If you had to jot down a list of foods that should be included in a healthy diet, chances are you'd rattle off virtuous options like grilled chicken, salmon, blueberries, brown rice, broccoli, and kale. And you'd be absolutely right. Study after study has shown that eating mostly vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and lean protein while having less than 15 g saturated fat and 1,500 mg sodium a day is the surest way to see the number on the scale drop -- and improve your overall health.
But what if we told you that cookies and bacon are sometimes allowed, too? "If you're super restrictive with your diet, you are practically guaranteeing a future rebellion," says David Katz, M.D., founding director of Yale University's Prevention Research Center and author of the new book Disease Proof. "You'll constantly feel like you're suffering, and temptation is going to become stronger than your willpower, putting you at risk for a binge."
In fact, recent research from Skidmore College has shown that people on a weight loss plan who "cheat" -- either once a week or a little every day -- still lose a significant amount of weight and body fat. For example, in one four-month study, dieters who treated themselves daily lost 12 pounds and 4 percent of their body fat. And one year later, most had maintained the loss. "Providing people with the chance to indulge assures them that it's OK to give in to temptation sometimes, which helps them stick to healthy choices most of the time," explains professor Paul Arciero, the lead study author and director of the Human Nutrition and Metabolism Laboratory at Skidmore College.
Cheat on a diet and still lose weight? It's almost too good to be true, but a measured approach means you can have your cake and eat it, too. Check out our guidelines so you can do it the right way.
1. Have a game plan. Come up with a rule about how often you can indulge. For example, allow yourself to eat fries just once a week, says Carolyn O'Neil, R.D., author of The Slim Down South Cookbook. That way you'll feel in control, and when you do have the treat, you won't feel guilty.
2. Make portion control a no-brainer. "It may be cost-effective to buy a value-size container of chips, but that makes it way too easy to keep going back for more," says David Grotto, R.D., author of The Best Things You Can Eat. "Pay a little more for the individually portioned snacks (you can usually find them in bulk at wholesale stores), and you won't be tempted to work your way through a whole bag."
3. Keep trigger foods far, far away. "Most people have at least one food that they can't stop eating," says Cheryl Forberg, R.D., author of Flavor First and the chef and nutritionist for The Biggest Loser. "Remove temptation by taking a moment and thinking about what your weaknesses are. Decide then and there to never stock those items in your house."
4. Be present in the moment. "When you do indulge in a special treat, really savor it," Forberg says. "Don't talk on the phone or read a book while you're munching; studies show that people eat more when they're distracted."
5. Be selective. "Coco Chanel famously advised that you should remove at least one accessory before leaving the house. Use that same fashion philosophy when planning a cheat meal," O'Neil says. "If you want a bacon cheeseburger, cheese fries, and a milkshake, skip one or two so you don't go overboard." For example, do the cheeseburger but have a kid-size order of fries and skip the milkshake.
6. Pick sweet or salty -- not both. "The appetite center in your brain responds independently to different flavors," Katz says. "So when you have something sweet with something salty, your brain will let you eat a lot more before you feel satisfied. If you mix the two, you'll end up devouring more of both."
7. Cut back on added sugar and sodium. "When you eat sugary and salty foods all day long, it takes a lot more sodium and sugar for your brain to register those tastes," Katz says. "But if you cut out extra sweeteners or sodium in your non-splurge foods, you won't have to eat as many chips or cookies to get to that happy place where you feel like you've treated yourself."
8. Snap back ASAP. Don't let your splurge turn into a slippery slope. "What you want to avoid is eating one unhealthy thing and then telling yourself, Oh, well, the whole day is ruined so I might as well keep bingeing and start fresh in the morning, Forberg says. Post-treat, get right back on the wagon and carry on with your normal healthy eating and exercise habits.