The constant recurrence of this question has opened my eyes to an important reality: Building any fitness or nutrition plan around something that doesn’t feel sustainable will probably lead to failure. This is why I’ve adjusted my stance on dessert in the last few years, and my clients' results have never been better.
In fact, if I had a time machine, the first thing I’d do is rewrite the forewords of all the books I’ve published and make something very clear: No matter what you read in these pages, you can still have dessert.
The no-dessert approach could be the one mistake that is most consistent, no matter what plan you’re following for fitness and nutrition. You see, thinking certain foods are off-limits is a big reason why you might have a difficult relationship with food. It’s time to break that dangerous mindset.
Let Yourself Eat Cake!
The no-dessert mentality reflects the popular belief that there are "good foods" and "bad foods." Put more simply, most people believe that some foods will make you fat, while others are fair game to indulge in. This simply isn’t true. While some foods do have more calories, fat, or carbs, how you eat these foods is what makes all the difference. Fat isn’t bad, and neither are carbs. Restricting yourself to super-low calories isn’t healthy either.
Those who ate dessert lost an additional 15 pounds, while those without dessert gained 15 pounds. Sound familiar?
Your focus should be on having a basic understanding of the human body, so you can bend the rules to make them work for your body. This is the big picture that everyone seems to ignore: Your body is different from the bodies of your friends, coworkers, family members, and that celeb on the magazine cover. Ignoring this reality and doing what they do might work, but if it isn't a good fit for you, it's inevitably going to fail.
Let's take the Paleo diet as an example. While I have no problem with the Paleo diet in theory, people can approach a healthy diet in an unhealthy way. There are two main problems with this diet plan:
- If you love pasta and bread, the Paleo diet probably won’t work for you. Sure, it might technically work for a short period, but you’ll eventually miss those foods, go back to them, and end up following a hybrid version of the plan that won’t deliver results. Should you be eating more fruits and vegetables? Of course. Does that have to come at the expense of chocolate-cherry fudge cake? No, and scientific evidence supports the eat-dessert approach. More on that in a minute.
- Diets like Paleo propose the magic-bullet theory. This rationalizes a right to eat as much as you want of certain foods because they're "healthy." While the foods might be good for your body, if you eat too much of anything, you will gain weight. A healthy diet is not the same as a diet that helps you lose weight.
Let that sink in for a moment, as it’s something that almost everyone—including me early in my career— struggles to comprehend. Healthy foods, while good for you, still have their limits and can still make you fat.
Stop Asking, "Is This a Good Food?"
Eat all the organic, grass-fed, no-antibiotic foods in the world, and you’ll still gain weight. Stuff yourself with gluten-free, dairy-free, sugar-free foods, and you can still pack on the pounds.
Are these foods "bad" for you, per se? Of course not. But that’s not the issue. No one food will make you fat, and no one food will make you thin. So stop asking, "Is this a good food?" You create a terrible relationship with food when you think you have to completely avoid what you love. This instills a mindset of restriction, which leads to frustration, which leads to a lack of consistency, which leads to… well, you know the drill: You end up hating any diet, give nutrition the middle finger, go to town on everything in your pantry, and feel even worse about yourself.
This is why everyone hates the concept of dieting. You’ve been told, "Don’t eat this food. It will make you fat."
That’s stupid simply because it’s not true.
Many years ago, I wrote the following words, which are true now more than ever. Before you start any plan, here’s a checklist that matters more than any weight-loss promise:
- Healthy is enjoying your life.
- Healthy is finding the right situations to eat the foods you love.
- Healthy is not worrying if you miss a day you planned to exercise, especially if it’s because you’re doing something better with your time.
I have a wife and a son. I eat dessert with them every week. It’s not that I can get away with it because I’m genetically blessed; I make it work because I know that dessert can (and should) be a part of my diet and what I eat.
The healthiest diet plans and most effective nutrition strategies don't focus on superfoods, scapegoats, or supplements. Rather, if there’s one reality that we see in research (from Atkins to The Zone), consistency, sustainability, and patience are the foundations of a good plan, and prevent diet failure.
Dessert + Imperfection + Basic Foods = A Healthier You
As I say all the time, don’t trust me blindly. I’m not here to break news—or the internet, for that matter. My job is to make sure I don’t overreact or underreact, and, instead, translate what I know and what will help you have more sanity, satisfaction, and success with your healthy goals. We say that Born Fitness is "designed for real life," and that’s why I write for Greatist; the Greatist message couldn’t be more aligned with my own personal approach to health, fitness, and nutrition.
So here’s what science shows: Research conducted at Harvard by Dr. David Katz suggests that when you look at most diets, you’ll find that a lot of them work. So why choose one that makes you miserable, you'll eventually abandon, and you can’t stay on long enough to see real results?
With any nutrition approach, you want to make sure you’re eating vegetables, fruits, proteins, and healthy fats. But that doesn’t mean you only have to eat those foods. While they should make up the majority of your diet, the rest is free for you to choose.
Basically, Science Wants You to Eat Some Chocolate Mousse
Here’s why the eat-dessert mantra is so important: Researchers from the University of Toronto discovered that restricting food entirely makes it harder to stick to a plan. In this case, the removal of chocolate from a diet for just one week led to extreme cravings. A more effective approach is one that allows you to satisfy your cravings in controlled portions.
A research study from Israel found that eating dessert with breakfast might help you lose more weight—and keep the pounds off. One of the most interesting aspects of this study is that it lasted an entire eight months. Through the first four months, both groups (those eating dessert and those not eating dessert) lost a similar amount of weight. But those last four months made all the difference. The participants who ate dessert lost an additional 15 pounds (after the initial 30 pounds in the first four months), while those without dessert gained 15 pounds back. Sound familiar?
While the details of a study may not be a reason to add dessert to your breakfast, this does offer evidence for including splurges in any nutrition approach. It's an important part of an effective long-term strategy that keeps you sane and losing weight. The small sweets provide the psychological edge that allows you to stay motivated, without derailing your eating plan.
The healthiest diet plans don't focus on superfoods, scapegoats, or supplements.
Within any diet, 10 to 20 percent of your calories can be directed toward a little treat, dessert, indulgence, or whatever you want to call it. I know it might seem daunting to limit desserts to something small when they taste so good, but understand there’s a method behind the madness.
When you’re constantly craving something because you’re told you can’t have it, you want more. But when you have the option to eat something you enjoy every day, the need or desire to eat, say, an entire pint—rather than just a few scoops—of ice cream is significantly reduced.
Your job is to prioritize your health, not to be perfect. There are many ways to eat your way to the body you want, and the only way that definitely won't work is the approach that asks you abandon dessert—or any other food you enjoy—completely.
It might sound crazy, but when you realize that most people who fully ban dessert fail, maybe the opposite approach isn’t too good to be true.Adam Bornstein is a New York Times best-selling author and the founder of Born Fitness, a company on a mission to cut through the noise and share what you need to know to live a healthy, happy life. He extends that mission even further as Greatest’s Naked Truth columnist. Learn more on his profile page or follow BornFitness on Facebook.