If you’ve ever tried to eat healthier, you’ve probably heard the advice you should eat the foods you love — in moderation. There’s a good reason for that. “Deprivation never works and often leads to binges, so the best bet is to develop strategies to enable you to enjoy your favorite foods — albeit in moderation,” explains Julie Upton, a registered dietitian.
But actually practicing moderation is not always so easy. “For starters, the concept of moderation is pretty abstract,” notes Kimberly Yawitz, a registered dietitian with McDaniel Nutrition Therapy. “There’s no standard definition for what moderation even means, although many people consider it to be any amount less than they actually want to eat.” Sound familiar?
Plus, some foods actually cause chemical reactions in our brains that make them difficult to stop eating. “Foods that are high in fat and sugar trigger the release of dopamine [a feel-good hormone] in the brain,” Yawitz says. “The feelings of pleasure that come with indulging in fatty or sugary foods make it more difficult to eat them in moderation.”
That said, eating treats in moderation is possible when you’re armed with the right strategies. Here’s what nutrition pros recommend:
“Have the treat at the end of the meal or after healthier options,” Upton suggests. “For example, instead of having three or four slices of pizza for a meal, allow yourself to have pizza — but after you have had a large salad. The salad will take away much of your hunger and cravings for pizza so you’ll naturally eat one or two slices and be satisfied rather than three or four.”
“Within indulgent foods, there is a wide range of quality,” points out Meghan Scott, a registered dietitian. “It can be tempting to buy the low-fat or reduced-calorie version as a healthier option, but these can be less satisfying, causing you to eat more to get the same feeling of satisfaction. A square of high-quality chocolate is much more satisfying than the cheap stuff.”
Once you’ve chosen your snack, pay attention to its qualities. “Take five minutes, put down your phone, and focus on how the chocolate looks, smells and tastes,” Scott suggests. “Move it around your mouth before you swallow. Drag out the experience. A little will go a long way and will satisfy you more than wolfing down the cheap stuff.”
This one takes practice, but it’s worth it. “There’s a concept for food similar to the Law of Diminishing Returns in economics: The more a consumer has of something, the less value they see in having more of it immediately, and demand goes down,” explains Maryann Walsh, a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator.
“The same goes for sitting down to eat something really delicious or decadent. At first, each bite is a total treat, but as you take more bites, consider whether the enjoyment is the same. Once the enjoyment is over, or lessened, consider if it is worth it to continue on eating said food.”
“All foods should be eaten and enjoyed, but indulging every day isn’t sustainable,” Scott says. At the beginning of the week, plan your indulgent meals. “If you have a lunch meeting on Wednesday and a family birthday party Saturday afternoon, you can schedule your weekly meals. By doing a good job of eating healthy, well-balanced meals the rest of the week, you can order whatever you want at the restaurant and enjoy mom’s cooking on Saturday.” Plus, knowing when the indulgence will occur helps you avoid temptation on other days, she says.
Lots of people skip meals ahead of a planned splurge to compensate for extra calories. “This is common but always backfires,” Upton says. “Instead, eat your meals, but about 25% less than usual, then have a high-protein snack two hours before going out to your event or dinner. The protein-rich snack will help temper your hunger and appetite.”
“Everyone has that one food that they struggle to eat mindfully,” Yawitz says. “I can eat an entire large bag of popcorn if I’m not careful! I keep single-serving bags of popcorn in my pantry for when I’m craving it. You can’t keep eating a food when you’ve run out of it, and this helps me enjoy one of my favorite snacks regularly without overeating it.”
“This is one of the number 1 things I tell clients of mine: Track everything you are eating,” Walsh says. “It doesn’t always need to be a permanent practice, but it’s more for educational purposes so that you can see just how many calories are in that slice of pizza or piece of cake or that entire burger.”
Knowing the calorie count isn’t meant to discourage you from eating foods you love, though. Instead, it helps keep things in perspective. “Tracking helps put a numerical value to the portion of the food, and often times we realize we don’t really need an entire 800-calorie burger,” Walsh notes. “Half of it would satisfy us just fine!”