Saturday, January 1, 2011

Taking the Guilt Out of Guilty Pleasures

Perhaps you read the article in yesterday's New York Times about the benefits of providing favorite foods to Alzheimer's patients. When people are given foods and other things they like, they are soothed. They calm down. They feel loved and nurtured.

Individuals with Alzheimer's are, by definition, not healthy, so why deprive them of their favorite foods just because those foods are too high in fat or sugar? Why focus so much on physical health when their mental health is already grievously impaired? If a cup of chocolate ice cream is all it takes to bring a little pleasure into an otherwise bleak existence, dishing it up seems like a no-brainer.

By extension, maybe we should all allow a few more guilty pleasures into our lives, minus the guilt. But let me speak for myself, by way of a specific example—alcohol. I enjoy a drink with dinner, some nights a glass of wine, others a vodka tonic. I'm not talking excess, just one drink. It relaxes me and I like the taste. But I've agonized no end about my indulgence. Did alcohol cause my breast cancer? Am I risking a recurrence by continuing to consume a drink in the evening?

On the other hand, I've read the research findings that alcohol in moderation minimizes the risk of heart disease, so maybe my daily drink will protect me against that. I've wasted a lot of time attempting to analyze the risks versus the benefits. And with every new study, the balance shifts. Not long after my primary care doctor told me that a glass of wine a day was fine, new research indicated that as little as a half a drink per week could increase the risk of breast cancer. My breast surgeon assured me that the increased risk was minuscule, but she didn't say nonexistent.

During all the time I've spent weighing the pros and cons, I've never given up my nightly drink. I've just felt guilty about it. Then, not long ago, a new study came out. It confirmed the previous finding that alcohol increases the risk of breast cancer, but found that the risk was confined to a specific type of breast cancer, lobular carcinoma. Since I had another type of breast cancer, ductal carcinoma, alcohol presumably played no part in my developing the disease.

So for the moment, I'm enjoying my wine (or vodka tonic) guilt-free. But if I'm only pegging my enjoyment on the latest study result, I'm not likely to rest easy for long. Chances are, the next study will show that alcohol causes Alzheimer's or worse. What I need to do is detach from all this anxiety about which foods, drinks, and supplements to consume and focus on enjoying the simple pleasures of life, so long as doing so doesn't harm anybody else. And hopefully, it won't harm me, either, if I indulge in moderation. Eventually, I might even convince myself not to feel guilty about being immoderate on occasion. As Ralph Waldo Emerson famously said, "Moderation in all things, especially moderation."


  1. Chopra wrote about a study of a bunch of men were identified as having a good possibility for heart attacks. Half the men were told to exercise, eat right, etc. The other half were told to go on enjoying their life. The latter half survived the healthy living half. On the other hand, when I indulge in reckless abandon, I feel out of control. I envy people who can moderate their wild side.

  2. I understand you completely. I have Diabetes, and although my doctor has assured me that it's fine to have a glass of wine occasionally, or a small piece of pizza, or birthday cake, as long as the birthdays don't come every day, but each time I partake in something that I feel may mess with my blood sugar, I am filled with guilt, regret and angst--even though, I too, continue to do it once in a while. ~bonnie ☺