What is the best way to approach snacks and treats?
The fitness and nutrition industry is full of extremes. One moment, it says breakfast is the most important meal. The next, it says fasting and skipping breakfast will turbocharge you into a fountain of youth.
The true answer usually lies somewhere in the middle. Processed foods, junk food, or treats are a similarly polarizing topic. They have so many terms to them that I will use interchangeably, but we all know what they are. They’re the super fun high calorie foods that everybody loves. You know, foods like donuts, ice cream, acai bowls, nachos, pizza, onion rings, cheesecake, and lasagna. The list goes on.
These fun foods can have some nutritional value, but they are often highly caloric for a small volume. They also taste so good that they stimulate further consumption. It’s easy to stop eating after one apple. It’s much harder to stop after eating one cookie.
And because these foods are so relevant in our culture, everyone has an opinion on how to handle them. And as usual, the extreme voices reign the loudest.
You’ll have people who say that you don’t need any restraint and that you can include these foods into your diet all the time as long as you make it work. And if you can’t, well who cares, body image, food relationship, keep being flexible, blah, blah, blah.
Conversely, you’ll also have people who say these foods are demons that ruin your health, give you cancer, and must never touch your lips or else you’re a despicable person. Only losers eat chips right?
You’ve probably heard both extremes above. Let’s find a more appropriate middle ground to things while applying context to the many different types of people that may be reading.
What Flexible Dieters Got Right
Flexible dieting has many definitions and variations. Generally, flexible dieters track their calories and macros, ensuring they stay within their macros limits. As long as these targets are met for protein, carbs, and fat, they can eat whatever they want.
The beauty of flexible dieting is that it helps you understand energy balance which is basically the law of thermodynamics that dictate human’s long term weight loss/gain. If you eat more energy aka calories than you can burn off over time and you’ll gain weight. This is called an energy surplus.
Contrarily, if you eat less energy aka calories than you burn off over time and you’ll lose weight. This is called an energy deficit.
Tracking holds you accountable to the energy balance you set whether your intentions are to gain, maintain, or lose. It doesn’t restrict your food choices which is huge breath of fresh air, especially if you’ve yo-yo dieted on needlessly restrictive diets. In fact, if you look at the terrain of common diets out there, the restriction makes you feel like dieting jail.
- Vegan: No animal products which means no meat, fish, eggs, dairy, honey, etc.
- Keto: Practically, there’s no starch or fruit sources which means you can’t eat grains, potatoes, rice, pasta, bread, flour, sweeteners, any traditionally made dessert, and most fruits.
- Paleo: No dairy, grains, bread, legumes, sugary sweetener, zero calorie sweetener, processed foods, protein powders, etc.
- Carnivore: No plants, fruits, vegetables, grains, or anything that’s not meat
Somehow, the American public was like, “Let’s make the dumbest, most arbitrary rules we can come up with to create diets. Then let’s popularize those diets to turn eating from a pleasurable experience to a miserable one.”
It sounds absurd, but that’s basically what we’ve done and guess what? The vast majority has bought into all these diets. It seems the more extreme the diet is, the more novelty it presents which causes people to chase them.
So flexible dieting literally smashes all of these rules. Want fatty meat? Make it fit your macros.
Want carbs? Make it fit your macros.
Want chips? Make it fit your macros.
It’s great, but even flexible dieting has it’s pitfalls.
What Flexible Dieters Got Wrong
There’s an inherent level of flexibility with flexible dieting which is great, but in some cases, a degree of freedom that is mishandled. You technically can eat whatever you want, but not everyone can and should.
Some flexible dieters don’t seem to grasp this concept as they’re obsessed with eating their daily pop tart or having a few squares of chocolate from time to time. That’s because these people are usually moderators instead of abstainers.
Moderators are people who can eat high calorie, high rewarding foods in moderation. They’re able to fit it into their macros and stop at appropriate points. Abstainers on the other hand can’t. They have trigger foods where certain treats will inevitably cause them to overeat despite them being aware of their macro limits.
Like if you gave me a dozen of assorted Krispy Kreme Donuts and put on a good show for me, that dozen would be gone within the opening intro. Repeat the same scenario with 2 dozens and I’d smash that too. You might be the same way. It doesn’t mean you’re broken or not good enough to have complete food flexibility.
It simply means you’re wired differently. In fact, the deck is often stacked against you. What do I mean? Well, think about food processing. We live in a time, where we can engineer food every which way. Many food and restaurant companies do rigorous testing to create not just good food, but irresistible foods. Foods that are so good, every bite makes you want more.
So despite how often you hear that you can just cut portions and have whatever you want, it doesn’t always play out that way in a world of mind blowing foods that our ancestors didn’t have. These should be labeled trigger foods and they can be different for everyone who has trigger foods.
Finding a Balance
When you’re dieting, especially if your calories are low, you simply can’t have anything and everything. Furthermore, life stress and personal responsibilities make it difficult to simply have whatever all the time. Your food menu is not an endless streaming service like Netflix.
Unless you have a personal chef, you have to plan ahead, pick your battles, and repeat certain meals.
This doesn’t mean flexible dieting is bad. It simply means many people out there don’t understand the true essence of it.
Flexible dieting is successful not because you do eat whatever, but because you can eat whatever. The option is there. It nurtures a mindset of being able to swap things out and allows you to be in the driver seat. Thus, your mind should be flexible. If you mess up, you should be flexible. If your circumstances change, you should be flexible.
But despite all this flexibility, you should also have structure, meal planning, and for abstainers, you also need a clear game plan on how to avoid certain foods. The key point is that when you abstain, you’re choosing to abstain to be wise about your goals. You’re not forced to abstain. That’s how you set up clear structure while still having a flexible mindset.
How to Avoid Treats
So once you get real with how to make your diet practical. You’ll realize, it’s in your best interest to eat mostly whole nutritious foods and repeat the same meals often. Furthermore, there’s not always enough practicality to fit certain treats in.
To identify these treats, you need to ask yourself, can I fit this in daily, weekly, or within the week in portions that allow me to maintain my diet? If the answer is yes, figure out which frequency works best for you, so you don’t feel deprived, but also don’t overconsume.
However, if the answer is not, that’s a trigger food. Continually attempting to fit in trigger foods will make you run in circles and never see the scale drop.
So the first step is to maintain your flexible mindset. Understand that this trigger food is only gone for a little bit while you diet. It’s not gone forever. It will exist till the end of time.
Next is to setup your environment. If it’s a trigger food, it has no business being in your house. Having trigger foods in your pantry is like saying I have no intentions of getting back with my ex, but I’ll invite them over tonight.
Once your environment is rid of the trigger food, you’ll need to buy foods that you do intend to eat. Research finds that when cafeterias cut back on vending machines and have more stations for healthier options, workers naturally eat healthier and cut back on processed food purchases without even knowing about the experiment.
Your environment is everything. This brings me to my next point.
Avoiding Triggers at Social Events
Unfortunately, you’re not home 24/7. You enjoy going out as every human does. However, outside environments can quickly sabotage your diet. Many social events have lots of free tasty food. Your flesh wants to take advantage, but your spirit is intending not to.
Here’s how to outsmart the environment and stick to your goals.
- Come well satiated. If you are fuller, cravings are less noticeable.
- Bring your own dish if you can. Bring a lower calorie dessert too if you can.
- Avoid looking at any trigger foods and don’t hang around them. People who hang by the snack table, snack all night. Don’t be that person.
- Have someone hold you accountable. This could be a spouse or a friend at the party.
If you get hungry or bored, bring zero calorie sparkling water and gum to munch on. It’ll keep your mind and tastebuds occupied, so it does wander towards that bowl of chips. Better yet, socialize and play games. Find enjoyment with people as opposed to food. If you have to eat to have fun, is the party even worth attending anyways?
How to Reintroduce Trigger Foods
Remember, trigger foods may trigger you now, but they may not do that forever. That’s some light at the end of the tunnel. To understand how to reintroduce such rewarding foods, it’s important to understand the model of why we’re abstaining in the first place.
You’re ultimately choosing to abstain because the food is not worth it’s cost of calories and the fact that your self control won’t hold up to your intended portions.
However as you starve away certain foods, you crave them less. You will even start enjoying more nutritious foods more than before. The brain’s reward response is being rewired.
Once you’ve gone long enough without a certain treat and have finished dieting, you can reintroduce your previously triggering food. It’s also best to reintroduce it when you’re full. Being hungry increases your reward response which we don’t want to reintroduce to your brain to associate with that food.
So the world of nutrition is not as simple as this food is good and this food is bad. It’s also not as simple as all foods are good, so eat whatever. There is lots of individualizing to be done when it comes to specific food choices, proximity, location, and the brain’s response to certain flavors.
Ultimately, it comes down to, will I be able to succeed in my diet with this food and will this food not make me feel deprived? If so, then include that food.
But if that food is more like a, “If this exist in my life, I will fail continuously and never lose weight,” it’s probably best to abstain from it for a while.