I’m sure if I asked most people what their top favorite treats are, their list wouldn’t read, “Boiled lettuce wraps, plain tofu, and egg whites.” More likely it would look something like, “Chocolate, chips, candy, pizza, and many other comfort foods.”
As a Registered Dietitian, when I meet with a new client, I ask them what their favorite foods are, regardless of what they think is healthy. They usually list out all the tasty food they love, thinking I will write them out in a list, put a big red X through it, and say, “Never again will this food touch your lips.”
Preconceived ideas can be a funny thing. You shouldn’t be doomed to a life of boiled lettuce wraps. Life is about enjoying tasty food with great people. It’s important, however, to have some guidelines that will help you enjoy food and stay healthy. So, I’m going to share my personal philosophy with you, as well as what I teach my clients.
Why I Eat All the Chocolate I Can
We all have our favorite foods that we look forward to, but there’s a fine line between enjoying treats and maintaining (or achieving) health. On one hand, you only live once, so eat all the treats you can, right? But overeating can lead to health problems and get in the way of your non-treat-related goals.
A few years ago, I took my hound dog to a big field near our house. He was the classic Basset hound mix—goofy, friendly, not very athletic, and an eating machine. He once ate an entire gluten-free loaf of bread that he stole off the counter and had to sleep it off for two days. Someone brought it over for a party we had, and apparently, he’s the only one who appreciated it. That dog just loved food.
When we arrived at the field that day, I let him off leash to run free. I noticed too late that a nearby hill must have been the site of a large party, and there were literally hundreds of hot dog buns scattered in the grass. He saw it, too. He sprinted and I chased after him. I caught up to him after he got down two buns and was running with one half eaten in his mouth.
About two weeks later, his heart gave out in the night and he passed away at only nine-years old. Looking back, I wished I had let him have his day in that field and eat to his heart’s content. Life is short, right? I feel this way sometimes, too, as I think we all do.
But we aren’t hounds, and we have choices to make. Foods we love aren’t just occasionally scattered on the ground for us to have a rare indulgence. They are all around us, within easy access via a drive-through, local restaurant, or even a click of a button on the computer.
“Moderation” is a word we see a lot when looking through fitness and nutrition information. I’m sure you’ve seen the saying, “Eat everything in moderation.” But what does that mean? My definition of “moderation” is eating as much chocolate as I can while still maintaining my health. You could swap chocolate with the treat of your choice.
I call this practice “responsible treating.” So, the question becomes how can we eat the foods most precious to us while still hitting our health goals and feeling great? There are a few simple rules that can help you have a great relationship with tasty food.
1. Eat Treats You Truly Love
No need for cardboard snacks here. The cheap stuff out of boxes can be satisfying in the moment, but do you really love it? Too often, we mindlessly snack on things for no better reason than convenience and boredom. But since we want to limit how often we indulge, we want to make those moments worthwhile.
Pick three items that are your absolute favorites. For example, my list would be: chocolate chip cookies, chocolate chip cookies, chocolate chip cookies. In that order.
Agree to only have these foods as a treat a few times a week or less. When you are first starting out, “less” will be the part you want to emphasize. It’s important to prove to yourself that you can stay away as needed. This way, when you consume these foods, it’s on your terms, not an impulsive act.
2. Eat Your Favorite Foods with Your Favorite People
We celebrate with food, go through sad times with food, and everything between. Eating is a social activity. A good rule of thumb is to eat the treats you love while spending time with the people you love. This makes it a fun event where you’re making memories and having a good time. Nobody ever regretted spending more of this kind of time with friends and family.
And, importantly, doing things in this manner limits your treat intake because most of us can’t get together for social events every night of the week. So, by linking social time with your responsible treating, you create a natural cadence for your diet.
3. When Possible Choose Homemade, Nutrient-Dense Treats
This rule doesn’t have to apply to all your favorites, but picking treats that you can make yourself from whole-food ingredients is important. Requiring a treat to be homemade limits how often you can have it. These foods should not be too convenient to indulge in. Instead, you’ll have to earn your treat through shopping, preparing, and cooking.
Additionally, working in ingredients from whole foods and nutrient-dense sources can be another win for your treat game. Nutrient-dense sources would be anything with vitamins, minerals, fiber, or other health-benefiting qualities. For example, here is a cookie recipe (Courtesy of Apple of My Eye) that we stick to at my house. Yes, it has sugar (so it is not WLC-compliant, nor do we eat these all the time), but we work in more nutrients with the avocado.
Fudgy Dark Chocolate Avocado Cookies
These are NOT compliant on any Whole Life Challenge level.
- 1 ripe avocado finely mashed
- 1/4 cup white sugar
- 1/4 cup brown sugar
- 1 egg
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- 1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
- 1/3 cup flour
- 1/2 tsp baking soda
- 2 oz dark chocolate coarsely chopped
Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
Combine the avocado, white sugar, brown sugar, egg, and vanilla extract in a medium-sized bowl.
In a separate bowl, whisk together the cocoa powder, flour, and baking soda.
Mix together the wet and dry ingredients until just combined.
Gently stir in the dark chocolate chunks.
Using a small ice cream scoop or spoon, add one heaping tablespoon of dough on to a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.
Bake for 8-10 minutes or until the top has set. Don't over-bake!
This is just my example (and it is not Whole Life Challenge compliant). I’ve had clients make homemade potato chips, coconut-chocolate balls, and whatever else they can dream up.
Of course, learning recipes that have been in your family for decades and that you loved when you were younger is also a great thing. Remember that part about special treats with special people? Nothing beats grandma’s recipes. Not even Google.
How to Put the 3 Rules Together
As I mentioned earlier in the article, going through a period without treats is important. Temptation is all around us. Proving to yourself that you can go without will serve you well. Famous strength coach Dan John once said, “Deprivation leads to increased capacity.” This means that cutting things out for a bit will lead to a better understanding of your nutrition needs and an increased resiliency for the times when you need to say “no.”
As you reintroduce some of your favorite foods, the rules I outlined will complement your newfound resiliency and you’ll enjoy your treats much more than you ever did previously. And by eating treats you truly love, sharing them with loved ones, and making most of your treats yourself, you’ll have a much easier time keeping snacks and sweets to a minimum. You will also be more aware and mindful of your enjoyment.
I want you to own your nutrition, not the other way around. I want you to have what you love on your terms.
Everywhere we look, sweets and snacks are around, but most of them offer nothing but a temporary satisfaction and distraction. By following these rules, you will become resilient and immune to the junk, and smile wide when you get what you truly want.