Sometimes we eat for reasons other than nutrition or physiological need.
We’re not necessarily hungry.
We won’t necessarily benefit nutritionally from what we’re eating.
We’re not necessarily eating for any reason related to our health or fitness goals.
For some of us, indulgences such as these are no problem whatsoever.
We’re able to eat simply for pleasure with absolutely no negative physical, emotional, or psychological effects.
For some of us, though, indulgences don’t work so well.
Certain foods make us feel really bad.
Certain foods trigger us to eat more than is appropriate for our body composition goals.
Certain foods stir up problematic thought patterns and emotions.
For those of us with experiences such as these, there may be benefit in abstaining from eating certain foods – at least for a period of time – as we figure out just what role certain indulgences and deviations might play in our eating habits in the long run.
That, however, is a challenge in itself.
Should we completely abstain forever?
Should we deliberately indulge on occasion?
What if we legitimately don’t care for how such indulgences taste because of how they make us feel?
How do we know if we’re indulging in a way that honors our bodies and our minds?
How do we know if our desire to eat certain things is rooted simply in the fact that we enjoy them, or if they’re indicative of thoughts and emotions that aren’t serving us?
The concept of “mindful deviation” might be exactly what you need if you’re wrestling with questions such as these.
What is mindful deviation?
I first heard the term “mindful deviation” from another coach, Jason Seib (check him out if you’re not already familiar with him).
The term is a bit difficult to define, but it essentially describes what deviations look with complete understanding and acceptance of how that food might affect us, fully free of any judgement or emotional baggage.
The concept isn’t quite as simple as being able to eat whatever we want without feeling guilty.
Rather, it’s taking full ownership of one’s eating habits and being able to choose what to eat and when, without feeling like the food itself is in control in any way, shape or form.
It’s knowing exactly what value indulgences have in our lives, what effects they have in our efforts to get lean, strong, and healthy, and choosing to (or not to) indulge from a position of confidence and freedom from judgement.
To get a better feel for what this looks like, below we’ll explore eight characteristics of mindful deviation.
These characteristics are not hard or set rules.
These are not boxes to check to say “this was mindful deviation”.
Rather, they are examples offered to describe how mindful deviation differs from indulgences that may not be serving you in some way.
They’re points to consider as you assess whether your own approach to indulgences is truly in alignment with the role that you want food to play in your life.
1) Mindful deviation is intentional
Often deviation doesn’t feel like a choice.
We feel compelled to eat.
We feel like we’ve lost control.
We feel powerless.
Mindful deviation, on the other hand, is intentional.
There is no compulsion.
There is no loss of control.
There is no powerlessness.
There’s a full understanding of how the deviation will affect us physically.
We understand and accept what effects, if any, this deviation will have on how we feel or our progress towards our goals.
There’s a full understanding of how the deviation will affect us mentally and emotionally.
We understand and accept that what we eat is not a reflection on our worth or value as a person.
We deliberately choose to eat something we might not otherwise.
We pay attention to how we feel in the short and the long term.
We get on with our life.
2) Mindful deviation is free from emotion
Cheats, treats, and other indulgences often bring or stem from a host of emotions.
Sometimes these emotions are pleasant – comfort, nostalgia, reward…
Sometimes these emotions are unpleasant – shame, regret, guilt…
Often, what comes with deviation is a complex mixture of all of the above.
With mindful deviation, there are no unpleasant emotions.
There is no shame.
There is no guilt.
There is no regret.
Likewise, there are no pleasant emotions – at least not because of the food.
There’s no emotion whatsoever related to the act of deviation itself.
There’s simply a decision to eat something for reasons other than nutrition (which isn’t a bad thing).
The food itself brings neither pain nor pleasure, beyond that of its flavor, texture, and satiety.
The only positive emotions associated with mindful deviations are due to any event during which they occur often occur during occasions and experiences that bring about positive emotions.
4) Mindful deviation enhances our experiences
Deviations are often distractions – from unpleasant or uncomfortable emotions, for example – from our experiences.
They’re often habitual and mindless – like snacking during a movie just because it’s what we always do.
Mindful deviation, on the other hand, enhances our experiences.
Mindful deviation complements special occasions.
Enjoying a beer at a bachelor or bachelorette party.
Having a slice of cake at a niece’s birthday party.
Celebrating a traditional meal for religious, cultural, or family reasons.
These occasions aren’t about the food, but the food may play a role enhancing the experience.
Any emotions experienced during an occasion such as these are driven by the occasion itself.
They’re driven by the experience – the people – and are completely unaffected by what is or isn’t eaten.
The indulgence simply enhances the already meaningful experience.
The experience or occasion isn’t looked forward to as an excuse to deviate.
There is no desire for release from feelings of restriction and deprivation.
This might suggest that there are still some emotional factors to consider that are odds with the concept of mindfully deviating.
Rather, the indulgence is an afterthought, something that just happened to occur as a part of the occasion, free from judgment or baggage.
5) Mindful deviation is a shared experience
While some of us may indulge most often when we’re with other people, for some of us deviations happen more often when we’re alone.
It’s a Friday evening and we’re bored or lonely.
It’s the end of a stressful day, and we’re worn down and need a “pick me up”.
It’s our “cheat day” but we don’t want others to know we’re participating in such a ritual.
When we’re alone, we’re left to face with our feelings, without work, family, or friends to distract us.
There’s nobody else around to judge us.
It’s just us and our boredom, anger, loneliness, sadness, frustration, or other uncomfortable feelings.
If you find yourself establishing rituals around food that you deliberately choose not to share with others, you might ask yourself what role such rituals are playing in your life.
This doesn’t mean that what you’re doing is wrong.
This doesn’t mean that you have an eating disorder.
It just means that you might explore what thoughts, emotions, and beliefs are behind such rituals, and whether those thoughts, emotions, and beliefs are in alignment with your values.
6) Mindful deviation is unplanned
Typical “cheat meals” and similar behaviors are often scheduled events.
They take place regularly on certain days, at certain times, even perhaps with certain foods.
That’s all well and fine if that’s working for you, but for some of us it might be worth considering why we’ve placed deviation in a place of such high value.
It might be an indication that food – or at least some food – still has power over you in a way that might be holding you back from living your fullest life.
Mindful deviation, while intentional, is not planned.
They often come up in a situation that’s meaningful and enjoyable for reasons completely separate from food.
At some point, food enters the occasion.
We’re at a place where we’d be just fine without it, but in the context of the situation, we’ve decided to participate.
While not planned, this is an intentional decision as described above.
There are traditions like holidays and annual special events, where we know there will be a specific food that holds some sort of value.
Even in occasions such as these, the tradition or occasion itself is what we’re looking forward to, separate from the food.
Food is simply a part of the occasion, and you may even find that you no longer feel the need to participate in that part of it.
This is 100% up to you and how such deviations affect you.
Also, it’s okay to look forward to the food component, and nothing listed in this article is a hard, set rule.
Context always matters.
Regardless, in none of these situations is a mindful deviation something where we sit around for weeks or months looking forward to an excuse to eat something that we might not normally.
You don’t need an excuse to eat anything.
7) Mindful deviation emphasizes quality
Mindful deviation isn’t about just buying the first sweet thing we can find.
It’s not about grabbing a snack that we’re “in the mood for”.
It’s about eating food of extraordinary quality.
To be clear, “quality” in this respect doesn’t always mean anything about the ingredients.
In some cases, it does.
We might choose to indulge when eating at a fancy restaurant known for its exquisite desserts.
Such a situation carries with it meaning that may be considered more worthy of deviating than simply passing a candy bar that’s on sale.
This isn’t the only meaning “quality” can take when it comes to food, though.
As mentioned above, much of the value of food extends beyond its flavor or nutritional profile.
We might have a tradition of eating a specific kind of candy bar when we spend time with certain people.
In this case, there’s nothing particularly rare or exclusive what’s eaten, but there is something rare and exclusive about the tradition.
Whatever “quality” might mean to you, it reflects that the indulgence holds special value.
8) Mindful deviation is truly “deviation”
The reason the term “deviation” is used is because such occasions are not a regular occurrence.
Now, this might set off some red flags for those of us of the “everything in moderation”, “if it fits your macros” mindset.
Some think that indulgences and treats “should” play a role in everyday eating habits, in an attempt to prevent developing an eating disorder.
The subject of whether eating disorders are the result of restrictive dieting is outside of the scope of this article, but the idea of “everything in moderation” is worth exploring a bit more.
For some of us, this approach is just fine.
Some of us find that we’re able to more consistently eat in a way that’s in alignment with our goals if we regularly include foods eaten simply for pleasure.
Furthermore, the idea that we should arbitrarily choose not to eat certain things for any reasons other than our own needs, preferences, and goals isn’t serving anybody.
There’s a culture of morality being associated with food that’s pervasive in the health and fitness world.
What foods help one person look and feel awesome might not be foods the help another person look and feel awesome.
The fact of the matter is that each of our ideal diets will look different.
Furthermore, food is not a moral issue.
Avoiding foods because they make us feel guilty is an indication that we might have some deeper emotional issues to work through.
There’s also a culture of perfectionism – the idea that if we do one thing that isn’t perfectly in alignment with our health and fitness goals, we’re a failure, or the idea that there are some foods that should absolutely never be eaten.
Some of us do better dealing with these things if we regularly indulge in foods that we find pleasurable.
In that case, there may be no “deviation” whatsoever, since nothing is considered out of the ordinary.
That’s totally cool.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with that approach if that’s what’s working for you.
Only you can be the judge of that.
Such an approach, while it might be fundamentally at odds with the idea “deviation” all together, is still in alignment with the principles of intentionality and freedom from judgment behind mindful deviation.
Some of us, though, do better without regular indulgences.
Some of us don’t moderate well.
Some of us are negatively physically affected by certain foods in ways that make the pleasure of eating them unworthy.
For those of us who choose not to regularly indulge, there’s benefit in having a framework for determining what role deviation, which is inevitable, plays in our lives.
In that context, indulgences aren’t mindful deviation if they aren’t actually deviation.
That’s not a statement of judgment.
It’s simply a clarification to better define what’s meant by “mindful deviation”
None of the guidelines listed above are hard or set rules.
For you, mindful deviation may involve all or none of these characteristics.
That’s up to nobody but you to decide.
You might not even find that the idea of deviation is one that applies to your approach.
If you’re moving towards your goals, free from any kind of judgment or problematic patterns associated with food, then mindful deviation might not be a concept of worth to you.
If, however, you’re struggling with consistency…
If you’re struggling to build momentum…
If you’re struggling with emotions that aren’t serving you when you eat certain things…
If you’d struggling to figure out what role indulgences might play in your eating habits…
…mindful deviation might provide a framework for you to work through these struggles and figure out exactly what role indulgences play in your own eating habits without beating yourself up.
You might find that you deviate fairly regularly.
You might find that you deviate rarely at all.
You might find the guidelines above work well for you.
You might find that none of them are of value to you.
The point is that you’re owning your actions.
You’re working towards your own ideal set of eating habits.
You’re figuring out what role eating for reasons other than sustenance plays in your life.
You’re working towards an approach that’s free from any kind of judgment, morality, or other emotions or thoughts of distress.
You don’t owe anything to anybody but yourself.
Nothing you eat or don’t eat is a reflection of your value or worth as a person.
Nothing you eat or don’t eat is a reflection of the validity of your eating habits.
Eat what you want.
Just find an approach that works for you, and not somebody else.
This will take time.
This will take effort.
It will be worth it.
You’re worth it.
You’ve got this.