Many of us think that starting a weight loss diet means forsaking the fattening foods we love. No sweets, no cream sauces, no chips, no wine, no fun! But this kind of weight loss plan can actually lead to more cravings, fixating on forbidden foods -- and goals abandoned long before their time. The truth, experts say, is that you can have your weight loss and eat cake, too -- as long as you "cheat" on your diet the sensible way.
Taking away a person's favorite foods can be the death knell to a diet, says David NW. Grotto, RD, LD, author of 101 Foods That Can Save Your Life. "I think splurging on a diet is mandatory, not an option," he says.
Grotto calls it "structured cheating." There's a difference between enjoying your favorite foods occasionally and eating everything you adore, he says. The key to maintaining control, he says, is deciding what you want and how much you'll have, and then to "eat it with full consciousness ... lick your lips, and then move on with your life."
Carolyn O'Neil, RD, agrees. "I think sensible splurging is really the key to being able to achieve a healthy lifestyle," says O'Neil, co-author of The Dish on Eating Healthy and Being Fabulous!
Anyone can follow a restrictive diet for a short time, says O'Neil. But sooner or later, most people will break down and overindulge on the foods they've been denying themselves. "So why not come up with a sensible diet, so your chances of success are much greater in the long run?" she asks.
When you know what you're getting into, you have more control, O'Neil says. So if you love cheesecake, memorize the calorie count of your favorite type, and then you can manage your diet splurge with portion control. O'Neil sums up her diet philosophy this way: "The more you know, the more you can eat!"
12 Healthy Ways to Cheat on Your Diet
1. Accept your "splurge foods." Your desire for them isn't going anywhere. And as we all know, when you tell people they can't do something -- like enjoy a slice of pie -- they're going to want to do it even more, cautions Grotto.
2. Eat more filling foods. Load up your diet with foods that go the distance -- those with lean protein and fiber. "Add eggs, whole grains, fruits, vegetables, broth-based soups, salads, lean meats, seafood, and low fat dairy because these foods fill you up and help tame your appetite" says American Dietetic Association spokesperson Marisa Moore, RD. For further cravings control, plan for healthy snacks so that you don't go for long periods without eating.
3. Go for flavor hits. Whatever you love, buy it in its most intense and tasty form, says O'Neil. This way, you can have less of it, yet still get the flavor you crave. For example, are you crazy about salty snacks? Splurge on gourmet sea salt or chunky kosher salt, and sprinkle it over a ripe, red tomato. "You'll have a more brilliant, bright flavor," says O'Neil, "but a better salty hit and crunch -- so you'll use less."
4. Enjoy with all your senses. When you indulge in your diet splurge, serve it on a pretty plate with a colorful garnish so you can appreciate its eye appeal. "Eat your meals and snacks slowly by taking small bites so you can enjoy the taste and have a satisfying and mindful meal experience," advises Brian Wansink, PhD, author of Mindful Eating. Being more aware of what is on your plate and eating it slowly can help you get more satisfaction from your food.
5. Have a plan. "If you happen to be a dessert lover and eat out, ask to see the dessert menu first," says O'Neil. This way, you can budget your calories for what matters most to you. Knowing where you're really headed -- toward that pecan torte, perhaps? -- will make it easier to skip the creamy clam chowder or deep-fried cheese sticks.
6. Eat only what you love. "If it's bad [for your diet], it had better be good," says O'Neil. So instead of grabbing a trio of donut holes each morning with your coffee -- and distractedly downing a doughy 300 calories -- splurge on something worth savoring, like a small, perfect wedge of creamy cheesecake.
7. Make it yourself. Can't enjoy your morning coffee without a muffin? Mix up your own batch, slipping in goodies like oats, nuts, and whole-grain flour. Love piping hot pizza? Try making it yourself, using intensely flavored toppings like goat cheese, smoked salmon, and fresh herbs. You won't even miss the pepperoni. WebMD's "Recipe Doctor," Elaine Magee, knows where to slash calories without anyone noticing: "Cheesecake is a perfect example of an easy dish to lighten, because you can use a dusting of graham cracker or cookie crumbs instead of a crust made with 6 tablespoons of melted butter; [and use] reduced-fat ingredients like light cream cheese and egg substitute and a little less sugar," she says. "Then you can heighten the flavor with lemon or lime zest for a dessert that is much lighter so you can enjoy a larger portion."
8. Get away from it all. How many times have you eaten lunch at your desk or in front of the TV, and then realized you didn't taste a bite? "Our society doesn't embrace eating and enjoying our food; we try and be productive at all times," says Grotto. That's why it's so important to savor your splurge without distractions. And if you do so away from the kitchen, it's harder to sneak in seconds.
9. Eat what you love, in small portions. You can have it all, just not all in one day. No food is off-limits as long as you keep your portions reasonable. "Every day I satisfy my sweet tooth with a couple of bites of dark chocolate that I keep in the freezer so it melts slowly and satisfies my craving without consuming too many calories," says Magee.
10. Compromise. O'Neil lives in the South, where sweet iced tea is a popular drink. Instead of doing without when she goes out, she orders unsweetened iced tea with a dash of sweet tea on top. So if you think it's not a picnic without your creamy chicken salad, enjoy it -- but cut the calories by replacing half the mayonnaise with yogurt. "Compromises are an empowering thing," says O'Neil.
11. Make small changes. Passionate about a nightly dessert? Enjoy every mouthful -- but top it off with a walk around the block afterward. Addicted to a pizza slice and a cola for your daily lunch? Relish every bite -- but enjoy them four days a week instead of five. Grotto and O'Neil agree that small steps can add up to big results, so find the changes that work best for you. "We almost have it built into us, hard-wired, the resistance to simple things," says Grotto. "That's why I think so many people fail on diets."
12. Don't let a little slip become a backslide. It is almost impossible to be an "A" student when it comes to dieting. "Everyone slips up, and that is fine as long as you don't let one slip turn into a backslide," says Wansink. Whenever you slip up, take note of it, try to learn from it so you can anticipate it in the future, and get right back into your diet plan to avoid the temptation to throw in the towel.