Balanced eating means just that, balancing the must haves and the like to haves. And that means allowing yourself the odd treat or comfort food.

We all need a treat now and then

I have a problem with eating plans. I can’t stick to them. Even though I’m a trained dietitian and spend a lot of my time writing menus and eating plans for others, I can’t (always) do it myself. If the food plan says “‘beans”, I’ll make it “carrots”. If the plan specifies no in-between snack but I’m hungry, I can’t help it. I’ll sneak some crispbread and cheese. If I can’t have a tiny sweet something after dinner, I’m a grouch.

I reckon I could only last two days before I feel the urge for my treat foods: a wedge of homemade carrot cake, a piece of good quality dark chocolate, some rich Greek yoghurt with honey and almonds, a handful of almonds (a serious weakness), or a glass of my favourite sauvignon blanc with dinner. What’s more, I’ve found that if I can enjoy the odd treat, then I stay on track and my eating overall is much better and well-balanced.

The research to back up the theory

To back up this theory of mine, I cling to a 1996 research paper by Professor Janet Polivy, a renowned psychiatrist who specializes in treating eating disorder patients at the University of Toronto in Canada. She concludes that it’s actually important to eat your favourite dessert – without shame or guilt – if you’re a battling dieter concerned with weight loss or simply want to stay in shape.

Professor Polivy’s theory is that self-imposed dieting or semi-starvation regimes (such as those trendy de-tox plans) cause excessive eating, and even bingeing, once the restriction is lifted. Self-imposed dieting can also do psychological damage, leading to preoccupation with food and eating, increased emotional responsiveness (“you’re too sensitive”), mental unease and distractibility.

Restrict food and suffer the consequences

The classic study of food restriction was done during World War II using conscientious objectors in the US. Normal-weight men had to restrict their eating for 6 months to lose 25 per cent of their body weight so that the researchers could study the effects of starvation – and find the best ways to re-feed them – in preparation for the post-war re-feeding of prisoners and starved civilians.

What happens when you starve

The men were fed only three-quarters of their usual food, and if they stopped losing weight on this restricted intake, had their meals cut back even further until they lost the weight. The men were carefully studied over these months of starvation to see what effect this had on them. And here’s where it gets interesting.

Food obsessions…

Over the 6 months of the study, the men became increasingly focused on food, collecting recipes, talking about food all the time and even hanging up pictures of food (some replaced the pictures of their pin-ups with food!). They also grew increasingly irritable and upset, fighting with each other and their girlfriends. Worst still, they appeared apathetic and lost interest in sex.

…led to over-eating

When they were eventually allowed to eat as much as they wanted, these previously healthy eaters began to gorge themselves when attractive food was on offer. They reported feeling out of control and obsessed with food. Some even stole food or chewing gum.

Don’t set yourself up to binge

A similar tendency to overeat after food deprivation has been found in soldiers captured and held prisoner or soldiers kept on half rations during a prolonged military campaign. Chronic dieters, although not successful at losing weight over the long term, can experience similar psychological deprivation – which only sets them up for a big binge every so often.

A little bit of what you fancy …..

So the bottom line is don’t deprive yourself of all treats. Healthy, balanced eating with occasional treats is the key. The old adage – a little bit of what you fancy does you good – has some truth to it and so I’ve even come up with my own rule – the 90:10 rule.

The 90:10 rule for healthy weight loss

It goes like this:
If 90 per cent of your food is healthy and good-for-you, then 10 per cent can be a treat without throwing your whole intake out of balance. So one small chocolate won’t throw your whole diet off track, but the whole box certainly will!

You still need to plan on plenty of vegetables, salads, fresh fruit, fish, lean meat and whole grains, but one-tenth can be “fun” or not-so-nutritious.

To my way of thinking, that small treat is helping us cope with the fast-pace, on-the-go stressful lives we now lead.

How to avoid the binge/starve cycle

  • Include small amounts of regular treats – things that you like and enjoy.
  • Strive for long term balance – don’t eliminate all the foods you love or you won’t last.
  • Even if you’re trying to shed some weight, plan to have one good-quality treat a day. Sit quietly by yourself, close your eyes and concentrate on the aroma and flavour.
  • Choose treat foods which are more satisfying psychologically than “empty” treats. For example, two squares of top-quality chocolate is much more enjoyable that a whole block of cheap chocolate.
  • Buy treats in individual portions, if you can, to reduce the temptation to overindulge.
  • Grab my Diet Secrets Motivator Pack to help you bolster your willpower.

Reference: Polivy J. Psychological consequences of food restriction. J Am Diet Assoc 1996; 96:589-592.

Written by guest contributor, dietitian-nutritionist Catherine Saxelby, and reproduced here with permission from www.foodwatch.com.au.

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