The other day I was baking cookies with my son – yummy, gooey, delicious chocolate chip cookies. These cookies were quickly swiped off the plate and eaten before they even had a chance to cool. Now cookies are always popular at home, but these went faster than anything I have baked before, with various members of my family reaching out for cookie after cookie, over and over again.
So, what was my secret ingredient? A simple substitute: I used a banana instead of an egg, keeping all the rest of the ingredients the same. The swap was only made because my son is allergic to eggs but loves cookies. Little did I know that simple swap completely changed the way my family saw those cookies. One person even looked at me and said, “I keep eating them because they are so healthy.”
What? My chocolate chip cookies healthy? Not a chance! There was a cup of butter and multiple cups of sugar used in the recipe. It was barely held together by the precariously placed banana.
As a fitness coach, I get this a lot: people sending me recipes of “vegan” desserts and “healthier” cookie options, telling me that they actually taste like “the real thing.” Some of these recipes contain whey protein powder, others unprocessed forms of sugar or stevia. More often than not, these substitutes don’t taste as good as the real thing, leaving you strangely unsatisfied and reaching out for more (which often defeats the calorie/nutrition benefit these fake desserts offered in the first place). I have categorically refused to bake any of my friend’s recipes because I’m a firm believer in teaching my son how to enjoy his treats in moderation.
This notion of being deprived of a delicious treat got me thinking about how when we avoid the foods we want, we often end up dissatisfied. That dissatisfaction can cause the pendulum to swing hard in compensating for the disappointment and eating more as a result. I actively go against this behaviour and only seek out the treats I love. That strategy works for me because I rarely crave sweet foods. However, when I want chocolate, don’t give me a rubbish cacao powder, low-sugar, cardboard-flavoured substitute. Only the real deal will do. If I was to swap my treat for something I only half-heartedly want, I’ll end up rummaging through the fridge, scarfing up bits of food to scrabble together a little bit of pleasure that I missed out on.
Now I am aware that this may not be the reality for everyone. There are people out there who legitimately suffer from food addiction and binge eating disorders; for those people, for whom a tiny taste of a treat may set off a binge. Working towards this level of moderation and acceptance of “treat” foods is a long process, and till they get there, abstinence may be an option. And yes, if you are working towards very specific goals, it may be useful to reduce sugar or calorie intake by mixing healthier food ingredients into your favourite treats.
These caveats aside, enjoying our treats in moderation is possible – even when on a diet. The problem with dieting culture is that we believe we must endure “all or nothing”, thereby adopting a constant deprivation mindset. We have created negative turns of phrases like “cheat days” and “break my diet” or calling “unhealthy” foods “sins” to morally direct us towards a healthier way of eating. We begin to believe that not adhering to this way of thinking means that we aren’t serious about our goals or are destined to fail.
I don’t think this is true. We really should be teaching people to aspire toward mindfulness and moderation. Some people feel they need absolute rules of “yes” versus “no” to guide their decision-making around foods, but I think we need to get used to “maybe” and “sometimes” as well – all in relation to the context and quantity of what we eat. Relying on “all or nothing” and absolutes when it comes to our food can create a negative relationship with our bodies and food – which should never be the side effect of trying to lose weight.
Now that Diwali is hovering around the corner, so close that we can almost smell the delicious treats, I want to guide you towards a peaceful feeling of permission through moderation and less fear of food. Festivals are a time of celebration, and food is an intrinsic part of it; you obviously don’t want to be eating salad while the rest of your family is enjoying a festive meal, followed by plenty of sweets. However, as always, control is key.
The goal of healthy eating should be to eat food that nourishes us 80-90% of the time, with 10-20% wiggle room for foods that bring us joy. We can still manage that equation with Diwali around the corner, with our favourite, delicious snacks showing up at our door.
Identify your trigger foods
One of the exercises I love the most is a “Trigger Food Triage” with my clients. It’s a quick and easy food sorting system that is based on the traffic light system of green (go), yellow (caution), and red (stop). Foods that fall under the red category can be anything. For some people, it’s chips; for others, it’s cookies. It could also be something relatively healthy but high in calories and fat, like peanut butter or cheese. If it has a hold on you, and you find yourself helpless in its presence, label the food as “red.” Next, the yellow foods. These are interesting ones because they are caution foods. They are foods you enjoy, but if you’re in a particular situation, they may become red foods or won’t entice you at all. An example of this specific type of food is when you say, “I don’t even know why I’m eating it. But it’s here, and I’m hungry.” And finally, green foods. These foods are healthy for you, giving you nutrients, energy, and satisfaction, and you don’t feel powerless. Items such as fresh fruit and vegetables can fall into this category.
Keep red foods out
If you’re powerless in the face of a particular food, having them in your home isn’t wise. This includes any Diwali sweets or treats that is triggering. My suggestion would be to eat one or two and give away the rest as soon as the festival is over. And yes, this sometimes means navigating difficult conversations with loved ones who don’t identify the same food as “red trigger foods” and still want them in their pantry.
Keep yellow foods to minimum
So much about the enjoyment of craving is the anticipation, not always the reward. When you have a scarcity of your favourite food, you’re more inclined to slow down and enjoy the experience of eating them rather than gulping it down without tasting it.
Try out the 3 - bite Strategy
If you’re presented with a treat at someone’s house, another strategy you can employ is my “3-bite” strategy. Only allowing yourself three bites of something you love means that you will naturally slow down and enjoy the flavours, textures, tastes and smells of your favourite food. By employing all of your senses when eating, you’re truly practising mindfulness and will be more satisfied with the goods you eat.
Embrace the power of words
Finally, if negative phrases impact our view on dieting, imagine what positive thinking can do. I often coach my clients to change their narratives around dieting. For example, instead of saying, “I can’t have that,” practice saying, “I can have that, but not right now. I’m not hungry,” or, “I would like to eat that, but I will save some for tea time.” Giving yourself permission to enjoy the foods you like, but under the ideal conditions where you can truly enjoy them, will do wonders for your relationship with food.
Jen Thomas is a Chennai-based weight-loss coach.