So hypothetically you have a long holiday weekend and you eat some homemade cookie dough ice cream, or maybe a wood-burning fire roasted margarita pizza, or spicy Cheetos with a PBR for that matter (yes, you licked your fingers)…on a scale of 1-10, how terrible should you feel?  

This is a slippery slope – first, is this how you eat on a regular basis? For most of us committed to our goals, performance, and general health – NO. Then why do we feel so badly when we eat “off plan”?

You’ll notice I didn’t say BAD FOOD – what does eating bad look like? (I imagine naked with lots of hot sauce) There are not bad foods and there are not good foods – only food.  Some food fuels us and some food satiates us with little regard for flavor and some food lights a fire inside us and some food tastes like a memory.  There is every kind of food from traditional recipes to molecular gastronomy but absolutely none of it from your Mother’s spaghetti to a large Frosty at Wendy’s in moderation is bad.

Still post “cheat” self-shaming is a very common occurrence – but why? We all have a relationship with food that goes beyond the nutritional value provided and how we view what we eat impacts how we digest it. Let’s consider a scenario: Imagine your friends surprise you on your birthday with your favorite cake – it is perfect and fresh and glorious as only favorite birthday cakes can be…so you have a piece of cake (gasp).

If you eat the cake and you feel good about it – you eat it knowing it was made for you and enjoy every crumb and bit of frosting, then your hypothalamus will signal your salivary glands, esophagus, stomach, intestines, pancreas, liver, and gallbladder that a literal party is headed their way. This positive reaction turns your digestion to its highest most efficient levels providing a fuller metabolic breakdown of the cake within your system.  

Now let’s pretend you eat the cake, you smile with each bite but the whole time you are fretting, feeling guilty and worried about eating the cake (what kind of friends make you a cake when you are cutting weight!?!?) – your hypothalamus is on deck but it is signaling the sympathetic fibers in your system. Your digestion is initiated but you’ve increased your insulin and cortisol slowing your metabolism’s ability to respond, decreasing your efficiency to burn the calories in the cake, and increasing the likelihood of storing more cake as body fat.

Same cake people…same piece of birthday cake.  In fact a 2013 Psychology Today study found that subjects who associated chocolate cake with guilt were more likely to explain their eating as out of control, were less likely to lose weight over a 3 month period, and had a harder time maintaining their weight across 18 months.

So what is a responsible active athletic adult to do? Enjoy the piece of cake or the real gelato or the lobster bisque or whatever your food love language is…and then go back to your normal way of heathy eating and your workout routine. Don’t allow a piece of cake to turn into a weekend of fast food and craft beer but don’t turn a piece of cake into a reason to beat yourself up either.  Consistently working towards your nutritional goals is everything, along with the occasional uninhibited, sorry-I-am-not-sorry indulgence.