In many ways, junk food cravings aren’t unlike those associated with more nefarious addictions. You can’t have just one cookie or one piece of candy. This can present a major problem if you’re on a path toward weight loss. The good news is that you don’t need to cut out treats completely in order to stay on track with your goals. The key is to devise a strategy for enjoying those treats in moderation.
The question: Why is consuming treats in moderation so difficult? Jackie Dikos, a registered dietician based in Indianapolis, says that it has to do with the fact that we often look at treats as rewards—something we’ve earned. The problem is, that feeling is generally fleeting.
“While the treat may taste good in the moment, that sense of reward is short-lived,” Dikos explains. “I encourage people to focus on how they want to feel long term, at least 30–60 minutes after the treat.”
By looking into the future, you are more likely to choose an appropriate portion. While you would likely feel guilty for mowing down a gallon of ice cream soon after the last bite, when you step back and consider that result, you’ll be motivated to adjust the serving.
Many nutrition experts will tell you that it may actually be easier to harness the self-discipline necessary to stick to a healthy diet over time if you allow yourself a treat every now and again. It’s all about reframing the way you look at treats and creating environments where you’re more likely to succeed.
How to Redefine Treats
While it’s okay to enjoy treats in moderation, most of us can benefit from shifting the way we look at snacks—especially if you’re trying to lose weight. “We all have various small pleasures that we want to enjoy in life,” Dikos says. “I just prefer to redefine what a treat really entails—there are better quality treats than others.”
For instance, she suggests that a slice of homemade pie made with fresh cream butter, good quality flour, pure sugar and fresh berries is a better choice than a candy bar laden with high fructose corn syrup and food dyes. If there are ingredients on the label you can’t pronounce or don’t recognize, most experts will tell you to run in the other direction.
Here are a few other redefined sweet treats Dikos often recommends:
- A baked sweet potato sprinkled with cinnamon, a drizzle of honey and topped with plain or vanilla Greek yogurt
- Cinnamon sugar whole grain rice cakes with a thin spread of almond butter
- Fresh fruit topped with plain yogurt, wheat germ and a drizzle of honey
- A smoothie made with coconut milk, banana and cocoa powder
- Homemade applesauce or fruit puree topped with a dollop of homemade sweet cream
- A warm baked banana topped with a tablespoon of peanut butter
Control Your Environment to Curb Binging
In addition to reframing the way you look at treats, it’s also important to control the environments you’re in as much as possible to set yourself up for success. For most of us, this will include home, work and social settings. By investing a bit of time into planning and eliminating temptations where possible, you’re less likely to sabotage your weight loss.
Since home is usually the easiest environment for you to control, limit the amount of treats you keep in the house. What’s more, be sure your cupboards are stocked with healthier options so you’re not constantly ordering delivery when you’re hungry.
“Never leave an easy-to-access candy bowl sitting out,” Dikos says. “Always keep fresh fruit and other good quality carbohydrates on hand.”
At work, you can’t control the donuts your colleagues bring in or the catered lunch, so it’s important to plan ahead. “Don’t rely on the office snack stash,” Dikos advises. “And reach for a cup of calming chamomile tea during high stress work days.”
At social gatherings, question ingredients. Was that store-bought cupcake made with high fructose corn syrup? Is that cake full of artificial dyes? Reflecting on these types of questions can help you think before you eat.
“Choose sweets that are as fresh as possible, and when it’s a pitch-in, bring your own go-to sweet treats—fresh fruit is always a great treat for social gatherings,” Dikos suggests.
Of course, maintaining an overall healthy, nutrient-rich diet can head off many of those junk food cravings that can tank weight-loss efforts. In fact, those cravings may even mean that your body is trying to communicate that it needs something else.
“Balanced meals and snacks can often offset the likelihood of major imbalances,” Dikos says. “When in doubt, go big with veggies—fresh or cooked vegetables can add bulk and nutrients that support feeling full. They also offer a boost of nutrients.”