As someone who's lost a substantial amount of weight (more than 30 pounds, which I've kept off for eight years), I'm usually pretty structured in my eating. I eat lots of vegetables, watch my portion sizes, and keep treats to a minimum.
And when I do indulge, I almost always experience a major guilt hangover. The thoughts that race through my head after a few too many slices of pizza usually range from I shouldn't have done that to I'm going to gain all the weight back to WHY DID I DO THAT?
They're so demoralizing, I usually just skip giving myself treats altogether in an effort to also skip the shame spiral and keep my sanity intact. But a few months ago, I took a different route. I was on vacation when my boyfriend of three years caught me completely off-guard and asked me to marry him. I was over the moon. We were beyond happy, so all we wanted to do was celebrate.
And celebrate we did. We celebrated with pancakes and pastries, hearty meals, and decadent desserts. For the first time in I-can't-remember-when, I let myself eat whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted, and as much as I wanted. And I allowed myself to enjoy every single bite, guilt-free.
And you know what? It was amazing. Beyond amazing. Enjoying myself—instead of beating myself up for eating—was totally liberating.
After nearly two weeks, I fully expected the number on the scale to have jumped up at least a few pounds. I was accepting of it; the happiness and freedom I had experienced were totally worth it.
Turns out, I didn't gain a single pound.
Now, I'm not suggesting you throw caution to the wind and turn your life into a 24/7 eat-whatever-you-want fest. But this little foray into pastry-land got me thinking. Is indulging every once in a while really that bad? Or could it actually be good for you?
For me, the answer was clear.
Treats are, in fact, a good thing. And here's why:
Indulging every once in a while makes it easier to eat well the rest of the time.
I love eating healthy, nutritious foods. But eating only healthy foods is really, really hard.
Believe me, I've tried. But when I know all I have on the diet horizon is kale, quinoa, and green juice, a funny thing starts to happen. I start thinking about all the other things I could be eating (like cheesecake and raspberry-chocolate pie and all the carbs). Before I know it, it's all I can think about. And after a few days of eating well, my desire for something carb-y and delicious overtakes my desire to stick to a healthy diet, and I find myself falling face first into a ginormous bowl of pasta.
Muffins smell amazing fresh from the oven, but they don't taste as great when I sprinkle them with guilt and judgment.
I used to beat myself up about this (typically as I cried into the aforementioned bowl of pasta), but you know what? It's not entirely my fault. Pretty much everyone worth listening to agrees that deprivation as a diet strategy just doesn't work. And in my experience, when I restrict my diet to only "healthy" foods and deprive myself of the foods I truly enjoy, it's only a matter of time before I'm miserable, bored, and ready to throw in the towel.
Treating myself every now and then actually makes it easier to eat well the rest of the time. When I schedule indulgences throughout the week and allow myself to enjoy the foods I truly love—even if they're not on my "diet plan"—it gives me something to look forward to and makes it easier to stick to my diet in the interim.
In other words, it's way easier for me to eat kale and quinoa all week if I know there's a big, fat peanut butter cookie with my name on it waiting for me on Saturday.
And it's not just about waiting for those Saturday snacks! I try to make my day-to-day diet more enjoyable while still falling within the boundaries of eating nutritiously by working in ingredients I enjoy, just on a smaller scale. So instead of eating a pound of pasta (which is and will always be my first instinct), I mix a ½ cup of pasta in with a heaping serving of veggies. I get the flavor I'm craving, but balanced with the foods my body needs.
Eating healthy foods isn't "good" and indulging isn't "bad."
This has been a serious struggle for me. I have a tendency to assign morality to food, so as I mentioned before, when I eat foods I've decided are "bad," I experience an overwhelming amount of food-based guilt and shame.
But I've come to realize that feeling guilty about snacks is totally counterproductive. First of all, it takes all the enjoyment out of the experience—and if I'm not enjoying my treat, then what's the point?
Even more problematically, feeling guilty also has a tendency to send me spiraling out of control, and I end up eating more way more than I would have if I'd just chilled the eff out and let myself enjoy the experience ("Ugh, I feel so bad I ate this one cupcake. I already messed up, so might as well eat some more!").
Since my trip, I've started to really examine the way I look at food—and the shame I tend to feel about it. I'm not "bad" if I eat an extra scoop of ice cream, and I'm not "good" if I choose a salad over a turkey club for lunch.
Long story short: Every once in a while, I'm just going to eat some doughnuts—but I'm always going to skip the doughnut-related guilt.
Treats make me all sorts of happy.
The most straightforward reason I've decided that giving myself the occasional croissant is actually good for me: It makes me happy.
I'm a person who really loves food. I enjoy the whole experience: sitting around a table, sharing an amazing meal and conversation with friends; the smell of fresh-baked muffins coming out of the oven; cooking for the people I love, expressing my affection through food. All of these things make me incredibly happy.
But restricting myself too much takes the joy out of those experiences. It's hard to focus on the amazing meal and conversation with friends when I'm having an internal battle over whether I'm "allowed" to have a slice of bread before dinner. Muffins smell amazing fresh from the oven, but they don't taste as great when I sprinkle them with guilt and judgment. And while the smiles I get from my friends and family when I cook for them are fantastic, those smiles typically disappear when I say I can't eat with them because I'm "on a diet" or "watching my weight."
Food brings us a lot of joy. And when I don't allow myself the occasional treat, I'm preventing myself from experiencing that joy. So from now on, I'm just going to do what makes me happy—indulging every so often. Losing weight and taking control of my diet remains one of the absolute best things I've ever done for myself. But loosening up and allowing myself to really enjoy food again is proving to be even better.
Deanna deBara is a freelance writer and accidental marathon runner living in Portland, OR. The views expressed herein are hers. Keep up with her running adventures on Instagram @deannadebara.