When I was in college, I thought I was doing everything right: I'd add Splenda to jet-black coffee; buy fat-free cheese and yogurt; and snack on chemical-laden 94-percent fat-free microwave popcorn, 80-calorie-per-serving cereal, and ultra-low-cal and low-carb “miracle” noodles (they taste like garbage). Booze and occasional pizza deliveries were part of the equation, but I’d ask for half the cheese on my pizza and whip up cocktails with zero-calorie powdered drink mix packets. I went to the gym religiously and took yoga classes.
From the first day of freshman year until the day I graduated, I gained more than 30 pounds.
The year following graduation, I switched up my habits dramatically but still struggled to lose the weight. I worked out, drank my coffee black, ate salads, and served up bland frozen veggies and quinoa for dinner. But I was set in my ways—I wouldn’t dare buy butter, ice cream, or peanut butter. If I did, I’d demolish the ice cream in one night or find myself spoon-deep in the peanut butter jar. Though I studied nutrition in college and continually preached healthy eating habits, I couldn't follow my own advice.
Last summer, with a small wheelie suitcase in tow (full of slightly snug shorts), things changed. I traveled through Italy and Switzerland with my family, and in a two-week span, I didn’t lay my hands on anything lowfat or reduced-sugar. In Venice, I had my first Italian-made Caprese salad layered with slices of full-fat velvety mozzarella. In Florence, I cleaned off a plate of gnocchi dressed in a rich Gorgonzola sauce, fork in one hand, glass of red wine in the other. I snacked on slices of coconut meat and sipped pina coladas on Monterosso Beach in Cinque Terre, then ate prawns dipped in a pool of lemon butter at night. And once we made our way to Interlaken and Lucerne, I couldn’t pass up Swiss chocolates or skillets of rosti, a cheesy, buttery potato dish. Most nights also included a trip to a gelateria.
RELATED: 9 Smart Snacks for a Better Body
By the time we flew home, I noticed something strange: My shorts were falling off of me. It didn’t make any sense. Instead of eating five or six small, unsatisfying meals a day, I ate rich, hearty meals two or three times a day. I ate food that was real and actually tasted good: I drank wine every day, did not shy away from butter, and indulged in dessert.
When I stepped on the scale back home, I’d lost 10 pounds. I don’t believe it’s normal (or reasonable) to lose a dress size or two in such a short amount of time, but I learned an invaluable lesson that allowed me to lose another 10 pounds and maintain the 20-pound loss: Small amounts of stereotypically "naughty" foods, in tandem with an overall healthy diet, help me feel more satisfied—body and soul—than an entire box of low-calorie cereal ever did. If I put a little butter on my veggies because it tastes good, so what?
Now, instead of wiping out half a carton of low-fat ice cream in one sitting, I feel satisfied with half a cup of the real stuff. (Recent research even suggests consuming full-fat dairy may actually reduce body fat.) While my weight loss wasn’t intentional (or traditional) it happened because I indulged in a way that worked for me. Try my tips for eating like a European traveler without overdoing it, and maybe they'll help you drop a few pounds too.
1. Shrink portion sizes. Before, if I was going to eat something low-cal or lowfat, I reasoned with myself that it was okay to eat more of it. Now, if I’m going to have pasta with a cream sauce, I’ll dish out a small plate and immediately put the rest in plastic containers for tomorrow’s lunch.
RELATED: When More Calories Is Better
2. Wait it out. Eat that portion of pasta and wait to see if you really need a second helping. I like to sip a glass of wine after dinner to keep me from foraging through the pantry like a feasting animal. (I’m prone to doing this.)
3. Pretend you’re at a restaurant. Treat meals like you’re dining out. By cooking for 10 or 15 minutes rather than microwaving something and putting an extra minute into presentation—eating on a real plate or at the dinner table—I feel more satisfied.
4. Don’t skip a meal. A few years ago, if I destroyed a full pint of Ben & Jerry’s Chubby Hubby, I’d skip breakfast. But then I’d overdo it again come dinnertime. Unless you’re an avid fan of intermittent fasting (and know you’re not one to over do it), eat regular meals.
5. Be naughty. Try cream in your coffee. Use a tablespoon of butter for two whole scrambled eggs rather than four egg whites. Eat milk chocolate because you think it tastes better than dark chocolate. Adding “naughty” ingredients to your diet doesn’t have to be an everyday eating habit. The more I allow little indulgences, the less I go overboard, and the less guilt I feel.
Disclaimer: I’m not a registered dietitian and I’m not a doctor. This is what worked for me.