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This is not your friend

I have had a lot of emails about my previous very sneering of the use of the word “treat” in accordance with food.

“Why,” some have said “should we not have a treat? Life is hard, you have to be kind to yourself.”

Okay, why shouldn’t you use the word “treat”? Because applying any sort of morality to food is not helpful. Children are not “good” eaters or “bad” eaters, they eat when they are hungry. This sort of food is not “good for you” or “bad for you” – it just does different things to your body and mind.

So if you are aiming to change the way you eat, categorising some food as a “treat” and therefore other kinds of food “not a treat” is to set yourself up for a fall somewhere along the line.

If you want to lose some weight, you have to spend most of your time eating a certain sort of food. Labelling some food a “treat” and therefore other food “not a treat” means that you are expecting to spend most of your life eating “non-treat” food. And how is anyone supposed to keep that up?

If you’re wondering, yes, this post is entirely about semantics – but it’s important, because eating has meaning to us, it is emotional; we are attached to and define ourselves by the sort of food we eat; the literal word label we apply to food, (both out loud and inside our heads), matters.

Changing your diet is not easy and you have to be your own coach, your own support boat. And life is hard, sometimes miserable. Even my life, which is mostly easy, is occasionally sad and stressful. Why would we not want to be kind to ourselves? Why would we not need a “treat”?

Picture the scene: it’s day 6 of trying to eat differently and you’ve had a long day and you’ve fought back through the shitty awful traffic and the slow-moving, smelly stupid general population and you’re at home.

You have been “good” all week. But now you are lonely and tired and unmotivated and there is a long evening at home stretching ahead of you. If you have continued in the last 6 days to see in your mind certain food as a treat, you immediately, in your vulnerable state, open the door to internal bargaining.

“Ugh that commute was awful/I’m so stressed about that thing that happened today…. I’ll just have one little treat...”

And weight gain is not immediate – you will “treat” yourself and the sky will not fall on your head. No-one will know. The diet police will not arrive at your door. So what’s to stop you doing it again, and more, and another one as a little perk because life is so awful? After all, it’s just a naughty little treat… and today was a bitch.

Most of the time, food that gets categorised as a treat is designed to do one thing and one thing only, which is to make you want more of it. That insidious combination of salt and fat and sugar and chemicals is what makes it basically impossible to eat only one Malteser.

Large food manufacturers and takeaway merchants do not want their food to be easy to resist. Some of them just come out and say it: “Irresistable”, says the lady on the voiceover. Some ice cream brands hide their many, many thousands of calories and sky high sodium content behind cute cartoons and wacky names. Brands also push hard and have pushed hard for years the notion that their food is a treat, that you are being “kind” to yourself by eating a bar of Galaxy in the bath or whatever.

(That, for me, is the biggest turn-off – that every time I eat a Toffee Crisp I am basically just dancing to the tune of a load of MNCs and marketing men. It stings the mindless contrarian in me. I consider every orange I eat instead of a Jaffa Cake to be a tiny dent in the share price of United Biscuits. Yes that is a real company.)

I’m using junk food as an example but “treating” yourself even with another bowlful of stew or another homemade roast potato is more or less the same thing.

My point is this: take it just because you want it. Understand that you JUST. WANT. IT  because it is a delicious, irresistible thing and you cannot say no. Not for any other reason.

I’m not saying don’t eat what you want – do whatever you like! – what I am saying is: don’t lie to yourself.

Don’t tell yourself that you are eating this thing because you are being kind to yourself, because it is a “treat”. Take the reward element out of it and just say “I want that potato”, “I am eating a Kit-Kat”, “I am going to have some of this delicious cheesecake.” You can even add a “because” if you like: “Because I am sad. Because I am happy. Because it is the only good thing about my day. Because I am bored.” That works, too.

If you can train yourself out of seeing any sort of food as a treat or ever rewarding yourself with food I promise that losing weight will be easier long-term. Find something else – a non-food, non-addictive item – to use as a reward or a comforter.

The fact that you’re sitting there now feeling angry and defensive and going “but WHAT am I supposed to reward myself with instead?” just shows how ingrained in our entire culture and imagination the idea of food as reward is. We can put men in space and get them home again but we are basically still as simple as pigeons pecking at a button for a snack.

My relationship with food is alright and always has been, but my relationship with alcohol is not, so I do know what I am talking about. Half a bottle of chilled white wine, I have had to learn, is not my friend. It isn’t a treat, I want it because I want to to anaesthetise myself against a bad bathtime, or a boring day, or because I’m feeling inadequate in some way.

I can’t explain why, but understanding that has helped me to drink less. And over-drinking and over-eating are really two sides of the same coin – so if it can help me, it must be able to help you, too.

***As a disclaimer to this – I am worried by any message I get from any mother with a baby who wants to lose weight: DON’T BOTHER. If you are at home with a baby you really just need to get to the end of the day with everyone still alive. You can go on a diet when they’re at nursery. Have a biscuit. Have ten! Just don’t call it a “treat”.***