Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
31 Jan

Entitled to Sabotage

Treat or Cheat?Last week’s post on emotional eating got people talking – about the personal struggles they’ve had and the mental games they’ve learned to avoid in their quest for health. One such game, I think, is what we call treating ourselves. How many people justify bad eating habits because they tell themselves they deserve the treat? “Can’t I just enjoy a little pleasure in life?” “Aren’t I entitled?” Sometimes it takes on context. “With all I put up with…” “Why can’t I just have this one thing?” “This is the one thing I do for myself.”

Treating ourselves. When the noun morphs into the verb, there’s a subtle but significant distinction. Treating ourselves invites us to step outside our normal life for the promise of something of sweeter – and “better.” On occasion, it can be a lighthearted dalliance. For too many people, however, it becomes a continual path of self-sabotage. We all want to believe we deserve more, deserve better than what we come to feel is the mundane. Advertisers leap on this low hanging psychological fruit. Our culture as a whole promotes the immediate gratification of it. There are days when the most resolute among us might at least consider the question. Maybe it’s been one of those days…or years. We’re going through a tough time. We might feel like this momentary extravagance really is all we have to salvage the day.

We can feel like we’re justifiably soothing ourselves or we’re valiantly snubbing our noses at the world that abused us so heinously, but the truth is we’re only robbing ourselves of our own health and wellbeing. Sure, a “treat” distracts us in the moment. The taste, texture, and concept numb us for a short time to whatever emotion, issue, or task we’re hoping to escape. In and of itself as an occasional choice, it doesn’t seem like any real harm. Usually, it isn’t.

The problem is, the concept can take on a life of its own. We treat ourselves enough, and it becomes more than a momentary indulgence but an ongoing excuse to delude ourselves into living – and eating – in an alternative reality. As reader Chica put it last week, the treating/cheating concept places the possibility of making healthy choices outside ourselves and onto an invented “authority.” We give up our own authority and sell out our own intention in doing so. A treat in this context can convince us on some level we’ve “freed” ourselves from that imposition for a few minutes. It might make x, y, or z situation feel comfortably remote for a time, but sooner or later that same vexation comes back into focus again. By eating out of avoidance or entitlement, we’re not fixing the original problem. To boot, we eventually find we’ve created new issues. We put on weight. Our health markers take a downturn. Money we’d budgeted for healthy food has now been spent on junk food. The literal and figurative cost can add up quickly.

Sure, there are conscious, legitimate reasons for choosing to eat a piece of holiday pie, a friend’s birthday cupcake, or other non-Primal food. Telling yourself you “deserve” it, I’d suggest, isn’t one of those. As the 80/20 guide explains, sometimes there’s nothing wrong with pleasure for pleasure’s sake – no strangled mental justification required. An excuse, I would argue, is nothing but a game.

What do you deserve then? It’s a question I think we all need to ask ourselves at some point. What do you feel you deserve, and how does your answer genuinely serve your wellbeing? Do our indulgences (food and otherwise) mollify us or nourish us, numb us or fulfill us? Do we even regularly give ourselves those things that we feel we deserve? If not, why not? Do we accept other, lesser things in their place? What does this denial (full or partial) do to our life satisfaction, and how does it perhaps influence less healthy choices we make in a day – whether it be food or something else?

Ultimately, we decide what role pleasures and rewards will play in our lives and what they will be. The best indulgences I would argue, aren’t those that remove us from our healthy intentions but those that leave us with a broader, more expansive vision of what they could be.

Thanks for reading. Share your views on treating yourself to what you deserve. Have a good end to the week, everyone.

You want comments? We got comments:

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  1. This week I’m treating myself to a size smaller jeans from the local second hand clothing store ($4.95) and a membership to Crossfit (significantly more expensive). Food is not the only way to “treat” oneself!

    stephanie wrote on January 31st, 2013
  2. I just happened to be treating myself today! I work at Jimmy John’s, so I have to indulge on our French bread every once in awhile. I feel so much better being primal, and I’m so glad that I can wait and appreciate some of my favorite non-Primal foods only sporadically. (If I could eat toast everyday without feeling like crap and non-nourished, I totally would). But now it’s a treat whenever I visit my parents and I’m glad I finally have that control and mindset!
    Best to all. Cheers!

    Quentin wrote on January 31st, 2013
  3. I have diabetes. I buy myself flowers (daffodils cost about the same as a coffee) for my sweet treat when I
    I really want one.

    Alice wrote on January 31st, 2013
    • +1 Wonderful idea!

      PrimalGrandma wrote on January 31st, 2013
  4. I haven’t ate a chips ahoy chocolaty chip cookie in over 2 years. The thing is your brain does not know any difference from reality to thought. So I can literally sit here and think that I’am eating a chips ahoy cookie without physically eating one. Honestly, its all sugar to me, if you want to transition from a fat meal to a sugary one to satisfy a craving, then why not get it from natural food! You can very well make a dessert from natural ingredients that come naturally whole from this planet!

    Adam ben wrote on January 31st, 2013
    • Not long ago my boyfriend bought some of them. I was apprehensive about even having them in the household, as I keep a gluten-free household. But he ate a few and threw them out. They were nasty and stale. He couldn’t believe he used to enjoy them.

      I make a barely sweetened chocolate chip cookie from almond flour and dark chocolate chips. It is more bread-like than cookie-like, and they are so undersweetened that you really can eat just one.

      Katherine wrote on February 2nd, 2013
  5. Usually when I am craving a carb, I figure it is really fat that my body is asking for. I try to eat bacon wrapped sausage first. That has always done the trick. Bacon wrapped any kind of meat is simply sensational!

    Christine wrote on January 31st, 2013
  6. The way I usually put it:

    There is nothing wrong with treating yourself every once in a while. It would be unprimal not to. Just as long as you recognize what you are eating as a treat and not an every day occurance.

    Peter wrote on January 31st, 2013
    • I admire your self-control.
      I “tried” a little taste of a cookie before Christmas once, then hunger set in. Pretty soon three cookies were gone. No self control and ravenous by now (insulin probably shooting through the roof) I finished the bag. Then I went to the store for more. Just like any other druggie, it took three weeks of hard work and determination to get myself off again. I can do the same with bread, for example.
      Please think about the millions of sugar and carbohydrate addicts out there, when you make recommendations, and promote “occasional treats”. For many of us “occasional” is not possible.
      For us sugar addicts it is best to leave all sweet tastes (and easy carbs) behind and never look back, ever!

      Thank you for this important post Mark.

      Sabine wrote on January 31st, 2013
      • You were not rewarding yourself. The entire episode was punishment, not reward.

        Katherine wrote on February 2nd, 2013
  7. Ok, time to stay away from the Ritz crackers :)

    bubbajank wrote on January 31st, 2013
  8. What better “treat” than coconut milk with some stevia/maple syrup/cocoa/vanilla?! Or a cocoa macaroon made with maple syrup!? (thank you Hail Merry!) Or some dark chocolate?? How can people go astray with options like that and site after site of ideas of paleo breads/muffins/etc? I think that’s the one thing that makes this lifestyle so sustainable for me…even the “treats” are fine.

    Suzanne wrote on January 31st, 2013
  9. ME! I have depression and the primal diet has helped a lot but the only reason I can eat this way is b/c I found Mark’s Daily Apple- When Mark brought up 80/20 I thought, I wish I had thought of that on my own- I eat 20% of my calories daily in pure junk- coke-a-cola, cheetos, snickers candy bar whatever I want- It is the only thing that helps me to eat the rest at 80% and I feel damn good b/c I used to be 100% pure junk

    ella wrote on January 31st, 2013
  10. I like to treat myself by eating a 16oz grass fed ribeye… instead of just 8oz.

    Andy wrote on January 31st, 2013
  11. LOL. I actually pulled this up to procrastinate on homework, with the excuse ‘I will learn stuff, and I will enjoy it.’ More applicable off-topic advice I have seldom seen. *closes browser*

    Bill C wrote on January 31st, 2013
  12. I will always view the best treats as food. However now that I am living the primal life I treat myself to grass fed filet, good dark chocolate or a more expensive glass of red wine. I also reserve bacon as a weekend breakfast treat. I used to make various pancakes to make weekend breakfasts special.

    foodiegoneprimal wrote on January 31st, 2013
  13. This post goes very nicely with a chapter in a book I’m currently reading about “moral licensing” and the psychology involved with willpower. “The Willpower Instinct” is the name of the book and it has helped me understand the physiolgical aspects behind a lot of the reactions I have to sweets (generally addicted). I highly recommend the book for general information, not just in terms of facing dietary challenges.

    Brian wrote on January 31st, 2013
  14. Lately I find myself having more trouble with rebellion than reward. I am dealing with a lot of anger issues because of life crap and that sometimes comes out as “Screw it! I’m going to eat whatever the hell I want! I hate everything! I hate everybody! Where are the Girl Scout cookies?”

    That, my friends, is textbook Gluttony. It says “I want whatever I want no matter what it costs anybody else!” When I say yes to Gluttony, I’m not just hurting myself, I’m hurting the ones who love me and want me to be healthy and alive for many years to come.

    It’s a tough thing to admit, but this particular sin of the seven deadly sins has my number big time.

    Now I also eat for other emotional reasons — Comfort when I feel sad or Shame when I feel worthless. Shame gives me more trouble than Comfort. But don’t forget to eyeball Gluttony right square in the double chins when you’re trying to isolate the emotion behind the eating.

    Rhonda the Red wrote on January 31st, 2013
    • I don’t think it is gluttony. It is shame that makes you punish other people by punishing yourself. Gluttony is enjoyable. There is no enjoyment in stuffing yourself compulsively with food you don’t like very much.

      Katherine wrote on February 2nd, 2013
  15. My idea of “treat” is based on 2 conditions.

    1) Holiday and special familial occasions. After a full Thanksgiving or Christmas meal, or a wedding feast or birthday party I’m gonna have some dessert. Chocolate mousse. Cheesecake. Ice Cream. A little bit of each. Yum. It’s the holidays, I celebrate. Reserved for such moments, desserts really are a special treat.

    2) If somebody I care about specifically makes me something, I’ll eat it to be polite. I.e. last year my sister baked me a chocolate-coconut birthday cake for a surprise B-day party my wife threw for me.

    I ate my piece of cake and enjoyed every last bite of it.

    Keoni Galt wrote on January 31st, 2013
  16. I need a treat and its called a vacation. Preferably, somewhere tropical. Thanks for posting.

    Mia wrote on January 31st, 2013
  17. A good post on a very difficult subject.

    Txomin wrote on January 31st, 2013
  18. Deep post and hits home for me. I am going to have to mark this and read it a couple times

    AlyieCat wrote on January 31st, 2013
  19. Sometimes if I really craving a certain food, I’ll think about another way I can satisfy that. Maybe I need some endorphins, so I should allow myself the time to myself to workout. Or maybe I am craving sunlight. As mentioned above, food is sometimes the only luxury we allow ourselves. If I went to the park on a sunny day, and just laid there synthesizing vitamin D, it would feel incredibly relaxing. However, I would only permit myself to do that on a weekend or when I really have “free time.” We always carve out time in our schedules to eat though. I’m thinking an IF where we replace meals with other satisfying pleasures could be quite beneficial here.

    irunprimal wrote on January 31st, 2013
  20. Had a stick of sugar-free gum yesterday and the nutrisweet in it (I thought it was a sugar alcohol instead) set off a whole days worth of sugar cravings. First time I had an artificial sweetner in a year, never realized how strong the effects of them were.

    Jeffrey wrote on January 31st, 2013
  21. I loved this post Mark, I’ve been a long time reader of your site but haven’t been very active in commenting. I’ve just finished The Primal Blueprint (I know I’m a bit late there) and am now reading The Primal Connection…. which I LOVE so far by the way!

    Anyway as for ‘entitled sabotage’ I find myself doing this all the time, for e.g. I might decide ok I deserve that square of 88% dark chocolate and then I end up eating 10 because well I justify it in my head like it’s Ok after all it is DARK chocolate.

    Or I’ll blame it on my husband and say well he’s been working so hard lately let me make him a insert dessert here (even though he’s not a big fan of dessert anyway!) and then I end up eating more than he does!

    I’ve been eating Paleo/Primal whatever you want to call it for a while now but I still get stuck on the ‘treats’. I know a lot of Paleo/Primal bloggers out there are big on treats but sometimes it takes a lot of will power to just skip over those recipes and move onto REAL food… because deep down I know even though those treats are made with quality ingredients that they aren’t/shouldn’t be considered REAL… if that makes sense?!

    Problem is how to make the heart and the head align!

    Naz wrote on January 31st, 2013
  22. Ever tried the following thought experiment when tempted by junk food:

    How will it feel as I’m eating it? How will it feel 5 minutes after? One hour after? One day after?

    That never failed to get me past a temptation in the early days. I don’t need it as much anymore, because I realize it’s only the idea of junk food that is appealing, not the ugly reality.

    I find that it’s a lot easier never to indulge in such things, because then the temptation remains purely psychological. When you cheat just a little bit, the temptation becomes physiological as well. And that is much harder to ignore.

    Timothy wrote on January 31st, 2013
    • OH! I like that- I am going to give this a try- For sure, I do feel bad later after indulging in too much junk and the short term high doesn’t seem worth it in the end

      ella wrote on February 1st, 2013
  23. I heard someone describe the difference between “want” and “intend” and I think it is helpful to apply that difference to stay on a good nutritional path. So here is the way I think of it: Do I “want” to eat Primally, or do I “intend” to eat Primally.
    If I just want it, then I am just wishing or hoping for an outcome. If I intend it then all of my focus will be on my intention.
    Hope this helps.

    Stacey Burnham wrote on January 31st, 2013
    • Stacey, This is a good distinction.

      Violet wrote on February 1st, 2013
  24. I ‘treated’ myself to ice cream last weekend, and I did pay for it. My chronic allergies which are under control with primal eating flared up within the hour! Didn’t treat me well at all! Good article :)

    Bex wrote on January 31st, 2013
  25. I found a Charles Polliquin article on
    ‘The Myth of Discipline’ really helpful in resolving this headspace. If you try to frame decisions as being about self love, treats suddenly become those choices which are good for me – I deserve to be healthy.

    ‘Discipline’ and ‘motivation’ are not helpful headspaces for me as then I want to ‘break out’, which usually leads to sugar and sadness.

    Forrac wrote on January 31st, 2013
  26. I look at my whole life as a treat. I love the primal lifestyle and have felt Ill on the rare occasion that I’ve eaten something from my old lifestyle. I’m not particularly fond of the concept of cheating. To me it equates hurt feelings, regret and guilt. Another words, if an indulgence makes me feel bad afterwords then it’s not a treat at all. I’m not perfect in any way,but thanks to primal eating and exercising I sure do feel great!

    max wrote on January 31st, 2013
  27. Excellent topic and post. Mark is a very insightful and intelligent person and it’s always a pleasure to read a new post here.

    Personally I’ve tackled this problem by setting rules for indulgences that I’m prone to, and they only come after achieving a goal. Then they are turned into occasional rewards.

    Banishment isn’t going to work (at least for me), and putting them into a structured system takes away a great deal of their seduction and turns them into something positive–and rare.

    Andrew wrote on January 31st, 2013
  28. “Is this To DIE FOR good?”
    I find the answer is no, usually, sadly.

    Oly wrote on January 31st, 2013
  29. I have friends who use this ‘philosophy’ to justify overindulging with alcohol.

    If I feel like I need to ‘treat’ myself, I’ll tend to get a massage, buy a new book or get a new hair do.

    Jo wrote on January 31st, 2013
  30. I read this as I down a chocolate ice cream ‘flurry’ with double brownie bites & cookie dough. Found out I have a bad herniated disc (again!) and I’m out of commission for a while at best. I hope this is just the ‘get over it’ night of eating crud.

    kmuray wrote on January 31st, 2013
  31. *puts hand up*

    Yet another one who’s been struggling to “get back on the wagon”…this is absolutely an addiction. What else can you call it when there is little-to-no willpower when this crap “food” is within sight, when you feel you have to sneak a bite/handful/plate when hubby is out of sight/earshot? It disgusts me how addictive sugar and grains are, and I feel even worse that I keep giving in to it.

    Unamused Mouse wrote on January 31st, 2013
  32. Today I heard some raspberries calling my name; they were trapped inside a bran muffin at the food court. I had to say, sorry little raspberries I cannot help thee for I have foresworn ne’er to eat the fruit of the wheat nor the chaff.

    Garde wrote on January 31st, 2013
  33. Yes, this post was a good wake up call for me. We’re having a particularly dreary winter here in Vermont, and “treats” are very easy to rationalize. I just ate some 85% dark chocolate which I use successfully as a mood elevator (yes, it’s a little bit medicinal), and I’m realizing that’s the best treat for me.

    Ancy wrote on January 31st, 2013
    • Native Vermonter here. Yep, the winters are dreary. 😉 I ended up have to supplement with a fair amount of Vit. D to make it through. We moved South a couple of years ago.

      Amy wrote on February 1st, 2013
  34. I am not into the supposive treats anymore – but believe me, I used to be. Now I feel ill if I have baked desserts. During Christmas time I had a few cookies and some cake. I felt like I was on drugs and my stomach was upset.

    Glen wrote on January 31st, 2013
  35. Couldn’t agree more! I’m new to Primal; only started 4 or so weeks ago but already can’t believe how much better I feel… Steady energy levels, better concentration, less hunger, weight loss etc etc. Then yesterday I had a sugar-heavy ‘treat’ day (still not quite sure why when I felt so good without it)… Hello bad mood, constant hunger, palpitations, bad sleep! It is so not worth it.

    Fledgling Jo wrote on February 1st, 2013
  36. I’ve only really gone primal from October 2012 and before that I was Primal on and off, with a lot of it being off. The main reason I don’t crave the non-primal foods anymore is because everytime I do eat them I get a backlash. Feeling tired, groggy, having a blocked nose, stomach ache, and just not able to function. If I feel like anything, I spend my money on nice Primal purchases, because I know I will benefit from this in the long run.

    It is defintily tough at times to resist those lovely bakes goods at the local bakery, and you start salivating as soon as the smell of freshly baked bread hits your nose. However after also having read the wheat belly, I’ve discovered this is most likely to do with a certain protein in the bread, that is addictive to humans. I know this doesn’t make any difference when you crave it, but even so, when we think of this consciously and realise that a lot of these smells and food products have addictive substances in them, which again reverting back to Mark’s work/books, triggers the feel good happy hormones and thus “allows” us to go of the band waggon. Don’t do it! Instead splurge on that book you really wanted to read or the latest vibram five shoes, I know that makes me very very happy!

    Eva wrote on February 1st, 2013
  37. Charles poliquin”Dr. Tom O’Bryan DC, who lectures the World over on the ill effects of gluten, showed in a recent BioSignature class, that the single intake of 1 mg of Gluten, which is case came a quarter of a Catholic host, would set inflammatory responses that could be seen in the blood for at least 12 weeks after that single ingestion.” I am in doubt,help me!

    Germano Yoneda wrote on February 1st, 2013
  38. I agree 100%. If I’m going to eat a cookie with all the conventional goods in it I don’t need to have an excuse like “I deserve it.” I’ve found myself doing that before. I will internally say, “you’ve done so good eating clean lately, why don’t you just eat one.” Then, before I know it I’ve had about 4 or 5 cookies (typically little ones). They seem to be a trigger food for me, and the opposite of rewarding. Thanks Mark for this post.

    jostreet wrote on February 1st, 2013
  39. Funny, I used to feel the same way about smoking. I viewed it as a treat. My smoking breaks were “treats”. Been 7 years smoke free. Now time to redefine my food.

    Cheryl wrote on February 1st, 2013
  40. So…my daughter is turning one and I was going to cave in and buy a big sheet cake and huge burrito for guests…but this post is making me re-think these not so grand plans. Any suggestions on feeding lots of people with a main meat dish that won’t break my budget? Perhaps Paleo cupcakes with fresh fruit, sigh, fresh fruit in AK is super expensive! What would you all do if you were throwing a party? What would you serve?

    Megan @ The Ipps wrote on February 1st, 2013
    • Meghan – I might feed guests a sheet cake and burritos (well, in my house it would be home-made flour cake, because I like to do this, and pizza). I just don’t eat any myself, so I have fruit, crudités, and maybe some sliced meat, which none of the guests (if they’re kids) eat. It depends on how you feel about leaving others to their regular habits, and how you feel about your daughter’s eating habits. Amy made a good suggestion to think of the non-primal left-overs from this as ‘non-food’ and throw it away after the guests leave.

      Doing primal, but non-primal-friendly food is a great idea, but sometimes it might be more trouble in time or money than it’s worth.

      Violet wrote on February 1st, 2013
      • (sorry I misspelled your name, Megan)

        Violet wrote on February 1st, 2013
      • Violet, I think you are right. My husband suggested a potluck to celebrate. The only problem is my other daughter gets out of control emotionally and physically with too much grains and dairy. My other sons are ok, but behavior problems actually become an issue for the 3rd child. I’ll link an article in regards to that in the next comment. So that means watching what my daughter consumes and knowing the next week could be hectic.

        Megan @ The Ipps wrote on February 1st, 2013
      • Here is an article about upset behavior in connection with gluten our family was interviewed for:

        Megan wrote on February 1st, 2013
        • Megan – This is a very moving article about your daughter. Thanks for sharing it.

          I am non-coeliac gluten intolerant, and eating gluten gives me distinct gastro-intestinal symptoms and somewhat more subtle emotional ones. That’s why I can stay away from cake and pizza, even if they are in my house. (My husband and 15-year-old daughter do eat that stuff, though they eat a bit more primally with my influence.) So my own advice works for me, and perhaps it might for some others.

          I can see, though, that in your situation, you might need to be much more careful for your daughter’s sake! Good luck. I see there are some concrete suggestions below for primal alternatives that don’t break the bank.

          You could also try things like fairy cakes (cup cakes) where most are gluten-full (for guests and gluten tolerant) with equivalent gluten free ones for the sensitive, so you need to splash out on the expensive alternatives in small numbers. In summer, we will have friends for a bbq. Before primal, I would have a gluten-free bun for my burger. (Now I eat it on a plate with knife and fork.)

          Violet wrote on February 2nd, 2013
    • You could do some sort of make-your-own burrito thing, so that you and your family can partake of the lovely innards and stay primal while the guests use tortillas. Chili’s a crowd-pleaser, and easy to make in bulk for a crowd. You could just go way easy on the spice for the kids.

      Birthdays are one time when I do tend to “cheat.” I’ll make something decadent and homemade and sugary – but I do keep it grain-free. Pies with nut-based crusts are good for this (lemon merengue is very easy, and you can stick candles in the merengue), as are dense, dark, flourless chocolate things. Creme brûlées are good as well, but maybe not for a 1-year-old. The sugar is definitely suboptimal, but it’s way better than the sugar + gluten + artificial sketchiness you’d get in a store-bought sheet cake. If my family ever ASKS for fresh fruit for their birthday, then well…sure. But I’m not holding my breath. 😉

      Sasha_the_Cat wrote on February 1st, 2013

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