Flip the Script on Treats
For many, a healthy lifestyle sounds like a prison sentence. All the foods that you have loved since childhood that cheer up a bad day or taste like summer holidays are forbidden. You are doomed to a dreary life of Brussel sprouts and kale, and when you get right down to it, you’d rather be sick. Diet and lifestyle changes fail most of the time for this single reason:
We deny our own needs, wants and desires, and force ourselves to submit to someone else’s idea of ‘health’.
It’s taken me a very long time to recognize the futility of this approach to health, and discover that the key to creating a lasting healthy lifestyle lies in the very thing we try so hard to stamp out: our desire for decadent, delicious, indulgent treats. It was my daughter who brought this lesson home to me.
When she was born, I felt the pressure to raise her on healthy food like a sack of sweet potatoes on my shoulders. I stopped friends and aunties from giving her sweets, snatched away the bill at the restaurant before the peppermints fell out and threw gluten, sugar and colourant-free birthday parties. Until one day, I caught her stealing…
She had seen her friends enjoying sweets at school, and she got a few tastes of them here and there. She knew that they were wonderful, but Mom would never let her have them. She'd learned better than to ask. The relentless lure of these forbidden fruits was more than a toddler could bear, and so she took matters into her own hands. One day, I discovered a little nest of sweet wrappers under her bed and realized with horror that she had secretly filled her pockets at the shops. I had taken away all of her good options, and so she had resorted to a bad option to satisfy her craving. My daughter was only a few years old, but her behavior is programmed into all of us. We crave reward, and we rebel against deprivation.
If we become our own oppressors, we will inevitably find a way to sabotage ourselves.
James Clear’s excellent book Atomic Habits taught me to rethink my approach to creating healthy habits. Reward is the magic ingredient in behavior change. It hits the save button on our neural pathways: things that end with a positive experience get written into our brains, things that don’t get pruned away. We can use reward to make giving up our worst vices something we look forward to.
What does health mean to you?
One of the biggest mistakes almost all of us make is walking someone else’s health journey. The endless din of health gurus punting this or that diet is enough to leave you spinning. Celebrities wax lyrical about the benefits of yoga and meditation and green smoothies and before you know it, you are forcing down a cup of pond sludge before spending half an hour cursing the Downward Dog.
What works for someone else does not have to work for you. You are far more likely to stick to something that you actually enjoy. If meditation feels like torture but listening to classical music makes you feel at peace, turf the meditation. If green smoothies make you retch, but you can make a mean salad, turf the smoothie. Your health plan has to work for you and you alone.
It doesn’t have to be perfect, but it does have to last.
The best way to create sustainable change is to have a solid strategy. These three steps are the key to plotting a route to health that you can stick to.
1. Find your WHY
Before you start a health journey, you need to ask yourself why you want to take this journey. What is it that is slowing you down, and holding you back from living the life you want to live? What do you wish you could change? What do you want to achieve? What do you want to avoid? What would your life look like if you could make those things happen?
You don’t have to change because someone else says so. It has to be something that you want. If it isn’t, stop here.
2. Find your WHAT
Once you have your 'Why', you need to find a professional who can help you cut through the mountains of conflicting advice to figure out what will genuinely help you progress towards it. Are certain foods making you sick? Are your habits sabotaging you? Are there foods and habits that could vastly improve your health? What needs to change for you to start on the path to healing? If you rely on Dr Google, you will be overwhelmed with information, and may end up fighting on so many fronts that the pursuit of health itself can become unhealthy.
As you learn to identify what is helping you and hurting you, it’s important to differentiate between what is outright harmful, and what is benign in small doses. For someone with celiac disease, a pizza can trigger a health crisis. For the next person, it is just a high-carb splurge that might push the dial on the scale, but in small doses, its mostly harmless.
Items on the “Harmful” list need to make a permanent exit from your life, but don’t fret. You’ll use the foods on the ‘Benign in small doses’ list to make that happen.
First, you need to identify which items on the ‘Benign in small doses’ list are treats that really mean something to you. I am talking about the biscuits that remind you of your mother’s kitchen, the pizza that tastes like friendship, the chocolate that feels like everything’s going to be OK. The French fries that taste like oil but you’ll eat them because they come with the Happy Meal don’t make this list.
3. Set goals and rewards
Now its time to pair up what needs to be done with the deeply meaningful treats you came up with above. You need to set goals that push you to the very edge of what you feel you are capable of. If you have smoked 5 cigarettes a day for the past decade, going cold turkey is probably going to push you too far. On the other hand, knocking off one cigarette a day might be too easy. Limiting yourself to 2 cigarettes per day might be hard, but doable. That’s the territory you’re looking for.
You don't need to aim for perfection, just progress.
Set yourself no more than 3 meaningful goals each week. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and if it was, it would have crumbled. This is a journey, and you’ll get further at a steady pace than a sprint.
Now comes the fun part. Choose your three top “benign in small doses” treats, and pair them with your goals as rewards for achieving them successfully. This has a double-benefit: the happy ending to your goal ‘saves’ it as a positive experience in your brain, making it easier to repeat in future; and by spacing and limiting our treats, we actually turn up the volume on the reward they offer. A glass of wine after two weeks of water tastes like heaven.
This process only works if you stick to the rules. If you reward yourself before the goal is achieved, it will fail. But if you achieved your goal fair and square, enjoy that reward without an ounce of guilt. Don’t worry that its not ‘healthy’. Don’t call it a “cheat” or a “bad food”. Revel in it. If its really not serving you, you can always work it out of the system down the line using this very process. Your rewards don't have to be foods, and they can change over time. As you refine your diet, decadent foods may actually become less rewarding. Getting a massage, watching a show on Netflix or booking off a coffee date with a friend will work just as well, as long as you feel rewarded.
Stick with the same 3 goals until they feel natural, and then upgrade them or move onto a new one that keeps you close to your limits. If you find that the rewards are coming thick and fast, you are setting the bar too low. If they are not coming at all, you need to take it back a step and set your sights on something more achievable. You are the best judge of what is working for you.
By sticking to this process, you can transform yourself on many levels. You will slowly but lastingly break bad habits, you will improve your health on your own terms, and you will achieve a balance between what is good for your health, and good for your soul.
Health should give you freedom, not put you in a prison.
My Daughter’s Sweet Jar
My lessons with my daughter have evolved into a strategy I could never have predicted. Where she used to force down her healthy food like we were torturing her, she now makes a concerted effort to gobble up whatever I put in front of her, because we have an agreement. If she keeps her end of the bargain during the week and eats her healthy meals, she gets to spend her pocket money on sweets every Friday.
She has been working hard to fill a sweet jar with her brother. She jumps at the chance to do chores which will fatten her savings, and 6/7ths of her diet are great. And on Fridays, she has the agency to make her own choices, with no judgement from me. She can eat as many sweets as she likes on Friday, but then the sweet jar gets put away till next week. It took an enormous leap of faith for me to release my control and trust this process, but to my amazement, she spends only a fraction of her savings each Friday and eats only a fraction of her sweets. Where once she obsessed about treats and hated healthy food, now she does not feel that she needs to hoard and hide her indulgences, and sees healthy food as a means towards a rewarding end.
As in all things, human beings make the best choices when they are free.