Why Treats Should Be Part of Any Healthy Diet

Ruth Wolever, PhD, is a clinical health psychologist, the Director of Research at Duke Integrative Medicine, an advisor to the Duke Diet and Fitness Center, and an Associate Professor in the Department of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences at the Duke School of Medicine. Beth Reardon, MS, RD, LDN, previously the Director of Integrative and Functional Nutrition at Duke Integrative Medicine and Senior Nutrition Advisor for Caring.com, currently has a private practice in the Boston area.

WhippedCoconutCream_400There is nothing wrong with using food to show love for someone else or for ourselves. The key is to plan for and thoroughly enjoy these occasional, very special indulgences –such as a decadent date-night meal or your aunt’s amazing coconut cake–as opposed to mindlessly eating everyday, junky “treats.” From The Mindful Diet: How to Transform Your Relationship with Food for Lasting Weight Loss and Vibrant Health.

Treats—sweet or savory—can and should be an integral part of a healthy eating plan, even when you are trying to cut back. The problem, of course, is that the whole concept of a treat has lost its meaning. Junky, sugary foods are ubiquitous; there’s nothing special about them in either quality or quantity. Children, who are a pure reflection of our food culture, ask for (and often get) treats every day, and sometimes multiple times a day. Social and family-related gatherings can lead to treat overload due to excitement, anxiety, habit, or others’ expectations (think well-intentioned relatives pushing cookies on everyone who enters the house). And many of us are used to reaching for treats out of habit or to fill emotional needs. By considering our true needs and finding ways to meet them without relying on food, we can redefine our rewards.

Still, it’s worth coming back to the concept behind the word “treat”: special food for a special occasion. In our practice, we talk to clients about “whoopie-pie moments,” a term inspired by Mary, a beloved babysitter Beth had as a child. As the world’s best babysitter, Mary knew how to do all kinds of magical things, including making whoopie pies. When Mary died in her twenties from breast cancer, her whoopie-pie recipe became a symbol of love and “everything Mary” for Beth and her family. Whoopie-pie moments speak to the emotions that are deeply tied to certain foods we eat—and moments we share with people. They are occasional, very special, and thoroughly enjoyed indulgences. Your whoopie-pie moment might be eating a butterscotch sundae on your annual trip to see your best friend from childhood, because that’s what you used to eat together as teenagers. Or it might be having a decadent meal out at a French restaurant once a month with your husband, or sharing some of your favorite dark chocolate with colleagues to celebrate finishing a project at work.

The Mindful Diet: How to Transform Your Relationship with Food for Lasting Weight Loss and Vibrant Health

The Mindful Diet: How to Transform Your Relationship with Food for Lasting Weight Loss and Vibrant Health

by Ruth Wolever PhD, Beth Reardon MS, RD, LDN and Tania Hannan

  • Get The Mindful Diet: How to Transform Your Relationship with Food for Lasting Weight Loss and Vibrant Health
  • Get The Mindful Diet: How to Transform Your Relationship with Food for Lasting Weight Loss and Vibrant Health
  • Get The Mindful Diet: How to Transform Your Relationship with Food for Lasting Weight Loss and Vibrant Health
  • Get The Mindful Diet: How to Transform Your Relationship with Food for Lasting Weight Loss and Vibrant Health
  • Get The Mindful Diet: How to Transform Your Relationship with Food for Lasting Weight Loss and Vibrant Health

Allowing for joyful indulgences in your eating plan takes away the guilt of “cheating,” as well as the attendant backlash. When we impose rigid rules, we usually fail to follow them—that’s human nature. Mentally punishing ourselves for “falling off the wagon” tends to make us spiral away from guidelines altogether, even healthy ones, in an attempt to avoid further punishment
There is nothing wrong with using food to show love, for someone else or for ourselves. It’s what we do to nurture—and it is often an intensely personal way that we nourish ourselves and those we love. But it’s important that it is just one way among many to “nourish” and that we do it consciously, making sure the food is worthy of the attention—and that it’s part of an overall diet that supports our health and well-being.

Exercise: Creating Whoopie-Pie Moments

Mindful awareness and planning can help you shift your attitude and habits away from everyday “treats” and toward whoopie-pie moments.

1. Start by thinking about your current patterns with treats. How do you treat yourself? What are your favorite indulgences? Are treats a daily occurrence? Weekly? Do they feel special or routine? How much do you enjoy your treats? Is there ever guilt or self-reproach involved? Are you sometimes meeting needs that are not food-related?

2. If you are meeting emotional needs with treats, think of some ways to redefine your rewards and meet your true needs.

3. To shift your attitude and habits, think about the food or foods that are truly special for you. It might be something from your childhood, like your aunt’s amazing coconut cake, or it might be an adult discovery, like decadent French cheese or dark chocolate with sea salt.

4. Now think about the situations that are truly special and worthy of a food-related indulgence. Occasional dinner dates with your spouse? Visits with old friends? Celebrations for reaching personal goals? How often will these events occur? There’s no wrong answer—it might be every few days, once a week, once a month, or a few times a year.

5. Not every whoopie-pie moment is planned, of course. Healthy eating does allow for spontaneity. Here are some questions to ask yourself in the moment when contemplating a treat:
• What do I really need in this moment?
• Is this food worthy of me?
• Does eating this right now support my intention, my values?
• How much of this do I need to be satisfied? (It might be less than you think.) What is “just enough”?

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