Many nutrition professionals agree that occasionally eating foods you might otherwise avoid won’t harm your fitness goals, and can even be beneficial. “They help prevent an all-or-nothing attitude toward diet that too often backfires, and help maintain mental balance,” says Stephanie Mandel, a holistic nutrition consultant at The Morrison Center in New York City.
However, there’s an art to the healthy indulgence. Here, five guidelines to follow.
1. Make it an experience.
One of the biggest regrets about giving into cravings isn’t overdoing it but rather, rushing it, says Krista Scott-Dixon, Ph.D., Toronto, Canada-based director of curriculum at Precision Nutrition. You might eat a few candies quickly and then realize you didn’t enjoy doing so. The next time you indulge, eat slowly, focus on flavor and texture, and notice what’s going on in your body (how do you feel?) and around you (who’s with you?). “Sharing a meal or a decadent dish with someone you love can make it a meaningful, fulfilling experience, even if that person is yourself,” says Mandel. “Just make it a conscious decision to relish the event.”
2. Find your “why.”
Maybe you’re celebrating a birthday or maybe you’re tired and stressed. “It’s okay to pick less-healthy options every now and then, as long as you’re mindful of your patterns. There could be something deeper going on that needs to be addressed,” says Mandel.
If you feel like you need a fix all of the time, the leash might be too tight on the rest of your life, notes Scott-Dixon. “Maybe there are feelings that you’re ignoring, but you’re generally being too constricted and rigid elsewhere.” Otherwise, it’s possible you need to make an appointment with your doctor. Chronic cravings for things like sugar or salt can indicate underlying nutrient deficiencies or digestive issues, says Mandel.
Consider Scott-Dixon’s point: “A good indulgence amplifies positive feelings whereas the bad ones make you check out temporarily, leading to negative emotions.”
3. Feed your true desire.
“Indulging in something your body actually wants and derives satisfaction from makes it easier to make healthy, life-affirming choices most of the time,” Mandel notes. What's more, it's often the case that you don't need very much of it. Sometimes, a bite of delicious, dark chocolate satisfies you more than a protein bar trying to imitate that flavor, notes Mandel. An avocado-chocolate mousse or chia seed pudding sweetened with stevia or monk fruit can be nutritious indulgences too, says Mandel. There's also a case for just eating the pizza or full-fat ice cream.
4. Check in post-indulgence.
Take the time to do a full-body scan after consuming a treat. Analyze your energy levels, how your stomach feels, where you are at mentally and emotionally, and pay attention to how well you sleep that night. You’ll know that it was a smart choice if you're satisfied (what you had was good and enough) and content, says Scott-Dixon.