It was recently reported that Victoria Beckham celebrated her birthday with a fresh fruit plate rather than cake. Who knows if fruit really was her substitute, or why, but over the years I’ve worked with numerous clients who have nixed traditional treats on birthdays, holidays, and special occasions. I believe the answer to whether this is healthy or not lies in the reasoning. Here are seven questions to ask yourself about your relationship with food:
Have you ever wanted a treat but restricted yourself to avoid calories, carbs, sugar, or fat?
Has denying yourself a treat ever led to overeating other foods, whether healthy or not?
Has denying yourself treats ever led to feelings of anger, resentment or depression?
Do you make food choices based on your weight rather than your preference for a food or how you’ll feel physically after eating it? In other words, have you denied yourself cake not because you don’t want it or don’t like it and not because you tend to feel lethargic after eating it, but because you’re ‘on a diet?’
Have you ever dodged holiday or celebratory get-togethers in order to avoid certain foods or treats?
Do treats feel like ‘all or nothing’ options? In other words when you have a treat does it lead to a whole day (or several days) of unhealthy eating?
Do you feel as if you don’t have a strategy for how to build splurges into a healthy, balanced way of eating?
When I work with my one-on-one clients, my goal for them is to be able to confidently answer ‘no’ to all of these questions, and if the answers are ‘yes’ we work to systematically change their relationships with food. When you have a healthy relationship with food you can enjoy a treat without guilt, stay in balance, maintain your weight, or even continue to lose weight. Not knowing how to do this is what causes many people to feel trapped in a cycle of either continuous deprivation, or a rollercoaster ride of undereating and overeating.
In my newest book S.A.S.S! Yourself Slim, I have a section called ‘How to Build in a Splurge,’ which talks about how to eat something like cake, ice cream, or French fries without getting off track nutritionally. But the other piece of the puzzle lies within the emotional eating chapter—about why you’re eating the treat. Birthday cake on your birthday is healthy, especially when it’s your very favorite cake and you want to savor and enjoy every morsel. What’s harmful is: agonizing over whether or not to eat the cake; eating several slices of cake because you feel as if you can’t stop; eating the cake even though you don’t enjoy it simply because you’ve been so deprived; eating the cake because you’re sad, angry, or want to escape; overeating the cake then skipping the gym because you only exercise when you eat strictly; overeating the cake then compensating by overexercising, not eating, or taking more drastic measures such as purging or using laxatives.
In a healthy relationship with food, you can enjoy treats free of guilt; afterwards you can feel satisfied but still energized, ready to move on with your day, and still on track with your healthy lifestyle. If this sounds foreign to you, please know that it is possible. If you’re struggling, another book I highly recommend is Intuitive Eating by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch.
Cynthia Sass is a registered dietitian with master's degrees in both nutrition science and public health. Frequently seen on national TV, she's a SHAPE contributing editor and nutrition consultant to the New York Rangers and Tampa Bay Rays. Her latest New York Times best seller is S.A.S.S. Yourself Slim: Conquer Cravings, Drop Pounds and Lose Inches.