Harley Pasternak: It's Okay to Treat Yourself — But Here's How Not to Go Overboard

It's easier to allow yourself one or two bigger meals than a weekend-long binge, the celeb trainer says

Harley Pasternak

Harley Pasternak is a celebrity trainer and nutrition expert who has worked with stars from Halle Berry and Lady Gaga to Robert Pattinson and Robert Downey Jr. He’s also aNew York Times best-selling author, with titles including The Body Reset Diet and The 5-Factor Diet. His new book 5 Pounds is out now. Tweet him @harleypasternak.

I used to advise my weight-loss clients to follow my program to the letter for six days and then enjoy a “cheat day” each week. This meant that you could take a mini-vacation from your diet each week.

However, my thinking has evolved over the years. I do continue to believe that an occasional treat is good for the soul and needn’t be bad for the body or one’s conscience — if handled properly. Those are the operative words.

The Risk of Deprivation
The reality is that feeling deprived has sabotaged many a diet. Does this sound familiar? After following a diet program to the letter for weeks, all the while patting yourself of the back for being “good,” suddenly the urge to eat a forbidden food overtakes you. And all too easily, eating the “bad” food can turn into a vicious cycle of self-loathing and blame. And what’s the best way to punish oneself? Undoing all your prior good work with a major cheat, of course. It doesn’t have to be that way. You can actually have your proverbial cake and eat it too by adhering to a sensible weight-management program with an occasional guilt-free treat.

Have It Both Ways
My most recent book 5 Pounds: The Breakthrough 5-Day Plan to Jump-Start Rapid Weight Loss (and Never Gain It Back) introduced my revised dietary approach. One of my core beliefs is that nothing is forbidden — with the exception of [MPK1] trans fats. And once there are no forbidden foods, the impulse to “cheat” disappears.

Acknowledging that treats have their proper place in any diet helps minimize self-destructive “cheating.” Just to be clear, this doesn’t mean you can regularly stuff yourself on double-fudge brownies, red licorice and rocky road ice cream. Rather, after five or six days of slimming down by eating lean protein, fiber-filled veggies and fruit and moderate portions of healthy fats and whole grains, you’ve earned a couple of treats. I recommend two ‘cheat meals’ a week. They can be part of a meal or a snack, and you can enjoy them either on the same day or on different days.

You might decide to share a pizza with your work buddies, have an ice cream cone with your kids, or enjoy a celebratory slice of birthday cake. Because you don’t need to categorically avoid certain types of food or restaurants, you’ll find it easier to handle your social and work commitments. Obviously, twice a week mustn’t morph into daily habit or the lost pounds are likely to pay a return visit, with a few extra for good measure.

According to a study conducted by the National Weight Control Registry, individuals who reported following their diet consistently throughout the week were more successful at maintaining weight loss than those who followed their diet during the week but took the weekend and holidays off. The message is clear: Consistent eating habits lead to greater success in keeping weight off.

Stop with the Labels
There’s another interesting aspect to idea of occasional treats. Many of my clients have found that once they have permission to occasionally treat themselves, they’re less likely to actually do so. Others found they could assuage their sweet tooth with an apple, for example, instead of a piece of apple pie à la mode. In other words, once the “forbidden” label is eliminated, certain foods lose their seductive appeal.

We humans are constantly juggling competing emotions. We want to be slim, but we also we want to indulge ourselves. Several recent behavioral studies have looked at the compensatory deeds — translation, “bad” behavior — people use to reward themselves for “good” behavior. In other words, doing something good gives you license to engage in less positive behavior.

One study found that people who brought a reusable canvas bag with them to the grocery store were more likely to purchase junk food snacks than shoppers who didn’t use such bags. Presumably, the folks who exhibited virtuous “earth-friendly” behavior then felt that had a right to indulge in food that isn’t good for them — and the planet. When it comes to compliance with a diet, numerous studies suggest that when people eat foods they consider “healthy,” they’re less likely to feel satiated and more apt to still crave a food that doesn’t fit that label.

Cut the Cravings
Finally, the idea that you can eat one way for most of the week, fall off the wagon over the weekend and then hop right back on Sunday or Monday morning defies metabolic logic. It’s easier on your system to take two meal or snack “breaks” over the course of the week rather than have to transition back at the start of each week after a “free day.”

If you head into the weekend with a stack of pancakes, then have a foot-long sandwich for lunch and mac and cheese for dinner, plus some snacks of cookies and chips, you’re cruising for a bruising. You’ll find yourself on the blood sugar rollercoaster, craving still more sweet and starchy foods, and it will take several days of to get your appetite under control. By that time another weekend — and other “cheat day” would have rolled around.

5 Ways to Treat Yourself
1. Savor, taste, and eat slowly. Prolonging the experience helps your tummy catch up with your mouth.

2. Feast on flavor. Tasty food satisfies both body and soul, while bland food leaves you seeking more satisfaction. Use your favorite seasonings to enhance your meals.

3. It’s not just about food. Find ways other than food to treat yourself. Celebrate the loss of the next five pounds or whatever with a gift to yourself like a massage, or a movie you’ve been dying to see.

4. Change your mindset. Eliminate the use of such labels as “good” and “bad,” “healthy” and “unhealthy” and even “acceptable” and “unacceptable” when you think about food.

5. Eat every three to four hours. If a treat risks becoming a binge, you’ve gone too long between meals or snacks.

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