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Mindful Bytes: Special Occasion Math

I’ve posted this on Connect Canada before but it got such a great response I wanted to share it with you, along with some new thoughts on the subject.

The following is the most common mindset for those on health journeys searching for moderation:

“If I eat really clean from Monday morning to Friday morning, I should be able to ‘enjoy myself’ on weekends and special occasions!!!!.”

For me this Mon-Fri mindset was exactly what my goal was. It sounds sustainable. It sounds like how healthy people live. But that Mon-Fri mindset underestimates the impact of emotion on our health journeys. Emotion and eating usually comes from the negative side of the spectrum. We stress eat, we eat to numb the uncomfortable feelings we have. But in this situation the emotion comes from the celebratory side of our use of food. The good times that revolve around food, when we’re off work or during special occasions.

That celebratory emotion distorts how often we think we’re “enjoying ourselves”. We think we’re eating well 5 days out of 7, right? That’s about 70% healthy eating and 30% indulgent. And if you’re nailing all your health goals with that ratio I’m in no position to suggest a change. But if you’re struggling, let me break down the math for you: (if you don’t like math, just trust that I’m good at it and scroll past).

In a 365 day year:

  • There are 104 weekend days.

  • Let’s say 3 weeks for the December holiday season given when get-togethers and food gifts start showing up (3 weeks is 15 days excluding weekends which are already counted)

  • Let’s say 7 days for long weekends during the year.

  • 2 weeks of vacation (10 days, weekends already counted).

2.5 days per month (0.5 is a special occasion breakfast or lunch, 30 days total for the year) for birthdays, anniversaries, rare get-togethers with friends/family, coworkers, or any other social events where indulgent food is traditional. This may not be an even 2.5 days per month. It could be 1 day for May, and 4 for June, but for most people it will average out to 2.5 days per month over 12 months.

You add all that up and you’ve got 166 days per year. Notice I DIDN’T include stress eating days, I didn’t include the more common 3-4 weeks of vacation, or that week (or weeks 😢) where you weren’t “feeling it” so you “took a break”. So my total is conservative.

166 days out of a 365 day year is 45% of the year.

Now all the difficulty, confusion, and frustration trying to live a healthy life just got a lot easier to understand. I was actually gaining weight for 45% of the year and hoping the other 55% would lose that weight, plus more.

This also helps to explain a pattern of eating I associated with “getting healthy”. A few years back I had lost 70 lbs with WW, but ended up gaining it all back plus another 40 lbs. I was in the Mon-Fri mindset while losing the 70 lbs. So how did I lose 70 lbs? By basically starving myself the rest of the time. I realize now that I have always associated “hunger” with “health”. It wasn’t a conscience thought. Think about it.

Understanding this math forced a tough internal conversation that I knew I had to have: either I have to change how I define special occasion, or I have to change how I define “enjoy myself”. But that Mon-Fri eating pattern can’t continue if I’m hoping to maintain a healthy lifestyle.

The overall message I’m trying to communicate is losing weight and building healthy habits isn’t the same thing. We’ve all been to a summer BBQ or birthday party and watched someone who’s healthy, in great shape and we’re watching them eat chips and cake and pizza. The 361 lbs version of me would secretly loathe that person, “must be nice to have that metabolism, eat whatever you want and look like that......”.

I was an idiot.

The next Friday night when I was crushing 10 slices of pizza and chicken wings and freezies for dessert “because it’s Friday”, that guy was eating a chicken breast and salad with fruit for dessert.......on a Friday. A healthy person knows that indulgent eating needs to be truly occasional, or if it’s often then it needs to be very mild. And if they do enjoy an occasional night of indulgence, they wake up the next day and get back to their routine. Not because they’re “being good”, they do it because they feel better doing it. It’s how they live.

For the obese me, the morning after a night of stuffing myself I woke up super hungry! Starving! I need pancakes, or bacon/eggs/hashbrowns. See, that’s based on MY habits, which were clearly different than the healthy guy’s. Through years of repetition I had trained my body to depend on those indulgent foods and expect them at every meal.

So when I say there’s a difference between losing weight and creating healthy habits, me losing 70 lbs with a Mon-Fri mindset is exactly what I’m talking about. I lost weight, but kept my body trained to expect some kind of a binge 45% of the year.

One of the biggest changes I’ve made on this health journey compared to 30 years of failed attempts, is to understand that I’m not eating healthy because I’m trying to lose weight. I’m eating healthy because I’m retraining myself so healthy eating feels normal and automatic. I eat healthy food 20 out of 21 meals a week. I still make mistakes, I eat something indulgent every week regardless of what the scale says, but I don’t alter that plan. I don’t change my goals to accommodate special occasions anymore. I change special occasions to accommodate my goals. That consistency means when I do make mistakes, when I binge instead of just enjoying a planned number of pizza slices, I feel gross the next day. I don’t need motivation to get back on track. That’s the ultimate benefit of working on behaviours more than your weight, eventually you don’t have to try as hard.

So forgive the unsolicited advice, if you’re struggling check to see how much of that Mon-Fri mindset eating you have as part of your life. Test yourself. How many of those 166 days are you over indulging, and how many are you eating like it’s a Tuesday? To be honest it was a bit of a slap in the face for me to accept this. I protected my Mon-Fri mindset for YEARS. Don’t let that emotional defence mechanism shut down a moment of honesty. It’s probably the biggest reason my two pictures look different.

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