Back when I was fitness editor for Men’s Health, I had an assignment to become super lean. It ended up being one of my most eye-opening experiences, and not for the reasons you might think.
Originally, the story was going to be a step-by-step guide on “How to lose the last 10 pounds.”
But, since this was Men’s Health, the focus shifted to getting abs. (Side note: the photoshoot for the story ended up being one of the weirder things I’ve done. I was reminded that I’m definitely no Zoolander.)
If I was going to help people see their abs, then so be it. But, I was hell-bent on not doing what was always done. From my perspective, the world didn’t need another insane workout with unrealistic time commitments.
I wanted the “get abs” plan to be possible. That meant I wanted dessert. And, I wanted it multiple times per week.
What Science Says About Losing Weight (And Keeping It Off)
I enjoy a good celeb story as much as anyone, and I’ve interviewed dozens of big-name stars and shared their workouts and diets.
But here’s the thing: it’s one thing to break down the routine of an actor, actress, or athlete whose primary goal and day are built around diet and exercise. It’s fun to read about, but it’s not exactly practical for the average person.
Real plans for real people can’t be too extreme or insane because it’s not realistic for others to replicate. For me, that meant no two-a-day-workouts or personal chefs. And, as I mentioned, I wanted to eat dessert each week.
I believe in eating good food. I also happen to love cheesecake, brownies, cookies, and ice cream. And, so do many other people.
More importantly, I needed to solve my own internal conflict between what I know is true and what I believed.
I love science. I’ve built my career around being evidence-based. Everything in my understanding of getting lean told me that calories matter and eating dessert while getting lean is possible.
After all, this is how a professor can go on a “Twinkie Diet” for 10 weeks and lose 27 pounds.
However, how research suggests that eating dessert with breakfast led to longer-term weight loss compared to people who avoided a dessert-filled first meal. In fact, that study suggests that dessert eaters keep losing weight (an additional 15 pounds lost) while those that restricted dessert gained most of it back (22 pounds put back on).
In my opinion, I wasn’t blessed with the world’s greatest genetics. In fact, I was overweight my entire childhood.
So, if I’m being honest, I was skeptical whether I could actually get great results if I ate dessert. Maybe it works for others, but it just didn’t seem like it could work for me.
I knew the assignment was the ultimate test. I set the rules, the stakes were high, and the story was going to be published.
So, what happened?
I ate my desserts, and, at the end of the 12-week process, I was 8 percent body fat.
Women who ate small desserts four times a week lost 9 more pounds than those who enjoyed a larger splurge whenever they wanted.
Why You Should Eat Dessert (On Any Diet Plan)
For starters, complete food withdrawal is more likely to lead to falling off your diet than experiencing long-term success. [Note: I’m not saying you shouldn’t occasionally try to remove foods from your diet that seem to be causing issues. That’s a different story. I’m talking about creating a plan based on complete restriction.]
One of the biggest barriers to weight loss is the grind. Diets tend to be frustrating and mentally exhausting. And that frustration and exhaustion lead to stress and cravings. It’s a downward spiral to inevitably leads to you “cheating” on your diet, binging on foods you’ve missed, feeling guilty, eating more bad food, and then saying “F it!” and leaving the plan.
Some variation of this happens to everyone. And, it’s not just psychological. As you restrict calories and lose weight, your body adjusts, hormones shift, and hunger increases.
What should you do? You need to eat foods that fill you up and keep you satisfied (think proteins, fiber, and veggies), but you also benefit from dessert.
Desserts and treats can decrease cravings for sweet, starchy, and fatty foods. These are the “hyper-palatable” foods that derail diets. And, your desire to eat more of them happens when you completely restrict them. But, if you have a little, it can limit you from having too much.
It’s why my dessert and abs experience was so eye-opening. I ate real food, desserts, and treats. No, I wasn’t crushing massive slices of cheesecake three times per day, but I wasn’t starving for sugar, fat, and salt, either.
In many ways, it was the anti-diet approach. Instead of waiting for the moment when I wanted to quit, I proactively way prevented where most diets go wrong: cravings and withdrawal.
That’s why finding your sweet spot with some treats is important. After all, when you compare most diets you’ll find that a lot of them work. So, why choose one that makes you miserable or you’ll be forced to abandon it before and you stay on it long enough to see the real results?
Yes, you still need to create a diet the consists of vegetables, fruits, proteins, and healthy fats. But, that’s a message we all know by now. What’s still lost in translation is that what you eat doesn’t have to make you miserable.
Remember, part of the trick to healthy living is consistency and patience. It works for diet and exercise. No magic. Just consistency and sustainability.
The Dessert “Rules” (Sugar Not Sold Separately)
When you’re trying to lose weight, the worst thing you can do is ban all indulgences, which creates a feeling of withdrawal.
A more effective approach is one that allows you to satisfy your cravings in controlled portions.
Research from Alabama found that when overweight women ate small desserts four times a week, they lost 9 more pounds than those who enjoyed a larger splurge whenever they wanted.
The small sweets provide the psychological edge that allows you to stay motivated, without derailing your eating plan.
Within any diet, 10 to 20 percent of your calories can be directed toward a little treat. The key is watching the portion size (yes, always tricky), so that a cup of ice cream doesn’t turn into an all-night feast at the 24-hour buffet. However, in many situations, putting yourself in a position where you have the support to make sure that those types of binges are harder to occur.
But you know what? Going from one scoop of ice cream to an entire pint is much less likely when you don’t feel like the food is off-limits.
Learn your limits. Understand your triggers. And build a system that helps you succeed.
But, if you want the highest likelihood of weight loss success that lats, then don’t remove all the foods you love. It’s one of the most common reasons why so many diets fail.
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Adam Bornstein is a New York Times bestselling author and, according to The Huffington Post, “one of the most inspiring sources in all of health and fitness.” An award-winning writer and editor, Bornstein was the Fitness and Nutrition editor for Men’s HealthEditorial Director at LIVESTRONG.com, and a columnist for SHAPE, Men’s Fitnessand Muscle & Fitness. He’s also a nutrition and fitness advisor for LeBron James, Cindy Crawford, Lindsey Vonn, and Arnold Schwarzenegger. His work has been featured in dozens of publications, including The New York Times, Fast Company, ESPN, and QG, and he’s appeared on Good Morning America, The Today Show, E! News, and The Cheddar.