Indulgence: Friend or Foe for Weight Loss?
Tuesday, August 18, 2015
LifeTime WeightLoss in Anika Christ, Lifestyle, Mindset, cheat meals, food journals, food tracking, indulgence, junk food, treats, weight loss advice


Do you allow room for indulgence in your weight loss program, or do you say no in fear it will sabotage your results?

“Treating” ourselves tends to be a hot topic among my clients. There’s often an underlying anxiety about never being able to eat x, y, or z food ever again once they start a healthier eating regime.

One concept I always teach, however, is that behind every long-term success story, there is always a healthy lifestyle that included an indulgence now and then.

Just how do we navigate the road of “progress, not perfection” in this way? How do we give indulgence room in our eating plans without setting us back in our habit change and fat loss? Read on for strategies to help discern how indulgence can best complement our healthy way of life.


Everyday Foods vs. Indulgences

“I had pizza last night. I know it’s bad!” As nutrition coaches, we so often hear this (in all its versions) when we’re consulting with clients about their food journals. As a food lover myself, I’ve never been a fan of labeling foods as “good” or “bad,” since it can associate emotional negativity with eating. I worry it can also promote impossible expectations - the idea of needing to eat “perfectly” to be successful in weight loss or healthy living. Instead,

I like to take the approach of identifying “everyday” foods as well as “indulgences” with the understanding that both are important and can fit into a successful journey.

Think of everyday foods as your whole foods, including fresh or frozen fruit, non-starchy vegetables, high quality meats and cheeses, nuts, seeds, healthy oils and your true whole grains. We should all be striving to increase our consumption of these foods each day because they provide optimum nutrition and support our basic health.

Indulgences are typically more of your processed foods that are generally higher in carbohydrates (although homemade versions can be healthier). They generally have sugar, fat and/or salt added to them to enhance their flavor profile. The most common indulgence foods I come across with my clients are pizza, pasta, ice cream and cookies.

Identifying foods this way puts clarity around what foods promote health and which do not, but it also gives the client an opportunity to consume something and not instantly feel guilty. It’s important to own each choice for what it is and to know we need to balance out these selections by consuming more everyday foods at our next meal.

The Psychology of Indulgence

Every client differs in terms of how often we can include indulgent foods in his/her routine. I’ve known some clients to have very unhealthy behaviors with specific foods (e.g. chocolate cake) Even if they had the smallest portion possible, consuming it spirals them off their healthy paths and submerges them in guilt.

I always suggest spending time exploring if you have any emotional connections with certain foods. Those foods might be best to avoid, particularly in the beginning of your journey until you feel more confident.

It’s also important not to use indulgent foods as a “reward” for eating healthily. This might be a change in mindset for most people, but - again - it’s better to own the reality that you consumed an indulgent food and that it has an assigned place in your healthy lifestyle than to justify its consumption because you ate healthily all week long.

It’s not about earning a “privilege” but living a balanced life that fosters good health and food experience. If indulgent choices still elicit guilt, you might also ask yourself if your eating plan is too restrictive.  

How to Incorporate Indulgences

Limit the indulgence to a meal or part of a meal.

 This way your day still includes ample nutrition throughout versus a “cheat day” filled with indulgent foods and nil on nutrients. You’ll be more likely to follow up the next day with a full routine of everyday foods versus feeling like you fell off your program.

Plan for it.

 A lot of my families plan for pizza or pasta nights each week. It’s something for them to look forward to, but - because it’s planned - does away with the guilt or “cheating” feeling.

There’s another significant reason I favor this approach. When you plan for an indulgence, it allows you to more thoughtfully select and prepare the foods that you are going to enjoy. For example, many of my clients end up making their own pizzas at home and, as a result, can choose the crust and toppings (e.g. gluten-free crust or nitrate-free meats).

They end up feeling even more satisfied because they’ve gone through the process of “providing for themselves.” Not to mention, their versions usually taste better! Maybe you plan on making cookies from scratch versus buying processed versions at the store. Either way, you’ll likely appreciate making better choices and will enjoy the flavor more.

Know what a true craving is.

In the beginning of a journey, this can be hard to identify. Especially if you’re eating a diet filled with processed foods, many times those cravings stem from the foods you're already eating rather than from what you’d like to enjoy.

If you’ve been thinking about pasta, don’t tell yourself to stop thinking about it (you’ll continue to anyway). Instead, own the craving and plan to allow yourself that pasta the following day after you plan for it. You might actually find yourself not wanting it the next day anyway, but this will allow you to think and plan versus giving into the craving right away and feeling guilty.

Use the 80% rule.

I always tell my clients that if they can practice good nutrition and other healthy habits 80% of the time, they will succeed. I live by and coach by the rules that you need to enjoy what you are eating. Otherwise, you won’t stick to the plan over time.

Eating a perfect diet filled with healthy foods that you don’t enjoy eating will never be a plan for long-term success. Take the time to learn or to be coached on filling your day with everyday foods that suit your palate (expanding your healthy cooking repertoire in the process). Make room for the most gratifying indulgences.  

Choose your splurges.

Although planning can be helpful, sometimes you’ll be faced with indulgent foods in the moment (e.g. at a family get together, evening with friends, etc.)  If you identify your foods clearly (everyday versus indulgent), you can quickly determine where the splurge could be most satisfying. When coaching couples, they often talk about this decision at dinner. For example, they’ll choose either dessert or an adult beverage – not both.

Make it truly worth it.

I’m a true foodie. That means when I indulge, I make sure it’s completely worth it. For example, if ice cream sounds like a good idea, you won’t find me in the grocery store purchasing a diet or a low sugar brand. I’m going for the gelato. In that case, however, I choose a brand that has a short, real food ingredient list and that I know will taste great and satisfy me.

I use the same example with pizza or other foods. Don’t buy the marketed “healthier” versions of these. They are often filled with chemicals and won’t genuinely gratify your taste buds. Go for the good stuff that will truly satisfy, and allow yourself to relish each bite.

Would you like more information or support around a healthy role for indulgences in your diet? Talk with one of our registered dietitians or weight loss coaches today. Thanks for reading, everyone.

Written by Anika Christ, Senior Program Manager of Life Time Weight Loss

This article is not intended for the treatment or prevention of disease, nor as a substitute for medical treatment, nor as an alternative to medical advice. Use of recommendations in this and other articles is at the choice and risk of the reader.


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