When Did Special Treats become the Everyday Norm?

When did it happen? When did we Americans go from an occasional piece of pizza to having multiple slices throughout the week? When did we go from the occasional soda to drinking sugary soft drinks throughout the day? When did we go from a weekly overindulgence, such as a big dinner on Saturday night, to excess food every evening?

Now, I’m not against special treats. In fact, I advise people to have a moderate portion of a favorite food every day. But not more than ONE. And they have to make sure the rest of their food intake is healthy and moderate, too.

I asked Marc, a dieter who consulted with me, what a typical day of eating was like for him. Here’s what he described: He would have some kind of sweet pastry for breakfast; packaged cheese crackers and/or chips for a mid-morning snack; a large hamburger, fries, coleslaw and soda for lunch; cookies and/or a doughnut with another soda for a mid-afternoon snack; a large entree such as lasagna, bread, salad and two beers for dinner; and candy and ice cream for a snack. He knew that he was eating too much unhealthy food. But at some level, it felt “right” to him, even though he was borderline obese and suffering from health problems. He felt entitled to eat that way. After all, it wasn’t very different from how his brother and best friend ate—though he saw that they had gained a significant amount of weight in the previous five years, too.  

Over time, I helped Marc change his attitude toward food. He began to see that his way of eating was “right” if he wanted the negative health consequences of carrying around excess weight to continue—and to likely grow worse. He began to see that his way of eating was “wrong” if he wanted to be fitter and healthier. Even as he was losing a significant amount of weight, Marc still occasionally mourned not being able to eat as he had in the past. At these times, he needed to review his list of all the reasons it was worth it to stick to a healthier way of eating. And he needed to read a response card that reminded him that the excess and unhealthy food he had been accustomed to consuming was “right”, only if he wanted to be obese. The concept of “only one favorite food a day” eventually became Marc’s new norm; he stopped grieving and was able to fully celebrate how much better he felt.

Planning to Eat More and Gain Weight

Julie was feeling disgruntled. She was tired of following her eating plan. “You know, I’m still pleased when I get on the scale every day. But now I’ve been maintaining my weight for the past year and a half. It’s not a thrill like it used to be.”

I asked Julie what was the hardest part of sticking to her maintenance diet.  “I’m just tired of what I’m eating. I want to eat more. I want to eat different things for lunch and dinner. I want to have a glass of wine when I go out with friends and dessert every night. I want to have an afternoon snack, like pretzels or crackers or chips. But I know if I do,” she said glumly, “I’ll gain weight.”

Julie and I reviewed her food intake on a typical day. It looked as if she were eating about 1600 calories per day. “What would you think,” I asked her, “about making just one change for this week, instead of all the changes you want all at once. You could plan to eat 200 extra calories each day. Today, for example, you could have a higher calorie lunch. Tomorrow you might want an afternoon snack. The day after that, you might want dessert. Or maybe you want to have dessert every night and keep everything else the same.  You could try this for a week or two, and see how it goes. If it’s going well, you can keep on doing it. If you’re still unhappy, you could add another hundred or two hundred calories.

“But I’ll gain weight, won’t I?” she asked. “Yes,” I replied. You will. But it will probably only be a few pounds. And you might decide it’s absolutely worth it. I know you were proud when you lost 47 pounds. But what’s the big deal if you gain back three or four pounds and maintain there? There’s nothing magic about the number 47. And if you can feel more satisfied at a slightly higher weight, why not go for it?”

Julie decided to go for it. Over the next few months, she gradually added more calories to her daily diet. But she didn’t slip into it. She made conscious decisions to eat more and she planned in advance how she would use the extra calories. Her weight went up by 4-5 pounds and there were a few outfits that became too tight. But she recognized that it was worth the trade-off. She was happier being able to have more variety in her diet.

Calorie Counts on Menus

Earlier this year, Philadelphia joined New York in requiring that chain restaurants print calorie counts on their menus. Even I was astounded, when I ate out a few days ago. I was fascinated by how high the calorie counts were for almost every item.

The calorie counts didn’t change what I had planned to order. They just reinforced my choices. Even before I got to the restaurant (my first time at this chain), I knew I’d most likely skip the appetizers, caloric drinks, and dessert, and have some kind of protein (with minimal sauce), a vegetable, a starch, and a piece of bread. I knew I’d have to ask for my food without added butter or oil. And I also knew that I would probably eat about 2/3 of the protein, all the vegetable, and part of the starch. That’s what I did.

I knew I could have ordered anything on the menu but I would have had to eat much smaller portions and possibly tolerate hunger and cravings later on. I WISH I could have chosen different food and eaten larger portions, but I know that this is what I have to do to maintain my weight. And it’s worth it.

If I ate out at restaurants more often, I would have to eat even smaller portions. Restaurant food is simply significantly more caloric than the food I eat at home.

Or, if I ate at restaurants more often, or consumed more when I dined out, I’d have to accept the fact that my weight would be higher. I think the latter option is fine for dieters and maintainers to choose (as long as they can maintain a healthy weight).

What is not fine is for dieters to stick their heads in the sand and pretend that restaurant meals are lower calorie than they really are. I’m continually amazed by dieters who consume a couple of very caloric dinners per week and are then surprised when they don’t lose weight. I hope that more restaurants will include calorie counts so dieters can make informed (and better) decisions.