Cutting processed foods and refined sugars out of your diet is arguably the most important dietary change you can make to improve health and lose weight. But will one slice of birthday cake inevitably tighten your pants and cut your life short?
Quality of life is hard to measure, but it certainly involves some balance between good health and hedonistic enjoyment of things that might not be perfectly healthy. The question is how we find this balance for ourselves, and how do we make sure our behavior helps us keep that balance?
The answer, of course, will be different for everyone. Competitive athletes have higher physical demands for maintaining ideal health than, say, a scientist. And I'm not a fan of watering down my favorite foods -- especially desserts -- with "healthier" ingredients. But there are a few general guidelines that can help the majority of us live a little without constantly fighting the battle of the bulge.
9 Tips For Dealing With Dessert
1. Eat dessert once per week or less
As a general rule I try to keep my dessert consumption to once per week or less (it is often less). A larger person may be able to get away with a bit more, but setting a weekly maximum can help you keep tabs on your sugar consumption. If you are actively trying to lose weight, aiming for once every two weeks or less is ideal.
Sugar is problematic for several reasons. Most of you probably realize by now that excess sugar causes rapid blood sugar and insulin spikes that force extra calories to be stored as fat. Over time these spikes will alter your sensitivity to insulin, negatively impacting your metabolism and risk of type 2 diabetes. Extra insulin signaling is also associated with heart disease, high blood pressure and accelerated aging.
The less refined sugar you eat the better, but assuming most of us aren't willing to give it up completely it is helpful to have a weekly maximum to keep consumption in a reasonable range.
2. Pick your occasions
Once you decide to budget your sugar consumption, it is time to start choosing your priorities.
Is your weekly group meeting at the office (the one where there's always doughnuts) really a special occasion? In other words, is that stale chocolate doughnut you wolf down while half asleep really worth the extra workout or skipping dessert with your kids this weekend? Probably not.
If you think about it, there's a good chance you don't even enjoy that doughnut as much as you assume you do. And we both know you'll feel horrible after eating it anyway. So why do you believe that you want it?
When you stop and really think about your food choices, you'll often find that many of them come from conditioning rather than true preference. But just because 12-year old you liked low-quality sweets doesn't mean the adult you has to continue eating them.
Save desserts for the times that are really worth it, and realize you aren't missing much by skipping the Costco brownie bites.
3. Don't eat dessert alone
Special occasions are moments of celebration you share with people you care about. One of the wonderful things about life is these moments happen all the time. Our weeks and months are perpetually marked by birthdays, weddings, promotions, vacations and a million other reasons to celebrate. Use these special times as cues for when to indulge.
On the other hand, there is nothing particularly special about sitting alone on your couch watching TV. Try to get out of the habit of eating dessert alone, especially if this is something you rely on for comfort. If you just want something sweet, try having a piece of fruit or some herbal tea instead.
I recommend not keeping any pre-made desserts in the house at all. Why torture yourself?
4. Know dessert when you see it
If you're eating dessert several times a day but only think you are eating it once or twice per week, none of these rules are going to help you maintain your health and physique.
Last week I wrote about the hidden sugars in common foods such as sandwiches, salads and fruit yogurts. There are clearly benefits to eating a salad, but syrupy dressings contribute to your sugar intake whether there is lettuce around or not. Overly sweet non-dessert foods make it more difficult for you to enjoy real indulgences without consequences.
Be aware of the sugar content in the foods you eat and actively try to minimize it in the bulk of your diet (i.e. choose sandwiches without teriyaki or BBQ sauce, salads with savory (not sweet) dressing, cocktails without juice or syrup, and plain yogurt).
If you're eating healthy and minimizing sugar 90+ percent of the time, your waist will hardly notice the occasional birthday cupcake.
5. Little indulgences count
Just as you cannot ignore the 27 grams of sugar in Yoplait yogurt, you can't grab two or three pieces of candy every afternoon from the bowl in the office without it adding up.
Be aware of the little cheats you make throughout the week and don't kid yourself about their impact. If you decide that the work day is just too hard to get through without these, that's fine. But you aren't doing yourself any favors by pretending they don't exist. Remember to count them in your mental dessert tally and keep it in mind when you're looking lustfully at your grandma's homemade apple pie and wishing you hadn't had so much sugar this week.
6. Choose quality over quantity
If your goal is to limit your sweets but you don't want to feel like you're missing out, make sure your choices emphasize quality over quantity.
A few bites of good quality dark chocolate is infinitely more satisfying than a handful of Hershey's kisses. Desserts can rack up 25-100 calories per bite. Get the most bang for your buck by picking foods with actual flavor and not just extra sugar and salt.
Hint: This tip should also help you stick to tips #2 and #5.
7. Go splitsies
Half a dessert is 100 percent better for you than a whole dessert.
If you really really want to try one of those cookies your co-worker has been bragging about for months but have already had your ice cream this week, try taking only half of one. Better yet, find someone to split it with you so you aren't tempted to finish it. If it's that good, a few bites should be plenty satisfying.
8. Resist peer pressure
Some people take a special pleasure in encouraging others to do things they know are bad for them. These people also tend to be good at recruiting others to join in their banter.
Be prepared to get nagged occasionally for not wanting to eat foods that aren't worth it. But if you have decided in advance to stick to desserts you know taste better than what your friends are pushing, it really isn't that hard to ignore them.
Who's really missing out here?
9. Use the gym
Despite our best efforts, we all eat too much dessert every now and then. This isn't good, but it isn't the end of the world either.
When this happens to me I use it as an opportunity to amp up my workout routine. By far my best runs are on days when we have birthday cake in lab -- I feel like I can run for days with all my extra energy.
Your muscles use sugar as fuel, so use it up while you can and give your metabolism a little boost (having a little extra blood sugar and insulin around when you're exercising can actually improve your metabolism) and prevent those spare calories from being stored as fat.
You'll probably feel better after working it off too.
How do you deal with dessert in your healthstyle?