On my last birthday, a number of Facebook greetings included the comment, "Go ahead and cheat — it’s your birthday."
I know what these well wishers meant, but this sentiment has no meaning for me. A cheater is a person who behaves dishonestly. Enjoying a piece of cake or a scoop of ice cream is not a character statement. I can eat anything I want without being a devious person.
In the interest of full disclosure, I should add that I sometimes feel like I have shortchanged myself in terms of food, but those are the days when I "chose" not to eat enough vegetables. This doesn’t make me a bad person, just not as green as I would like to be.
Every day I meet people who feel shame or are chastised by well-meaning family and friends for what they eat. This compounds the negative feelings of “cheating” on a diet. It is time for a shift in language and attitude. A first step is to change “cheat” to “choose.”
You can be a "chooser" no matter what type of food path you follow. A vegetarian seduced by stone crabs or a paleo following the scent of fresh-baked bread might choose to eat something off their usual menu. This is a choice without a value judgment. Dieters who are following strict and unrealistic guidelines might be choosing foods they normally wouldn’t because they are hungry and feel deprived.
There are tools to help you become a chooser instead of thinking of yourself as a cheater. Linda Bacon, author of Health at Every Size (BenBella Books, 2010), suggests eating in a flexible manner that values pleasure and honors internal cues of hunger, satiety and appetite. Her website, haescommu-nity.org, supports this philosophy with concrete steps and resources to stop fighting with food.
Food is nourishment and pleasure, weight is a number, and neither defines your worth as a person.
Sheah Rarback is a registered dietitian on the faculty of the University of Miami Leonard M. Miller School of Medicine. Follow her on Twitter @sheahrarback.