March 18, 2012 at 10:55 AM ET
By Amy Ahlberg
Yes, you can have your cake (or pizza, or cheeseburger) and eat it too. But you need to learn what "moderation" really means. Here's how.
Three Steps to Get You Started
You already know that a too-strict eating plan can backfire, resulting in a blowout binge or, worse, throwing you off the wagon altogether. But when it comes to allowing yourself a little leeway, moderation is key. But what does "moderation" even mean? For gourmands, a cheeseburger a week might seem reasonable; for health nuts, maybe it's one every 3 months, minus the cheese and bun. To find out who's right, we turned to Sarah Krieger, RD, and Joan Salge Blake, RD, spokespeople for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. For starters, they say you should only indulge in what you love, and skip the rest. If you don't have a weakness for fries, don't eat them just because they're there; and if you don't have a sweet tooth, don't have dessert simply because your dinner buddy does. "For me, I skip pizza and burgers, but I eat a great-tasting sweet treat every day," says Krieger. "I balance it with exercise and eating a variety of nutritious foods." For more tips, click through our slideshow. But first, some ground rules:
Step one: If you're overweight or have health concerns, especially heart disease or diabetes, talk to your doctor. This advice is based on an average 2,000-calorie diet, consumed by American adults at a healthy weight.
Step two: "Take a look at how active you really are. With most of our lifestyles, we don't need a lot of calories in order to maintain a stable weight," says Salge Blake. Go overboard too often and your waistline, not to mention your heart and your pancreas, may pay the price.
Step three: Keep a food diary and ask yourself, from a caloric standpoint: If I have this indulgence, what foods will I need to avoid this week to balance it out? Now read on for our tips on how to budget your binge allowance this week, and every week.
Serving: 4 slices of pork bacon 168 calories, 12.7 g fat (4.2 g sat. fat), 767 mg sodium, 0.5 g carbs, 0 g sugar
Who among us can resist the aroma of sizzling bacon? If this is your weekend vice, be sure to curtail your fat and sodium intake for the 6 days before and after. Bacon's saturated fat content is high, says Salge Blake, and just a few pieces make a major dent in the 20 grams most of us can afford to consume daily. So enjoy those crunchy strips, but enjoy them responsibly.
Serving: 1 restaurant cheeseburger with all the fixings 940 calories, 58 g fat (22 g sat. fat), 1700 mg sodium, 51 g carbs, 0 g sugar
With 22 grams of saturated fat, this doozy of a dietary indulgence maxes out your daily saturated-fat allowance in one fell swoop. "Heart disease develops over time, and when [you] eat a diet high in saturated fat, the risk for developing heart disease is greater," says Krieger. If you're determined to chow down on a cheeseburger, your protein choices should all be "lean and mean," according to Salge Blake, for the rest of the week.
Serving: Medium-sized fast food French fries 410 calories, 18 g fat (3 g sat. fat), 570 mg sodium, 58 g carbs, 0 g sugar
You've probably been there: The first few fries taste heavenly. As your meal wears on, they start to look (and taste) less appealing, but you polish them off anyway. "With every subsequent bite, the pleasure diminishes," says Salge Blake. Easy solution? Get a small order instead and get a side salad to go with it. Because once potatoes are deep fried, we're sorry to say they don't really count as a vegetable anymore.
Chocolate Chip Cookies
Serving: 4 cookies, made from refrigerated cookie dough 312 calories, 24.8 g fat (14 g sat. fat), 340 mg sodium, 50 g carbs, 40 g sugar
One of the top calorie sources in the American diet is grain-based dessert, like cake, cookies, and pie, says Salge Blake. And while one or two cookies won't ruin anyone's diet, most of us don't stop there, and then we do it again the next day. But this sweet treat's a real sugar-shocker; women should consume just 24 grams (6 teaspoons) of sugar per day, and four cookies almost doubles that. That means you'll have to cut back elsewhere, whether it's in your morning cup of joe or even a glass of fruit juice. Another tip? Give your willpower a break and bake only a few at a time.
Serving: 1 cup (1/4 pint) of vanilla ice cream 260 calories, 14 g fat (8 g sat. fat), 70 mg sodium, 28 g carbs, 28 g sugar
The saturated fat content of ice cream is high, so you need to watch your intake of all saturated fat, including protein and other sources, when you choose ice cream as your indulgence. A high saturated fat intake increases your (bad) LDL cholesterol levels, which then increases risk of heart disease, says Krieger. Salge Blake's tip for stretching a pint of ice cream to feed four people: "Add fruit to one-cup servings; You'll be dishing up something that looks a lot more generous and satisfying." If you want, add chocolate or crumbled up cookies to the mix.
Serving: one 6-ounce steak 270 calories, 15 g fat (5 g sat. fat), 105 mg sodium, 0 g carbs, 0 g sugar
If you're having a craving for it, answer it, says Salge Blake. "With steak, you have less to worry about fat- and calorie-wise when you compare it to a cheeseburger." Still, many steaks come with seriously fatty sides, and the saturated fat does adds up. One way to keep it in check? Order a 3-ounce filet mignon, which is a naturally leaner cut, or get the 6-ouncer and brown bag the rest for later. Another good option: steak kabobs, which control the steak portion size you consume, plus add veggies.
Serving: one 5.7-ounce restaurant fried chicken breast 360 calories, 21 g fat (5 g sat. fat), 1080 mg sodium, 11 g carbs, 0 g sugar
Chicken's not bad in itself , it's when it's battered and fried that the fat and sodium issues arise. That's bad news for your blood pressure, which can be spiked by too much salt. Most Americans should consume around 1,500 mg of sodium daily, and this chicken breast almost maxes you out on its own. If you indulge in this, you need to shave down your sodium intake for the rest of the week. Remember: If you spend your allowance in one place, you have to cut corners somewhere else. "It's important to savor high calorie foods, rather than scarfing them down," says Krieger. "Eat them slowly. Smell the aromas, limit distractions like TV or reading, and enjoy with family and friends," she says.
Serving: One chocolate doughnut 380 calories, 25 g fat (11 g sat. fat), 410 mg sodium, 36 g carbs, 17 g sugar
If a doughnut is your idea of breakfast, take a look at the carbohydrates and sugar here: This is a treat, not a healthy way to start your day. "Too much sugar on an empty stomach can cause stomach upset and a quick drop in energy after the initial sugar surge," says Krieger. "This leads to cravings or increased hunger." Another problem? Refined carbs are low in fiber, which means they don't make you feel full. So treat doughnuts as what they are, dessert, and indulge sparingly.
Serving: 2 slices of a large cheese pizza 580 calories, 20 g fat (9 g sat. fat), 1440 mg sodium, 74 g carbs, 8 g sugar
Pizza's an all-time favorite food for many, but just looking at the sodium count could practically send your blood pressure soaring. If there's too much sodium in your body and your kidneys can't keep up, it builds up in the blood, says Krieger, leading to high BP. If you indulge in pizza, you should keep an eye on your sodium for the next 6 days. And because plain cheese pizza offers no fiber from veggies, Salge Blake suggests you add veggie toppings to your pizza, or eat a salad before diving in.
Serving: One plain slice of restaurant cheesecake 460 calories, 29 g fat (17 g sat. fat), 330 mg sodium, 43 g carbs, 33 g sugar
Would you still want this decadent dessert if it meant no more treats for the week? If so, go for it, but if not, take Salge Blake's advice and spread out your dessert opportunities for the week. It's easy: Just make smaller, less calorie-dense choices and you can enjoy dessert more often. Remember: A small amount of a treat gets the job done, satisfaction-wise, according to research. Train yourself to eat like that and you'll appreciate those "first bite" pleasure opportunities even more, without breaking the diet bank. Life this way can be sweet indeed.