We like kale, quinoa, and salmon just as much as the next healthy eater. But a diet of vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins on endless repeat is not the best strategy for a slim, healthy body. Indulging smartly is what really works to help you lose weight and keep it off, experts say. The reason: Enjoying regular treats helps you stay motivated and prevents you from bingeing, explains Lauren Slayton, R.D.N., the owner of Foodtrainers in New York City. It also makes you happy.
"Pleasurable experiences, like partaking of food you love,release feel-good chemicals in the brain," says nutritionist Jessica Cording, R.D.N. The mood boost you get makes it easier to maintain your healthy habits overall.
So yes, you need dessert
Trying to abstain from indulgent foods, or feeling guilty about eating them, will only work against you. Our bodies are biologically programmed to crave sweets and fat, according to research. Treats are also an ingrained part of our culture—dessert after dinner, Friday night pizza with friends, cake to celebrate special occasions—so it's no wonder we feel compelled to have them.
"When it comes to weight loss,feeding your soul is just as important as feeding your body," Cording says. "Enjoying indulgent foods helps you do that."
Treating yourself to special dishes also adds diversity to your diet, and that in turn helps you stay slim. In a study at Cornell University, people who had adventurous palates and ate a wide variety of foods had a lower BMI than those who stuck with the same foods. The experience of trying new things is so pleasurable, you don't feel the need to overeat, the researchers say.
Embracing a food's decadence can even help you feel full faster. Case in point: People felt more satiated after drinking a smoothie labeled "indulgent" than after drinking an unlabeled one, despite the fact that it was the exact same drink, according to a study published in the journal Flavour. Our brains learn to associate an indulgence with a specific hunger-reducing effect on the body, says study author Peter Hovard of the University of Sussex in the U.K. So when you eat something decadent and your brain recognizes it as high in calories, it helps your body to respond by curbing your appetite, he explains. (Try one of these delicious homemade doughnuts.)
But how often should you treat yourself?
The short answer: daily. Give yourself a little something you crave, and factor it in to your calorie count. To enjoy bigger indulgences once or twice a week, just cut back a bit elsewhere. For instance, if you're going to a restaurant where you love the brownie sundae, order a light entrée, such as broiled fish or chicken, and choose a nonstarchy vegetable like broccoli as a side instead of potatoes.
Savor the treat slowly to heighten the experience. In a study published in the Journal of Consumer Marketing, people who took a photo of an indulgent dish before eating it found it more delicious, because the momentary delay allowed all of their senses to kick in before they ate the food. Whether you Instagram your dessert or simply put your fork down between bites, relishing the sight, smell, and flavor of your dish will help you get the most satisfaction from it.
(Surprisingly) healthy treats
FACT: Eating fat will make you slim. The newest research shows that eating fat turns off the hunger switch in your brain and naturally restricts your appetite, while at the same time raising your metabolism, says Mark Hyman, M.D., the director of the Cleveland Clinic Center for Functional Medicine and the author of Eat Fat, Get Thin. That means these four high-fat foods aren't just OK for occasional indulgences—they're actually good for you. (Here's why low-fat foods don't satisfy.)
Full-fat yogurt: Studies show that people who opt for full-fat yogurt are slimmer than those who go fat-free. The fat also helps your body absorb the vitamin D in dairy.
Butter: Butter from grass-fed cows is high in disease-preventing antioxidants as well as conjugated linoleic acid, a type of fat that boosts your metabolism and your immune system, Dr. Hyman says.
Red meat: It's loaded with vitamins A, D, and K2. Just be sure to choose grass-fed: A new review in the British Journal of Nutrition finds that it has 50 percent more heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids than factory-farmed beef.
Cheese: Eating it can stimulate the bacteria in your gut to produce butyrate, a compound that boosts metabolism, research found.