Once upon a time I assumed I suffered from some kind of sugar addiction. As a result, I wouldn’t allow myself to eat sugar at all for long stretches of time, and would then rebound with massive sugar binges.
But these days I eat dessert twice a week, religiously, as part of my plan for a healthy life. And I rarely, rarely binge at all anymore. Doesn’t that sound great? It is! And I’ll tell you why.
Total Restriction Is Never the Answer
Back in the day when I was trying to straighten out my eating but not having much success, I came across an idea called intuitive eating. It didn’t end up working out for me personally (read more about that here), but I am extremely grateful for the months I spent trying it out because I learned some valuable things that are integral parts of my current take on food and eating.
One of those truths intuitive eating taught me is this: if you deprive yourself of something completely, you will eventually binge. Period. I’d read that and heard that many times before, but I didn’t really believe it. Until I took an honest look at my own eating, that is, and found it was 100% the case for me.
The Golden Grahams That Changed My Life
While I was working with intuitive eating, I met monthly with a fantastic nutritionist named Julie. At our first meeting, in early 2013, she left me with a challenge to complete and report on the next time we met: buy a box of Golden Grahams—something I’d mentioned as one of my favorite foods that I wasn’t currently allowing myself to eat—and eat some.
In retrospect it’s kind of embarrassing that that was so scary. But it was! So on my way home I bought a box, then eyed the bright-yellow cardboard nervously for the remainder of the drive and a few hours after bringing it inside and setting it on my counter. At that time I assumed that my brain or metabolism or both were somehow broken, and that my body “couldn’t handle sugar.” I thought I was addicted and that if I took one bite of the stuff I was done for—and, as a result, for years told myself I wasn’t allowed to eat sugary things but in fact did overeat sugar on a regular basis, feeling bad and guilty and like I was breaking a rule every time. The idea of buying something sugary, bringing it home, and eating it without feeling bad about it was totally foreign and frightening. But that bowl of graham cereal goodness was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. It’s ironic that I didn’t believe that deprivation was the cause of my binges, because once I took that leap of faith and stopped depriving myself of sugary foods, the binges slowly but surely began to become less and less frequent.
Those Golden Grahams marked a huge shift for me: I decided that keeping sugar in my life on a regular basis was going to be a key element in my return to normalcy when it came to food.
But how often was eating sugary food a good idea for me? Could I handle having candy and ice cream on hand in my home at all times, or should I avoid keeping tempting treats around the house? Was a small dessert every day ideal, or should I have something sweet weekly or every few days instead? And what exactly counted as “sugar”?
This was a long trial-and-error process for me, and I’d imagine that different strategies work well for different people. But here’s the approach I’ve settled on.
What I Do with Desserts Now
I eat dessert two times a week, always. For me, eating sugar regularly is key in preventing binges because it keeps me from feeling physically or emotionally deprived. Most of the time I use Splurge #1 on Monday evening, when my husband and kids and I typically have a little “family night” together where we do something fun and then enjoy a treat, which is often something the kids and I baked that afternoon. Splurge #2 is almost always saved for one of the weekend nights, so that if Mark and I go on a date, or if we have a party or wedding reception to go to, I can join in with everyone else and indulge there.
But I’m flexible: suppose one of my kids’ birthdays falls on a Wednesday, or I’m just really, really craving brownies on a Thursday. I allow myself to put that Splurge wherever I’m going to enjoy it most, but I am cautious to try to keep them spaced out so that they fall every 3–4 days if possible. That way, if I find myself faced with a bag of Twizzlers or some day-old doughnuts or something that sounds appealing in the moment but that I know is actually pretty mediocre, I can remind myself, “Hey, remember how you and the girls were going to make red velvet bars on Friday? Hold out for that!” And in that instance, I feel like I’m not really saying NO to sugary treats, but instead saying LATER. That may sound like a silly mental shift, but for me it’s been a complete game changer.
Should You Keep Sugar in Your Kitchen?
I’ll also be honest and add that I still don’t typically keep a lot of sugary food around the house. Maybe I’ll get to the point where that’s not stressful someday, and maybe not. For now, my family makes going out to buy a treat or taking time to bake something a special occasion. If we’re buying, we buy just enough for all of us to have a normal serving. Sure, 4 individual ice cream cones costs more than a single tub of ice cream to keep at home, but to quote Confessions of a Shopaholic, cost and worth are very different things.
The same is true when I bake: as often as possible we bake a batch of whatever, set aside a plate that has enough for all of us to eat just a few, and then take a plate or two to family or neighbors instead of keeping the leftovers around. It’s a great way to spread a little love while not making baking cookies a days-long cause of stress and willpower battles that last until the last cookie gets eaten.
Figure out what works for YOU. Maybe feeling like you can be around any food and still maintain control is a big part of your own definition of “recovery.” If so, more power to you! But if you’re like me, not having treats quite as accessible is a good defensive move in keeping my eating in check.
A Word on Splurges
Now the last key to why my 2x-a-week Splurge plan is so effective: I make these Splurges GOOD. Note the capital S in Splurge: no waxy Twizzlers, day-old doughnuts, or grocery-store-bakery brownies for me! I think of the most fantastic thing I can think of and then let myself have a reasonable portion of that thing. Sometimes it’s a big ol’ sugar cookie from my favorite bakery. Sometimes it’s a shared slice of Reese’s cheesecake from The Cheesecake Factory. Sometimes it’s homemade chocolate-covered cinnamon bear cookies. And fairly often it’s cake batter ice cream from Cold Stone with cookie dough AND brownies AND rainbow sprinkles mixed in because I’m pretty much a 5-year-old trapped in a twenty something’s body.
Get the picture? Don’t make your splurges massive in quantity, but make them amazing in quality.
I choose exactly what I’m craving most because that way I’m ensuring that I never go too long without satisfying the mental/emotional desire to eat something fabulous purely for fun. And the best part is, that because I am conscientious about making sure to eat fairly healthy meals and snacks throughout the rest of my eating, I can get away with doing this twice a week and not just maintain my weight but even lose a little. Yes, you read that right! While the number on the scale isn’t the most important thing, I was tickled to see that about five pounds dropped pretty effortlessly in the months before I became pregnant when I began doing my 2 Splurges a week regularly. I also believe my dessert-eating is a key part of why my weight gain has been at such a healthy rate this pregnancy (12 pounds up at 21 weeks in, which I’m thrilled with).
Treat Yo Self!
So there you have it. I’m giving you the challenge my nutritionist gave me: go eat some dessert, and then keep doing it on a regular basis. Restriction and deprivation will get you nowhere. Ask yourself honestly: is restricting working for you now? I don’t think there are many one-size-fits-all principles of health, but this is one of the few. Start eating the foods you are depriving yourself of now, in reasonable quantities but at regular intervals, and you’ll be amazed at what begins to happen over time.