I recently listened to a podcast that posted waaay back in March, in which Chris Kresser interviewed Robb Wolf about his book Wired To Eat.

Chris quickly laid out the context for the book, explaining it as “Paleo 3.0”. Previous incarnations were characterized by a much stronger focus on quantity of food (1.0), and then a focus on macro nutrient ratios (2.0). This is way oversimplified, but helps a new listener to contextualize the main ideas, I suppose. Just for the record, I would have called 1.0 a focus on eschewing grains and processed foods in favor of lean wild and pastured meats and fish, vegetables, and “healthful oils”. 

Anyway, the 3.0 version incorporates all of the previous models–quantity and quality of food and macros matter–but recognizes that it’s probably more functional to start with how the brain is wired and why that can be a problem in our current food (product)-rich environment. From here, food quality, quantity, and macro nutrient content can be dialed in according to individual needs. 

Wolf argues that in dispensing with a one size fits all approach driven by a magic formula of foods or macro nutrients, we free ourselves to see those elements as tools rather than moralistic choices.

I like it, but it was Robb’s deconstructing the problem with the idea of “cheating” or “cheat days” that made me write this post. I had been tinkering with a draft about how the “guilty pleasures” mindset is not helpful, but wasn’t quite nailing it. Through sharing his thoughts on dietary cheating, Robb crystalized a lot of what I was trying to get at.

He started with the way “cheating” exists as a concept in our primate brains–Primates have an ingrained sense of justice that is tied to survival within a group. If one primate is seen as a “cheater”, s/he is likely to be scorned or shunned. This is designed to produce feelings of shame and guilt, and ultimately to change behavior away from providing an advantage for an individual and toward favoring the group’s survival. This is wired into us. 

He then turned to the definition of cheat, which is “to take unfair advantage of someone, particularly at their expense”. He noted that the common use of the word in relation to diet is a misuse–someone else is not suffering because we ate a chocolate chip cookie, and we are not taking unfair advantage of someone else by “cheating” on a diet plan. (I suppose we could argue that we are trying to take unfair advantage of ourselves…)

Despite the lack of anyone actually being harmed or taken advantage of, the ingrained sense of justice gets evoked and insulted when we label something a “cheat” meal or snack or whatever. It’s part of how our brains are wired. Even though there’s not any real cheating going on, Wolf argues that we still feel the emotional impact of taking unfair advantage of someone in our tribe or group. It results in us feeling bad about what we ate–feeling guilty or ashamed–and sets the stage for a negative spiral.

For most people, the idea of “cheating” is unproductive. In assigning moral value to food choices, it casts foods that support well-being as “good” but undesirable. It is a ready catalyst for unnecessary feelings of guilt and shame. And at worst, it can cause a spiral of negative emotions that may lead to a “screw it” attitude–since we’ve already messed up, might as well keep going. 

Yes, there are probably some very emotionally stable people who use the “cheat meal” or “cheat day” concept without pronounced negative consequences. But that would suggest that they have learned not to attach negative emotions or a moral value to their food choices. They are looking at food functionally, which I would say is one of the advantages of the neuroregulation of hunger perspective. 

Similarly, Wolf notes that when clients claim not to have a “healthy relationship with food”, they often are using food as a comfort against past trauma. There is not a broken relationship with food, there’s an emotional piece that needs to be confronted. Once that happens, one can begin to remove moral implications from food choices.

And this dovetails with the “cheating” piece. Cheating is a counterproductive moralistic overlay that we assign to food. Eating for long term well being is about honest assessment of goals, conditions, and needs (people have different physiological responses to different foods, different goals, different life circumstances, etc.). Once we have that, we can look at the different ways of eating (Paleo, Ketogenic, etc.) as tools to get us to our goals. 

This hopefully allows us to avoid becoming dogmatic about our dietary choices, too. It’s a functional assessment rather than a choice with moral value. (The morality of certain foods is another discussion–here I’m talking about judging one’s self based on nutritional value of food.)
The big takeaway is that we’re all wired to eat differently, and I like the observation that we are also wired (culturally, evolutionarily) to attach moral judgement to what we eat. Acknowledgement of this is the first step toward freeing ourselves from it.

When we shift away from a judgmental approach and start to dig into our personal physiological and psychological makeup, we can use what science knows about human appetite to inform our eating choices. We can look through an evolutionary lens to understand cravings and appetite, optimize well being and find a way of eating that is sustainable rather than using an emotional/moral approach of being strict and then “cheating”.

This is not to say that we’ll free ourselves from all of our biases, but it’s a step in the right direction.

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