Eating our Happiness “Champagne Moments”

Patients come into my office all the time with “confessions” of eating off plan.  After one of these confessions, I usually get to hear the reasoning behind why the choice was justified.  The past two weeks, I addressed the reasoning behind why people eat negative emotions like stress and sadness. I am going to address a lighter topic this week – but an equally important one. Many people justify unhealthy eating because they are happy and celebrating something.  Although I’m not opposed to this idea, it is often stretched way too far.  

I think things like major holidays and loved one’s birthdays and our child’s graduation should be celebrated with things that bring us mouth-watering goodness.  These are big life events that deserve some celebrating and some bending of the “eating plan” rules. My kids wouldn’t forgive me if we didn’t celebrate their birthdays with some sort of sugary concoction!

However, I don’t think we need to eat off plan every time one of our coworkers has a birthday – especially if we work in an office with two hundred people!  We don’t need to eat a piece of cake every time one of our kids’ friends has a birthday party. We don’t need to eat leftover cake the day after our birthday – and the day after that – and the day after that…

We certainly don’t need to eat off plan every time one of our local sports teams plays a game – and every Friday before the game – and then again the day after the game to celebrate the win.  We don’t need to eat junk every time we watch our kids play sports and we don’t need to celebrate their exercise by giving them junk food.  

One of the things that I talk to my patients about is deciding which of these moments are excuses to eat junk and which ones are true celebrations.  True celebrations means they have real meaning and emotional significance. I call these moments “champagne moments”. In other words, I ask them to take that moment, remove the junk food and substitute in a glass of champagne.   Then post a picture of themselves on social media with a glass of champagne in hand, saying, “today, I’m celebrating…” If they would be proud of that picture, great. If they would be completely embarrassed, it’s a different story altogether.  

Lets say you hop on someone’s instagram page and scroll through their pictures.  Day after day, picture after picture, they are holding a glass of champagne, with a caption underneath.

“Toasting to John’s birthday, the guy in HR that I don’t really know.”

“My son’s friend turned 11 today, it’s not really important to me but it deserves champagne”

“Here’s to celebrate my friend’s daughter’s graduation from high school”

“A toast to Friday.  I successfully completed a whole week of work without calling in sick”

If you were to see these every day, you would likely assume that person has an alcohol problem.  That they are finding excuses to drink champagne and justifying them later. Many people do the same thing with food.  They have a food problem. Having a food problem and liking food are two different things. When you like food, you enjoy it in the right circumstances but don’t obsess about it.  When you have a food problem – or a food addiction, you tend to obsess about it, find reasons to justify using it, feel guilty about it afterward and then repeat the vicious cycle again the next time.  

One of the things we try to focus on during our program and changing the way we view food.  We try not to refer to food as “good” or “bad” – because all food is good in the right context.  I want my patients to eat cake at their wedding – that’s a fantastic place to eat something sugary and non-nutritious.  It has emotional significance. When a patient’s grandmother makes pecan pie for Thanksgiving and the whole family gathers around to enjoy it and celebrate each other, I would encourage my patient to have a piece of pecan pie.  It has emotional significance. Both of these are “champagne moments”. However, eating cake because it’s sitting there on a display table when you walk into the grocery store – and it’s on sale – is not a great reason. Eating cake because it’s in the break room at work and someone told you that it’s really good – is not a great reason.  

This takes work and awareness to fix.  For some of us, eating junk food to celebrate all of our happy moments is incredibly ingrained and we feel empty if we don’t do it.  That unsatisfied feeling or emptiness isn’t hunger – it’s just the fact that a habit loop hasn’t been closed. It’s like getting in the car and not putting on your seatbelt.  It actually feels uncomfortable. However, the more you question your reason for reaching for the junk and start figuring out your “why”, the easier it will be to stop the reflex.  The more you practice doing something, the easier it gets.

Another way to reframe the behavior is to make a list of all of your upcoming “champagne moments” and give yourself permission to eat something off program during those moments.  Think hard about what actually constitutes a “champagne moment” and why it is important to you. If you truly have thirty champagne moments coming up in the next thirty days, you probably need to reevaluate what constitutes a special moment in your life and narrow things down a bit!  

After that, decide what you are going to eat to celebrate that moment and relieve yourself of the guilt of eating it.  Don’t give yourself permission to celebrate the whole day with complete abandon – decide what will make the moment special and do it.  Have that piece of cake at your best friend’s wedding – just don’t have twelve dinner rolls and a bowl full of mints at the same sitting!  

This is one of the first steps to take in developing a healthy relationship with food.  It’s an important one! Until next week…

Courtney Younglove, M.D.