I wish the term “falling off the wagon” didn’t exist as a seemingly universal way to express that we’ve faltered yet again regarding the way we nourish ourselves. It’s a pretty painful and uncomfortable image that comes to mind, because come on, NO ONE wants to fall off a wagon.
Strangely enough, my mom has had the distinct pleasure (or pain?) of almost cascading out of a buckboard wagon at night in the Arizona desert when the horses got spooked by god-knows-what out in that inky, hot sandscape.
Ok, so “falling off the wagon” should exist in our syntax in the literal sense.
But it has no place when it comes to talking about our food choices and how we’ve inevitably messed them up for the twentieth time this year.
Whenever my patients tell me they’ve fallen off, aka, they’ve failed, I rejoice a bit.
It confuses people at first when I smile at them when they’re feeling terrible about themselves and like they’ve let me down.
But then I explain myself and they think I’m a little less crazy. Especially when I tell them they haven’t failed at all.
Here’s why I think it’s pretty fantastic to “mess up” (quotations needed because you really haven’t messed up at all) on your diet:
#1 Reassessment Time
“Falling off the wagon” creates time and space for you to step back and reassess if this latest nutritional bent is actually good for you.
Now, ideally, we’d all take this step before the point of no return, but the crash and burn certainly gets our attention.
But instead of dousing the flames that are now wicking their way along the tall grasses (you’ve apparently crashed in an idyllic meadow in this scenario) and reflecting back on what we could have done differently, we wallow.
We say “woe is me, I’ve failed again” while the fire spreads and we effectively make ourselves a single blade of grass in this metaphorical meadow of emotion, swept up by the wind and smoke and flames that we couldn’t possibly control.
Except that we can. It’s a metaphor, remember?
Culturally we get some mileage out of the wallowing, woe-is-me thing. Everybody loves to complain about their latest diet and how badly they’ve failed.
People bond over the difficulty of “staying on track” and the impossibility of it all.
Then in a few months, they hop back on the diet train, hoping there will be a different outcome despite having changed nothing about their own mindset.
This is pretty much the definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. Yes, the variable changed slightly (the diet), but not enough to create a different result because YOU are the key here, not the food plan.
I spent many years in this mental trap and still fall into it occasionally. It’s so much easier to look for solutions outside ourselves, but they ultimately always lead to the same place: nowhere.
We have to look inside ourselves to create the real shifts. Yes, it’s dirty, and gross, and in this fiery meadow-laden scenario hot from the flames and itchy from the grass, but this is the real stuff. The authentic you that’s on fire in this meadow.
What parts of you are aching and singed? Your ego? Your pride? Your sense of accomplishment? Your vulnerability? Your internal critic?
Once you recognize these mental and emotional areas that are getting scorched, you’ll naturally want to go find some cooling, refreshing water to soothe them and stop the self-injury.
This recognition marks the beginning of your reassessment.
You have to unearth these triggers and bring them into your consciousness in order to examine and heal them. They’re not good or bad, they’re simply a part of you.
And learning to cope with them is a necessary part of moving past “falling off the wagon.”
You might struggle in the future with nutrition, as we all tend to, but you won’t look at it as a failure anymore. Rather, it’ll be an opportunity to analyze what you’ve just put yourself through and if it’s a sustainable fit for you and your health.
So what does this reassessment look like? What questions do you ask yourself?
The first step is to reflect back on your experiences mentally, emotionally, and physically during the time you were on this diet. Make a list of positive and negative experiences.
Were you hungry all the time? Was it the bad I’ll-strangle-someone-for-a-cucumber-right-now hunger? Or manageable and ok?
How were your moods? Did you feel good for a few days then drop like a rock into depression?
What happened for your digestion? Did your gas and bloating go away?
How about headaches? Joint pain? Stress levels?
Take a minute and really dredge through your experience.
A special note: if you’re actively trying to reduce inflammation in your diet, oftentimes uncomfortable symptoms will appear for the first few days to a week while your body adjusts and clears out all the crap. So be sure to reflect on this as well, if things got worse, then felt better, or if they felt consistently awful.
Once you’ve collected your data, it’s time to move on to Final Jeopardy. Don’t worry, you don’t have to answer in the form of a question unless you want to.
The Final Jeopardy question to ask yourself: Was this diet beneficial for me?
And allow me to clarify, we’re talking way beyond weight loss here.
Look back at your compendium of experiences and take into account the mental, emotional, and physical ups and downs.
What did you learn from your time with this diet? Did it teach you things about yourself (hint: they always do) and if so, what?
This is the crucial step right here. When we realize what we’ve actually taken away from our experience, we can make an informed decision about what we want for ourselves in the future.
Suddenly the meadow becomes less hot, the fire gets put out, and there’s our wagon, waiting for us to figure out where to take it next. And maybe next time we can gently slow down and step off the wagon when we need a reassessment.
#2 Bloom and Grow
Since I’m milking this meadow metaphor today, let’s just fill the bucket all the way up.
Sweeping meadows make me think of the Sound of Music and that my mom sang the song Edelweiss to me to help me sleep when I was small, which funny sidenote, was written specifically for the movie and is not a traditional Austrian folk song.
The song has a lyric that says the edelweiss flowers will “bloom and grow, bloom and grow forever” and I think that’s a pretty apt description of the next reason why I enjoy it when people “fall off the wagon.”
Now for the last thread to connect the dots: do edelweiss grow in meadows? Hmmm…. maybe it doesn’t matter. Moving on!
If you’re still following me at this point, and even if I lost you back with Maria in the meadow, you've probably still grasped that I said something about blooming and growing and that it’s probably important since that's the title of this section.
We talked a little about the growth that needs happen in order to shift your inner critic out of the judgment-zone and into the self-improvement zone. Reassessment is an active, self-directed way of achieving this.
This section is more about recognizing a larger pattern throughout all of your dietary experiences so you can understand your growth pattern and eventually reach that fully in-bloom state that’s so lovely.
What pattern am I talking about?
The one where we get on the wagon, ride like all heck, fall off without warning, pick ourselves up eventually, feel lost and disappointed, complain, then repeat the same dance weeks or months later.
It’s a vicious cycle and it’s time to stop it.
The key here is that it’s a cycle of extremes, a black-and-white, on-again-off-again affair that does you no good until you learn how to moderate it. How to meet yourself in the middle. This is the blooming I’m talking about!
Health lies in moderation. Moderation is a tricky topic that I’ll write about in the future, but for now, let’s look at moderation as a path out of the extremes.
I see this on-the-wagon-off-the-wagon sequence as a pendulum swinging back and forth.
On the right side of the swing, you’ve got the on-the-wagon state and all the way over on the left side you’ve got the I’m-totally-off-the-wagon-and-in-that-burning-meadow-thing.
These seem to be the only two stops we make and we completely gloss over the middle until we start to reassess and examine what we’ve been through on our diet journey, as mentioned above.
Not only do we clarify what we want in the future for ourselves (or at least rule things out that we don’t), but we also begin taking steps toward a sustainable balance point.
Each time we “fall of the wagon” and reassess, it allows us the choice to swing back just a little less far toward the next diet craze.
I see this learning process happen the most rapidly in my patients (and saw it happen the most rapidly within myself) once they’ve chosen to pursue their health through self-love, rather than weight loss, better skin, more energy, or any number of things that diets promise nowadays.
That choice to find true and lasting health encompasses their physical bodies as well as their mental and emotional selves. And usually at the root of it all is a deep healing that needs to occur between themselves and food.
Food is perceived as an enemy to many people; it’s what makes them feel bad or gain weight. But really, it's an incredible substance that deeply nourishes them on all levels.
Food isn’t good or bad, rich or indulgent or “sinful", and shouldn't be restricted or leave you feeling deprived.
It just exists. We attach all of these ridiculous values to it.
When you let go of all of the garbage diet culture has fed you your whole life, you realize that your health is absolutely worth the time and effort it takes to educate yourself, shop, plan recipes, and cook with foods that agree with you.
These realizations, that you’re good enough, worthy, and haven’t failed but are massively succeeding on your journey are what start to moderate that pendulum swing.
And each time you “fall off the wagon”, if you’re truly looking for health at the end of the rainbow… in the meadow… you learn that maybe what caused you to fall off wasn’t worth the falling off for.
Was it worth feeling awful for 3 days to make a few people slightly more comfortable at a social engagement because you decided to try the appetizer they were pushing on you even though you knew it would suck afterward?
Was indulging in your favorite dinner at a local restaurant a good idea or bad?
Sometimes these experience feed our soul and sometimes they just make us gassy.
The point is that when you screw up, intentionally or unintentionally, it’s the absolute BEST feedback you can get about your current diet and will reinforce what you already know to be true.
If you feel better on the diet, great, keep at it. If you feel worse over time, you need to switch it up.
The ups and downs are a natural part of the process and you are not a good or bad person for experiencing them. It’s just life. And you’re living it. Being awesome. And turning into that edelweiss that you always wanted to be, blooming in your meadow, while the Von Trap children and one spunky nun frolic around you.