Losing weight can be one of the toughest things you’ll do — and that’s even before you clear out your pantry of cake and brownie mix. For starters, a quick Google search will return a casual 24 million hits to wade through. And when it comes to food choices, one person’s superfood may be another’s dangerfood. You’ll hear some sources maintain you can’t lose weight without dropping your favorite dessert, but then a college professor who lost weight on ‘The Twinkie Diet’ says otherwise. Throw in a few dozen other fad diets, Instagram feeds swarming “fitspo” and countless weight loss miracle products, and it’s easy to get discouraged — fast.
The thing is, losing weight (and keeping it off), is about a multitude of choices. And no, your success probably doesn’t hinge on what is or isn’t in your dessert drawer.
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Food As Fuel
First, there’s the numbers game. The human body requires a minimum amount of energy from food (i.e. calories) just to function on a daily basis. (Think: breathing, blinking, regulating body temperature, and so on.) This is your basal metabolic rate (which you can calculate here). Any extra exercise you perform on top of that will require even more fuel.
It’s probably no shocker that weight loss occurs when you burn more energy than you consume. You can achieve this in a few different ways: reduce your calorie intake, increase your exercise frequency, or do a combination of both. The determining factor is always going to be how many calories you burn versus how many you consume.
A simple illustration goes like this: Let’s say you burn an average of 2,300 calories per day. If you wanted to lose weight, an achievable goal might be to eat 1,800 to 2,000 calories per day, ensuring you’re in a calorie deficit.
And yes, an ice cream cone can be a part of that equation. Sure, putting an emphasis on eating healthy and avoiding junk foods can go a long way. But this doesn’t mean you have to forgo all foods that bring you joy. In fact, when it comes to making your diet choices work for the long term, “people are more likely to adhere to a plan if it incorporates foods they enjoy,” says Gina Starnes, RD, MS in Human Nutrition.
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Why Cheats Aren’t Cheating
So do you have to follow a restrictive or rigid diet to see results? Not necessarily. In fact, if you try a diet that’s too hard to follow, you’re most likely to fail. One study even showed a correlation between the development of disordered eating behavior with diets that are too rigid. Instead, it’s better to focus on maintaining a caloric deficit, exercising regularly, and having foods you enjoy along the way, says Starnes.
“Allowing ourselves treats can help us stick to the plan because we don’t feel deprived,” Stames says. “Many times diets focus on what you can’t have and sets a negative tone from the beginning. Instead try focusing on what you can have and allowing occasional treats in order to make it easier to stick to the diet or meal plan.”
Keep in mind though, that the foundation of your diet should focus on whole, nutrient-dense foods. That means stocking up on fresh fruits, vegetables, dairy, lean meat and fish, tubers and whole grains, Stames says, to ensure your meal plan contains adequate amounts of protein, carbohydrates and fat to support your body’s needs.
Macronutrients, in fact, are the very crux of a diet that let’s you have your cake and eat it, too. Known as the IIFYM (if it fits your macros) diet, on this plan no foods are “off limits” and it’s still possible to lose weight if that’s your goal.
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How does this work exactly? Because you’re still aiming for a caloric deficit, any foods (think: ice cream, cake or a burger) can fit the bill — so long as they fit your predetermined macronutrient breakdown. For many IIFYM fans, that means 40 percent carbs, 40 percent protein and 20 percent fat. (Trust us, though, that last 20 percent adds up quick!)
Still, having some semblance of flexibility within your diet can make all the difference.
“Following a rigid diet can be stressful, “ Starnes says. And around the holidays, the strain can feel that much more intense. “A lot of events are centered around food and following a rigid diet doesn’t allow us to enjoy the event, the people, or the food, because we are too stressed out about following the diet,” she says. What’s worse — stress has been shown to sabotage weight loss in more ways than one. (And who wants that?)
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The Case for Dessert
Having one dessert, cheat meal, indulgence — whatever you call it — doesn’t make you a bad person. And it doesn’t mean you’ve blown your diet for the week. Losing weight and keeping it off is more about consistency than it’s about having the perfect exercise routine or weight loss diet. If you choose to have your favorite treat after dinner a few times per week, make sure it fits within whatever big-picture plan you choose. And if it doesn’t, be sure to get back on track with your meal plan the following day.
The bottom line: One bowl of ice cream won’t discount six days of eating in caloric deficit and regular exercise. So enjoy your Cookies and Cream and save room for a positive mindset, too.