This week I had a session with my client, Mark. It was Mark’s birthday last week, and when I asked him how he handled birthday treats, he proudly told me that on his birthday he didn’t eat anything “bad” or “wrong,” and he hadn’t had any “transgressions” because he didn’t eat any of the cupcakes that someone had brought in to work that day.  He told me that he had been thinking about having a cupcake ever since, but so far he was able to hold out.

In hearing this, there were a few things that immediately concerned me.  First, when I asked Mark about eating dessert on his birthday, I called it a treat.  Mark, on the other hand, called treats “bad” and “wrong,” and noted that eating one would be a “transgression.”  It was clear to me that Mark had fallen into some all-or-nothing thinking about dessert and had started to view having any treat as a slip-up.  This type of thinking can be extremely problematic for dieters in the long run because at some point they’re going to give in and have dessert, and if they have the thought, “I shouldn’t ever be eating this,” then they’re going to go way overboard because they’ll also be thinking, “I don’t know when I’ll allow myself to eat dessert again, so I might as well load up on it now.”  And thus they enter into a pattern of deprivation and over-indulging. 

We work with our clients to teach them to be moderate about dessert and incorporate treats into their diets in a one portion, one time per day way.  When a dieter has finished eating his ice cream bar and wants another one, he’s able to say to himself, “I don’t need to have a second one now because I know I can have another one tomorrow, and the day after that, and the day after that.”  Therefore, the dieter doesn’t have that sense of urgency to load up where and when he can.

Another advantage of eating one dessert per day is that it allows dieters to eat it without guilt because they know it’s part of their overall healthy eating plan. Dieters are able to sit down and enjoy the treat that they’re having, instead of trying to get it down quickly without really noticing it, as dieters tend to do when they’re eating something they consider to be a bad food.  In this way, even though dieters are having less dessert, they often end up feeling more satisfied because they have truly noticed and enjoyed every bite of what they eat.  The point is, if dieters like dessert, then they’re eventually going to eat dessert, and if they don’t know how to handle it, they’ll go overboard and gain weight.  Incorporating treats into their diets in a moderate way allows dieters to not be all-or-nothing about them, to really get enjoyment from them, and to still lose weight.

In session with Mark, I reminded him that eating dessert was an important part of rest-of-your-life eating, and that cutting out all desserts in the past (which he had tried to do many times) has never helped him to lose weight and keep it off.  Mark and I discussed the fact that the longer he waits to have a cupcake, the more and more it will feel like he was committing a transgression by having one, and therefore the more likely he’ll be to say to himself, “Since I’m finally allowing myself to have one, I might as well go all out and have as many as I want, since I won’t have them again any time soon.”  Mark decided that he would stop by a bakery on the way home and buy a cupcake and eat it that night – and he would eat it guilt-free and enjoy every bite of it. And if he was tempted to get more, Mark would remind himself:

I just ate one cupcake and I really enjoyed it. If I eat a second, I won’t enjoy it as much anyway because I’ll feel guilty about eating it.  Besides, I don’t need to eat another cupcake now because I can have another one tomorrow if I want.