One of the reasons people give for abandoning a diet is that they missed their favourite foods too much to continue. The foods they miss most of all are their favourite treats – often something sweet or savoury that would be seen as unhealthy and isn’t allowed by the particular diet.
Are you afraid of eating foods you’ve come to think of as unhealthy? We’re bombarded with warnings about what we mustn’t eat. Sugar, fat and salt being the usual culprits. If you’ve struggled to keep away from your very favourite cake or cheese and crackers (or whatever) you may be on a treadmill of putting effort into losing weight then eventually abandoning the restrictions and heading for the shop that stocks your nemesis food.
All too often, the advice given about treats is to find a lower calorie version, or a similar-but-different substitute. But findings from Experimental Psychology mean this may be bad advice for many of us.
You may be surprised to learn that your very favourite treat could be the lynchpin of successfully losing weight and keeping it off. Planning to have it and really enjoying your top treat can help you stick to your eating plan for the day and give you real pleasure. The memory of the last and anticipation of the next lovely treat will keep you going between-times.
How to use your favourite treat to help you lose weight & keep it off
Understand that there are 3 sources of pleasure we get from a meal
Thinking about a pleasurable experience activates memories of previous similar experiences. This triggers release of brain chemicals that feel pleasurable
b. Multisensory enjoyment of actually eating
Focusing on the tastes and textures of food when you’re eating (mindful eating) means you experience more pleasure from each mouthful. And as Charles Spence shows in his book Gastrophysics, sounds and smells influence enjoyment too. Even the weight of what we eat off matters – heavier forks, knives, plates and glasses make the food seem better quality
c. Memory of what we’ve eaten
The fascinating work of Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman in “Thinking Fast and Slow” shows some surprising features of how we remember. The overall rating of an experience we have had depends on the “peak-end” rule. How pleasurable something was, when we recall it, depends the level of pleasure at the best moment of the experience and the level of pleasure at the end of the experience. The duration of the overall experience has no effect whatsoever on ratings of total pleasure, so eating a lot of something mediocre doesn’t register much pleasure whereas having an intensely pleasurable experience, even if only very brief, does.
And as Professor Kahneman says, “Memories are all we get to keep from our experience of living”.
Choose your favourite treat
It’s horses for courses when it comes to choosing what will create your Peak Memory effect. Allegedly ex-Prime Minister David Cameron’s thing was Bird’s Custard with double cream which I wrote about back when he was reported as trying to give it up to help him lose weight. “Don’t do it David” was my message back then to him, and it’s the same to you now. You probably aren’t that bothered about custard and double cream and may share my view that that’s a trifle with the best half missing, so discover what your own ambrosia would be.
Keep it small
My advice with a treat is to go for quality over quantity every time. That peak effect Kahneman talks about is what you’ll remember. A few mouthfuls will provide that. So if you’re idea of bliss is cheese with red wine, pick your favourite cheese and have a small piece with your favourite cracker and butter (if you love butter), or with celery or grapes if that’s what creates peak pleasure for you. “A small piece” is vague, I know. It’s for you to discover what small size of cheese will hit the spot and leave you definitely hungry by your next meal. And pour the red wine into a small glass because research shows we drink more when we drink from large glasses.
Make an occasion of this treat. Look forward to it, serve it up on a plate – perhaps your best plate, or one bought specially for the purpose. If you like vintage styles you can find beautiful side plates in second hand shops for next to nothing. If it’s cake, buy yourself a cake fork. Anything to enhance the mini-occasion.
Decide when to have it
Think about when you have the greatest urge for a treat over the course of a typical day. Most people I’ve worked with say it’s the evening, but for some it’s during the afternoon. Adjust the timing of the treat to be long enough after your last meal for you to be hungry. Play around with the timing if you need to until you discover the timing that works best for you. And then fix that treat time as part of your regular eating routine. If there’s an evening when you don’t fancy it, that’s fine.
And, this next point is important, when you know what time you’re going to be having your fabulous treat, if you have an urge for a treat earlier on in the day or evening, think to yourself, “I’ll wait until treat-o’clock and then have my fabulous treat” and distract yourself with something else (anything will do) while that immediate urge passes.
This way you can put an end to grazing through your cupboards, your taste buds desensitised by eating, with nothing quite hitting the spot. Replace it with one small knock-the-spots-off-you dish that you look forward to and enjoy every morsel.
Alter your previous meal so that you are definitely hungry at treat time
If you find that you aren’t that hungry by the treat time that best suits you (or for that matter too hungry by then), tweak the size or content of your previous meal.
Your first step
If you’ve been round the block trying and failing to lose weight eating “healthy” foods only, you could try re-introducing your favourite snack as an experiment using the guidelines above, to see whether it hinders or helps. When you really allow yourself to have what you love, some days you simply may not want it.
Choose what you’re going to have carefully, based on what you think you will most enjoy for your treat. If you know you’ll struggle to keep it small when you’re ready to eat, just to start with buying one portion a day for that day, or cut off the amount for your treat and put the rest in the freezer. In time, as you discover how joyful it is to have a small fabulous snack, portion sizing will become easy. Remember to look forward to it with pleasure whenever you think about treat foods, and to enjoy the memory of yesterday’s.
My next 8-week course on Appetite Retraining begins on 17th April at Litfield House in Bristol.