Anyone who’s tried to lose weight knows the drill: Throw out the “bad” foods, make friends with chicken breasts, and eat your veggies. Pizza, pasta, bread, cookies? They’re all evil, gluten-filled temptresses. So if you love brownies, too bad: “Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels.”
Well, there are quite a few problems with this line of thinking: One, skinny better be pretty freaking great to beat the taste of fettuccine Alfredo. Two, it’s incredibly hard to live with an all-or-nothing mentality. Yes, it seems healthy to throw away sugary or carby foods and claim you’ll never touch them again. But that just doesn’t happen. And you shouldn’t feel pressure to live this “all-healthy-all-the-time” life.
Our friends at Chilly Cow agree, which is why they created an ice cream that comes with the kind of nutrition label you want to see (read: fewer calories, less sugar, more protein than regular ice cream) and the taste you deserve (read: creamy and delicious). Because giving up your favorite things can be the very worst thing to do for your health.
Willpower Is Finite
“I think any overly restrictive diet can be great for your physical health short-term but terrible for your mental health and unsustainable for the long-term,” says Sarah Greenfield, a registered dietitian nutritionist. “Once you feel like you are dieting or being restricted, it’s only a matter of time until your willpower runs out. Remember: Willpower is finite.”
The American Psychological Association agrees. In one study, participants were shown cookies and radishes. One group was told to eat a cookie, while the other was told to eat a radish while looking those cookies in their cold, chocolaty eyes. After the little snack, both groups did a fairly difficult puzzle. The radish eaters gave up after eight minutes, while the cookie lovers persevered through 19 minutes of puzzle time. The fact that the radish people had to use willpower to actively avoid those cookies left them with little willpower to complete the puzzle.
Whenever you resist your favorite food, you’re depleting your willpower supply. Now, if avoiding that cookie were the only stress you encountered, you’d probably do great with a restrictive diet. But with all the other stressors in your life—not to mention a news cycle that makes 1984 look like a jaunty romp—that cookie could be the straw that breaks your willpower’s back.
“Eventually, you’ll give in to your craving for that food and probably overindulge because of Last Supper Mentality (‘After this time, I’ll never eat this again’),” says Taryn Schubert, a registered dietitian nutritionist.
Instead of investing so much guilt and energy into how “bad” your favorite food is, try to maintain a mentality of moderation. “All foods fit in a healthy diet! Getting rid of the guilt around them and knowing that they’re always available when you want them takes away their power and the need to overindulge,” says Schubert.
That’s another reason we love what Chilly Cow is up to. The brand is changing the idea that ice cream has to either be a) an indulgence you should feel guilty about or b) low calorie, low fat, and therefore tasteless. Even better: The ice cream comes in half pints and perfectly portioned bars to help with that whole moderation thing.
All or Nothing Usually Ends With Nothing
When you decide to do a strict diet and take your favorite food out of your life, it’s very hard to maintain that level of commitment. “If you don’t absolutely love your new, healthy lifestyle, you won’t stick to it. It’s as simple as that,” says Casey Renee Rogers, certified nutrition and fitness coach and owner of Fitness on the Rocks, a site that happily admits an occasional adult beverage can be a part of a healthy lifestyle.
“You’ll walk out of the diet feeling like a failure, with an angry metabolism to boot,” Rogers says.
Your metabolism is in an odd state right after restriction. In fact, it’s primed to gain weight: A report published in the International Journal of Exercise Science found that during a “relapse period” (when you’ve fallen off the wagon), you gain fat back much faster.
Unfortunately, weight cycling (losing weight and gaining it back) might increase your risk of heart disease and diabetes. That means you’d have to stay on your restrictive diet (and say goodbye to your food faves) pretty much forever. If you don’t, you’ll likely fall off the wagon hard, gain weight back quickly, and wind up with a higher risk of disease. In the diet world, all or nothing doesn’t typically end in your favor.
Think of Your Feelings
Take a second and think about your favorite food. If you’re anything like us, your heart goes aflutter and a smile lights up your eyes when you think of the joys of a basket filled with crispy, juicy fried chicken or a big bowl of ice cream. And that’s great!
So often, diets completely discount the emotional aspects of food. If it really were as easy to “eat less and move more,” we’d all be joining Gigi Hadid on the runway. But food is a part of our emotional lives. We eat to celebrate, to make ourselves feel better, to enjoy time with friends, and to feed our soul. Even if you aren’t a classic “emotional eater,” food is still intertwined with great moments in your life. I mean, we suffer through a day of family fighting and stress just to eat a kick-ass turkey and stuffing every Thanksgiving. Nobody would put up with their weird uncle for a luncheon of ice water and saltines.
“People thrive on pleasure from eating and from food in general,” says registered dietitian Julie E. Feldman. “It’s such a part of our society that to deprive ourselves of our favorite food often makes people feel sad and like they’re being punished.”
Instead of taking away something that brings you joy, both Feldman and Rogers recommend eating the food in moderation and focusing on all the good things you can still eat.
“If you can focus on adding in fresh produce and unprocessed, whole foods, your diet will start to work itself out naturally, as you’ll be more satisfied, less bloated, and have more energy,” Rogers says.
How to Eat Your Favorite Food… in Moderation
Now you can say, “just have a cookie every once in a while.” But it’s not so easy. Sure, Oprah is apparently eating bread every day, but some people have a much harder time practicing moderation. Sugars and carbs are addictive and for some people, and one taste can set off terrible cravings and a desire to overeat.
To be clear, this desire to overeat doesn’t happen to everyone. Many can happily eat in moderation and never wake up in a bed full of crumbs next to a mysteriously empty box of cookies. But when you’ve been dieting or obsessing over your weight, you tend to have more extreme reactions to food. Still, no matter how much of an all-or-nothing person you are, you can still find ways to moderate.
“I am a big fan of healthy hacking!” says Greenfield. “By making your favorite dishes at home, you have control over what goes in them and can incorporate healthier ingredients.”
Another good way to avoid boredom eating is to enjoy your go-to foods with friends. “Have the food at a party or social gathering where you may not be triggered to eat as much of it as you might at home alone or bored,” says Carrie Gabriel, registered dietitian. At a party, there’s a finite amount of food, so you can’t go too crazy. Plus, you won’t have any leftovers in your house to haunt you for days to come.
If you are at a real risk for binge eating or you’re on day seven of “I’ll start my diet tomorrow,” Rogers has an easy solution: stop, drop, and roll. “Each new bite is an opportunity to steer yourself away from sabotaging behavior,” says Rogers. “You gotta ‘stop’ before your next bite, ‘drop’ by putting the food away or throwing your napkin on your plate, and ‘roll’ by either leaving the scene entirely or distracting yourself with a task.”
Rogers isn’t saying that you can never eat the things you love, but it’s a good solution for when you feel like things are getting out of hand.
How many favorite things do you have in your life? Foods are probably an important part of it. No matter how strictly you think you need to eat to reach your health goals, you don’t need to cut out what you love. If anything, we should all enjoy more of what we love in life. As long as you add a pinch of moderation, you don’t have to throw your favorite food out of your life. Because guess what? A happy soul beats skinny any day.