Which want do you choose?
Suddenly, eating what you “want” is separated from eating what you want.
Eating Whatever You Want does not mean establishing one “cheat day” or allotting for one “cheat meal” each week.
Eating Whatever You Want does not mean pre-logging a particular food or foods into MyFitnessPal and modeling your remaining energy/nutrient intake around that entry.
Eating Whatever You Want does not mean rewarding yourself after a difficult workout.
Eating Whatever You Want does not mean following suit of your peers.
Eating Whatever You Want does not mean mindlessly reaching for whatever is in front of you.
Eating Whatever You Want does not mean copious amounts of “junk food.”
All of these things create a sense of scarcity, morality, or restrictive rules around food. They assign food a power it simply does not deserve.
Unconditional permission to Eat Whatever You Want, Whenever You Want means becoming truly attuned with your biological wants and needs from all angles – short-term and long-term, physical, emotional, mental, and physiological – in combination with your priorities and values, and using that awareness to choose whether or not to engage with a food offering in any given moment.
Of course, no one enjoys feeling deprived of something perceived or predicted to promote pleasure. But true deprivation doesn’t come from denying a potential 10-seconds of instant gratification. True, cyclical deprivation comes from acting against the things that matter most to our intrinsic identity: our values, our priorities, and our aspirations.
In this sense, Eating Whatever You Want, Whenever You Want means acting on intention over impulse. It means prioritizing long-term impact over instant gratification. It means eating in a way that directly supports or reflects your personal priorities, values, identity, and character strengths. And that may show up in the form of saying “no thank you” to the less-nutritious option in favor of something more-nutritious.
And of course, some days choosing the pizza, or cupcake, or candy may, in fact, align with your values and intentions, just as other days it may not. The important thing is that you understand the motive of your choices, so that you can make them mindfully and intentionally.
How to Eat Whatever You Want
I am most confident that, when you allow yourself unconditional permission to Eat Whatever You Want, Whenever You Want, as defined above, direct avoidance of your health will fast become less-than-palatable. You’ll quite literally crave the choices that make you feel your best in any given moment.
Practice cultivating connections between what (and how) you eat and how the food makes you feel physically. Greasy grub leave you with tummy turmoil, horrible headaches, and lethargic feelings an hour later? High-quality protein, veggies, and favorable fats leave you feeling energetic, focused, and productive? Ah ha! Analyze it and apply it! With each connection, making those more-nutritious choices looks more and more palatable.
In both the big picture and in each unique choice, ask yourself:
- If the food I ate was a direct reflection of my values, what would it look like?
- If the food I ate was a direct reflection of my priorities, what would it look like?
- If the food I ate was a direct reflection of my identity, what would it look like?
- Does this choice support or contradict my values, priorities, and identity?
- Is this choice a reflection of my impulses or intentions?
- What are the outcomes of this choice, beyond immediacy?
- Does this choice empower me, or have power over me?
- Does this choice make me proud?
- How will this choice honor my body, mind, and soul?