I used to have one day per week when I allowed myself to have a sweet treat. One month went something like this:
Week 1: I dutifully scoop out ½ cup of all natural vanilla ice cream into a small dish. I eat it slowly and savor every delicious bite, patting myself on the back for my impeccable self-control. I finish the ice cream and am successfully satisfied.
Week 2: I try the same strategy, but this time my ice cream needs a buddy…a small homemade gluten free brownie. I thoroughly enjoy my treat.
Week 3: I’ve been dying for this day to come. I serve up some ice cream that might have been a little more than a serving. I reason that the brownie really added something to the ice cream last week, so I try it again. I finish my dessert and then find myself returning to my kitchen for a little more…in the dish goes another small brownie with a little ice cream because I can’t eat one without the other. I finish the dessert feeling uncomfortably full.
Week 4: Finally it’s dessert day!! (…despite the fact that I snuck in some treats throughout the week.) I serve up over a cup of ice cream, add my two small brownies, and decide that melted Nutella with some peanuts on top would be the perfect accent. I sit down on the couch to enjoy my concoction when I feel my husband staring at me: You ok hun? Is it that time of the month? This isn’t like you at all.
I finish the dessert because I’m not a quitter. Then, I admit to myself that I’ve clearly taken my “small weekly indulgence” too far. I’m off in the ditch…again.
Everything in moderation. This advice has been a part of the diet/nutrition conversation forever. I’ve even clung to these words in an attempt to achieve balance with food, while recovering from an eating disorder. The brownie sundae story, one of many in my life, is evidence that this strategy has been ineffective. The longer I’ve studied how the body works, the more I’m convinced that this approach sets people up for failure. What makes me say this?
First, research shows that this advice can lead to unhealthy outcomes. In a 2015 study, researchers found that more varied diets (the presence of both healthy and unhealthy foods) were associated with larger waist circumference and type 2 diabetes. When people adopt the moderation approach, they tend to apply it to both healthy and unhealthy foods. As a result, people are sacrificing veggies and fruit for junk food.
Second, the concept of moderation is subjective and difficult to define. People are notoriously bad at estimating portions and serving sizes, and prescribing “moderate” amounts for themselves is no different. It is a vague concept with a lot of individual variation. A moderate amount for me may be way too much for you. Taking this further, we would never use this standard when recommending how much sugar a diabetic should eat, or how much gluten someone with celiac disease should consume. It would be ludicrous to suggest that people with food allergies or sensitivities merely enjoy the offending foods in moderation. Regardless of the context, it isn’t a helpful term.
Finally, moderation is a poor strategy when faced with “avalanche foods.” Most of us have them. You know, the foods that you simply cannot eat in small amounts –before you know it, the entire bag, box, or pan is gone? The problem is that we tend to allow for larger “moderation” quantities when we are dealing with foods we enjoy. That gets us into trouble every time.
The “everything in moderation” approach assumes that calories are all that matter –as long as you keep your calories in the right range, you’ll be fine. Not so! Introducing poor quality calories into our daily diets will ultimately throw our crucial weight management hormones out of whack, causing weight gain and difficulty losing. You can read a former post on this topic here.
Since moderation doesn’t really work, let’s look at some more effective strategies:
Know Your Own Needs and Tendencies – What foods cause you to go off into the ditch? Are there certain situations that make this more likely? Do you have food allergies or intolerances? Do you have a chronic disease, such as diabetes? In these situations, I would strongly urge you to consider a zero tolerance approach to the food in question. Having “just a little” will do more harm than good, or will cause your train to derail every time. I have these foods in my own life –it is what it is. I’d rather feel amazing than dance with misery.
“All things are lawful,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful,” but not all things build up. 1 Corinthians 10:23
Become Savvy About What Makes You Tick – What are situations where you tend to have a strong resolve? When are you most vulnerable? Hint: many times when we are sleep-deprived, running on empty, and stressed out, our resolve to eat healthy and to resist temptation takes a nosedive. What are some intentional ways that you can guarantee more success? Are there some delicious healthier alternatives that you actually enjoy?
Break it Down – Don’t be afraid to be a data head about this. I suggest following at least an 80/20 plan, eating whole, unprocessed foods 80% of the time. This gives you 20% to play with. Keep in mind, this isn’t a license to go nuts (refer to strategy #1). There might be things that are best to stay away from, even within this 20% margin. Only you will know that. Literally do the math: multiply the number of meals you eat/week by .2 to give you your number of meals that can be less rigid.
Keep in mind that it takes time to be a good detective, so don’t give up. You may be wondering how willpower factors into this discussion. Research has been turned upside down in this area and I plan to unpack it in a future post. Stay tuned!