What I mean by this is when you’re eating or maybe before you start eating, do you have thoughts of;
“I’m going to the gym later so it’s OK for me to eat this” or
“it’s OK for me to eat this cake so long as I have a smaller portion of my evening meal” or maybe
“I’m going out for dinner tonight and I don’t mind eating more than normal because it just means that tomorrow I’ll eat a little less”.
Thoughts like these are super common for people living in ‘generation wellness’ who have been batted over the head by unhelpful social media messages. Or for those who have dieted for many years and have a collection of different rules from different diets that they struggle to adhere to. Or it can be so serious that someone with an eating disorder refuses to have breakfast before doing a punishing exercise regime. Wherever someone is at, compensatory behaviours are a form of disordered eating and holds one back from having true enjoyment and satisfaction in their food.
As a non-diet dietitian, this is something I pick up on all over the shop. I could be in a supermarket and hear a naïve group of friends buying chocolate ‘because they have been good all day’ or I could be sitting down to pasta with a friend and a comment such as ‘I really need to get to the gym’ will pop up. I listen out for these types of beliefs with my clients as I legitimately can call them out – whereas to a random in a supermarket would be slightly awkward. Although my verbal diarrhoea could get the better of me one day..
So, let’s strip this back and look at what compensatory behaviour is. This is the definition for compensate from my trusted google search;
“reduce or counteract (something unwelcome or unpleasant) by exerting an opposite force or effect”
I almost deleted the part in brackets as I didn’t want food to be portrayed as something unwelcome or unpleasant, but then I realised that this is the crux of the matter. One who engages in compensatory behaviour is doing so because they believe that something ‘unwelcome or unpleasant’ will occur from eating. For example, breaking out of a diet rule means the diet is ‘broken’. Or not exercising after a pasta meal might instil fear of weight gain. Or in the case of the friends buying chocolate in the supermarket, they perceive chocolate as ‘bad’ and therefore ‘unwelcome or unpleasant’ so they can only justify having this if they have been ‘good’ for the rest of the time.
Why does this matter one might ask? Surely there’s a national weight and health problem out there so it’s good if people are conscious of what they’re eating?
Nein, nein, nein! (no, no, no in German). Compensatory thoughts and behaviours take enjoyment and freedom away from eating. If you’re unable to enjoy a pasta dish without thinking of your upcoming compensatory run, then you’re not truly engaging with that experience. Imagine you’re in a morning meeting at your current work but have an interview in the afternoon for a new job that you’re very nervous about. You might not be able to concentrate or give your best to the discussion because your mind is filled with thoughts and anxieties over the interview. This is legitimate for the morning meeting situation, however, having the same difficulty in engaging over a meal isn’t a positive vibe.
So what’s the alternative?
Food experiences should be a single experience of enjoyment and satisfaction in its entirety. One’s mind shouldn’t be mulling over compensating, instead thoughts such as; ‘I prefer how this restaurant cook’s risotto compared to the last place’ or ‘perhaps I overcooked the meat this time but never mind’ or ‘this chocolate bar tastes delicious’. Sure, being active and eating nutritious food is positive behaviour – however, it’s not part of a maths equation with not being active and eating ‘bad’ food (there is no bad food FYI).
For some, just hearing this message might be enough for you to do less ‘compensating’. For others, this has been a behaviour for quite some time and thoughts are entrenched in your eating experiences. If you struggle with letting go of your compensatory behaviours, ask yourself a few questions;
“what or who am I serving by engaging in compensating?”
“how is it having a negative impact on my relationship with food?”
“would I tell my best friend, daughter or brother to do the same thing?”
“do I like doing this?”
As I always say, food is meant to be enjoyed! It sends physical signals of pleasure to the brain, it socially brings people together, it can be creative in the kitchen and it keeps us moving and breathing all day long! Let’s love food rather than place unncessary conditions of ‘earning’ or ‘counteracting’ it.
Can I get an Amen?!