Q: I have a sweet tooth. Is it okay to have something daily, and what can I have? (And I mean real stuff—ice cream, cookies, brownies—not “a square of dark chocolate” or “yogurt with fruit.”)
A: You may be surprised to know that my answer is yes with two caveats. As you know, I think that is important to give yourself the freedom to enjoy the foods that you enjoy. I’ve written about splurge meals in the past and how they are a simple way to indulge but not sacrifice your weight-loss progress.
How can you satisfy (or at least appease) your sweet tooth on a daily basis? The first caveat is that you shouldn’t be actively trying to lose weight. I think that it is counterproductive metabolically and psychologically to eat sweets daily when trying to lose weight. Lose the weight first, and then you can work in daily indulgences to your maintenance plan. Once you have met your weight-loss goals, then you can start tapping into your discretionary calories to enjoy a cookie or two each day.
The concept of discretionary calories was introduced in the 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Despite being left out of the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for American because it was not seen as useful, I find the concept behind discretionary calories is pretty straightforward and very useful.
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When you look at your total calorie needs, there needs to be a core amount of calories you eat each day that go toward meeting your nutritional needs (vitamins, minerals, protein, fiber, etc)—your essential calories. Once you meet your essential calorie needs, there is another left over chunk of calories that you can use at your own discretion.
Essential Calories + Discretionary Calories = Total Caloric Needs
During periods of active weight loss, we normally remove discretionary calories from your diet in order to create an energy deficient so that the amount of calories that you are burning is greater than the amount of calories you are eating. But if you are working to maintain your weight, you will need to add back more calories. If you want to appease your sweet tooth, then discretionary calories are one way to add calories back.
How Many Calories Are Discretionary?
There was a table in the 2005 that outlines the amount of calories that should be considered discretionary based on one’s total calorie intake. Here is a relevant excerpt:
If your total caloric needs are 1,600, then you would have 130 discretionary calories.
If your total caloric needs are 1,800, then you would have 200 discretionary calories.
If your total caloric needs are 2,000, then you would have 270 discretionary calories.
This gives you a range of 130 to 270 discretionary calories a day, depending on your daily calories needs. Feel free to enjoy those in anyway your sweet tooth would like.
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One other key side message that I hope you got from this article is that your life should not be a constant diet. You should not be dieting all the time. Get really focused, lose the weight that you want, and then refocus your efforts on maintaining that weight and enjoying some discretionary calories.