When Treating Yourself Is Actually Bad for Your Health

We all have those rough days when we’re exhausted, grumpy and maybe even cramping. All you want to do after class or work is go home, crash on the couch and finish off a carton of ice cream. After all, you deserve to treat yourself—right?

Unfortunately, doing so can be counter-intuitive. You’d think that it would be the same as taking care of yourself, and while it is good to give your mind a break and relax, it’s important to consider the impacts on your physical health if you’re always ordering takeout or binging Netflix for five hours after every long day.

Similar to YOLO, the treat yo’self mindset is a way of justifying a behavior that typically would not be considered as healthy or self-improving, says Tatum Murray, a lifestyle blogger at ThePace.co. As a millennial herself, she’s noticed the treat yo'self attitude all over social media, like when a friend posts the phrase alongside an Instagram photo of an ice cream cone. It's often attributed to unhealthy food choices, and it's dangerous when it becomes an excuse for us to eat whatever we want.

For Michelle Marie, a holistic health and wellness coach, "treat yo'self" has a great message and meaning behind it—when interpreted the right way. But the general attitude has become a trendy sensation and an overused phrase that many people use out of context and too often. We all have habits that we think are treating ourselves, but should actually be avoided.

"Some bad habits to deal with stress may include emotional eating, a night out involving binge drinking, smoking, as well as poor sleep. As a primary care provider in a detox clinic, I find recreational drug use as a means to deal with stress to be an epidemic of growing concern," says Aisha K. Khan, PA-C, MS, MHS, Academic Director of the Physician Assistant Institute. Indulgences can take many forms, but it's important to treat yo'self in moderation. 

Finding comfort in comfort food

Who doesn’t want some creamy, chocolatey goodness to fight the pain of cramps? Ice cream on your period is the classic stereotype. “I see a lot of it on Instagram. Posts with a whole gallon of ice cream saying ‘I'm on my period so I deserve it’ treat yourself kind of thing. I'm not a big fan. First of all, dairy and sugar is the last thing you want to be eating on your period,” says women's holistic health practitioner Jenna Longoria. Ice cream contains arachidonic acid, an omega-6 fatty acid, which can actually cause cramping or increase inflammation. Have a chocolate chip ice cream cone once in a while, but try to avoid dairy when on your period if you've found that it actually makes things worse instead of better. 

Now let's say you hear some great news and want to go to the closest bar or burger joint to celebrate. After all, Chick-fil-A is right across the street! Instead, focus on eating real, whole foods. “By doing this, treating yourself will look a lot different then eating fast food fries and a milkshake,” Longoria said. “Instead, ‘treat yo'self’ will look like spending a little extra for those hand cut fries cooked in quality oils from the farm to table restaurant or grandma's homemade pie. Food made with love.”

Murray likes to use the many easy, healthy recipes available on Pinterest and other sites online to cook her own meals. “Look for a recipe that looks enjoyable to you and give it a try!” she said. “Cooking for yourself means you know every single thing that goes into your meals, so you can understand the nutritious value of what you're eating.” Don't worry, though—you can still occasionally treat yourself to those delicious fried potato wedges or slice of chocolate cake. Just don't make a habit of it!

Wine not?

So what about those celebratory drinks? No one’s saying you can’t have champagne on your birthday; however, you shouldn’t be binge drinking to celebrate your accomplishments, even though you might want to let loose after a promotion or grad school acceptance letter. “If it’s a once a week, kind of ‘treat yourself to a nice glass of wine or a margarita with friends,’ that's fine,” Longoria says. “But if it's a ‘I'm going to go binge drink because I got an A on my final’ then that's pretty pernicious and can lead to unhealthy habits.”

So for girls night out, relax with your gal pals, but don’t finish off a whole bottle of wine. Longoria likes to live by the 80/20 rule. She eats super healthy 80 percent of the time, and on the weekends she might have a gluten-free pizza and some wine. “It is important to indulge in a little of what we fancy and to approach food with a balanced attitude,” Longoria said. “Diets install the feeling of deprivation and guilt. This type of attitude reinforces negative patterns and behaviors, and paves the way for binge eating.” 

Non-stop Netflix

Ah, our love of Netflix runs deep. But eye strain, sleeping difficulties and slower metabolism can result from parking ourselves in front of the TV to watch a full season of House of Cards or The Office. Though of course one episode here and there is fine, avoid binge watching for long periods of time. 

Having too much sedentariness is obviously bad, Frank says. She tries to get active by riding her exercise bike for an hour while she answers emails, reads the New York Times online or has conference calls. She loves to walk with her partner outside in the Pacific Northwest. But she also makes time for TV. "Friday mornings are usually delayed with any long-term projects because much Shondaland becomes available on iTunes, and what's a compassionate, intelligent woman to do—not check in on what her girlfriends are doing? So also be concerned about too little Shondaland," she says. Find the balance between your favorite Netflix show and talking a walk outdoors. 

A late night out

Whether you stayed up late for homework or decided to hit the town with your friends, it's easy to fall into that exhausted college student cliché. It's exciting to stay up until 2 a.m. at a bar, but celebrations don't need to result in sleep deprivation.

Instead of treating yourself to a night at the club, try treating yourself to a day in bed. According to Frank, napping is good for you. There is a circadian rhythm that troughs mid-afternoon, and it's a natural time to nap, especially if you're sleep deprived. "My classmates in med school would often doze through a post-lunch lecture. I'd get up from my seat, go find a call room or empty library room and sleep for 15 minutes, spontaneously awakening, and ready to go for many more hours of lectures, study and patient care," she says. 

It may take you awhile to be able to fall asleep quickly, but practice makes perfect. "It's worth getting good at: there's abundant data showing that good sleep improves essentially all other health outcomes, it's available to most of us as a health promotion technique, and is pretty cheap," Frank says. 

It's all about moderation 

Moderation seems to be a nutritionist's favorite word. Khan agrees, "All things in moderation." We hear it all the time, but it absolutely applies to treating yourself after a long day. 

For example, you don't really need to be getting Venti Starbucks drinks on the daily. I know, I know, we all love Starbucks. But that doesn’t mean we need it in excess. Marie said two prime examples of the treat yo'self attitude are purchasing material items that you can’t afford or don’t need, and eating foods that do not serve your body or align with your health goals. We can apply this logic to our Starbucks drinks, because no one really needs to drop $6 on a Venti drink. Skip the Venti Frappuccino and opt for a tall if you really want to indulge after a long day. 

And no matter what your guilty pleasure is, just make sure you're not making it a daily habit.

So please, enjoy a glass of rosé or a slice of pizza on special occasions, but remember that a treat means something out of the ordinary. Don’t treat yo’self on the daily. You’ll be treating yourself in the long-term.