"If we deny ourselves our favorite items, our bodies will crave them even more, and it will become a distraction and a focus on missing that food that brings you so much comfort and joy," said Wesley Delbridge, R.D., spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. "You end up resenting the diet that you are on and then splurging, which then leads to shame or guilt."
Enjoy Your Favorites in Moderation
It's important not to judge yourself for having cravings or compare your favorite indulgences to those of a friend. "I'm a dietitian, but I am also a human being and we all have our favorite indulgences," says Delbridge. "Appreciate that you have these foods in your life that you enjoy, [and] use moderation and a healthy lifestyle to continue to enjoy them," he advises.
Practicing eating foods that please the palate might feel like cheating, but you're actually setting yourself up for long-term success. According to various news sources, research has shown that the best diet is one that is sustainable—meaning if you can't picture your life without ever eating a fettuccine again, low-carb probably isn't a great fit for you. Any diet plan that is going to make you feel guilty if you reach for your craving also threatens to disrupt your momentum and progress entirely.
The key is defining what "moderation" means. It can mean different things to different people: My "moderation" rule might mean I can have two slices of pizza three days a week and your "moderation rule" might be one slice of pizza a month. If you think you're practicing moderation now, but you're still not losing weight, you likely need to reevaluate your food intake and be stricter with your diet, research says. Tracking your food is a great way to pinpoint when and if you're going overboard on any indulgences.
Knowing how to work your favorites into your meal plan and still lose weight is something you'll need to learn with the help of a professional, or through trial and error. It may take some time, but know that it will all be worth it in the end when you can have your cake and lose weight, too.
How Nutritionists Let Loose
"I have a major sweet tooth and cannot live without having a small bite of something sweet each day," said Erin Palinski-Wade, R.D., author of "Belly Fat Diet for Dummies. "Dark chocolate is rich in antioxidants and may even promote healthy blood pressure, so enjoying it daily won't have a negative impact on health. I just work to keep the portion in check! I either add a teaspoon of dark chocolate chips into a homemade trail mix or drizzle melted chocolate over air-popped popcorn or nuts."
Integrative and Functional Nutrition Academy co-founder, Kathie Swift, M.S., R.D.N. agrees, saying she loves the taste and mouthfeel of dark chocolate. "In the winter months here in the Berkshires, I make my own dark chocolate cocoa with coconut or almond milk and a dusting of cinnamon!"
Delbridge said his other indulgences are ice cream and his grandma's oatmeal cookies, but he focuses on healthy living first. "My rules are that if I have met my exercise and eating goals for the week, I have one small pint of my favorite ice cream that I buy on the weekend and eat slowly over those few days," he said.
Another thing he'll never give up? His grandma's oatmeal cookies. "I was raised having these my whole life. These cookies made by 87-year-old grandma are my favorite food that brings me the most joy," he says, adding that the treat reminds him of his childhood and the love of his grandmother. "When my grandma sends me a Tupperware of these delicious and tempting cookies, I could eat the whole container. Instead—and this may be extreme—but I have my wife 'hide' them somewhere around the house where I can't find them. Then, every time I want one, she has to get it."
"Having an indulgence every now and then can be part of a healthy diet if you are eating well most of the time," Jeanette Kimszal, R.D.N. confirms. "My favorite indulgence would be ice cream. I like to stick to the real stuff, so no light or fat-free versions for me. They tend to have artificial sweeteners and other additives," she says. Kimszal looks for varieties with all-natural ingredients and prefers ice cream with milk from grass-fed, pasture-raised cows, which is richer in healthy omega-3 fatty acids and other nutrients.
Mascha Davis, M.P.H., R.D.N., a National Media Spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, says she can't live without her morning coffee with milk and sugar and enjoys dessert most nights. "I love a good cup of coffee in the morning and the ritual that surrounds it," she says. "I believe it's essential to honor our cravings and treat ourselves. Feeling deprived not only doesn't feel good but sets us up for overeating later."
Don't Go Hog-Wild with Cheat Days
We've all seen funny memes about cheat days on social media, and while "cheat days" and "cheat meals" sound fun, they can derail your efforts if you don't rein them in. While science says that eating an indulgent meal on occasion can be a good thing when it comes to reaching your long-term goals (thanks, science!), it's important to plan that meal out and be able to stop at one meal.
If you're working on your physique and trying to build lean muscle, an entire day of cheat meals could interfere with all the training and clean eating you did the week before. One study found that within five days of eating a high-fat diet, the way muscle metabolizes nutrients is changed, potentially impacting your metabolism that quickly. While special occasions or vacations might tempt you to throw your healthy eating habits out the window entirely just for the day or week, staying the course and working on building and solidifying those healthy habits will pay off in the long run.
So, go ahead, enjoy your pizza lunch with friends, but don't eat the whole pie and don't follow it up with a never-ending pasta bowl for dinner. Allow yourself indulgences that you can look forward to, but then get back to your healthy eating plan at your next meal so your body produces the changes you're working toward.