Sugar’s Sweet Spot: How to Eat Less Without Saying No

by | Sep 24, 2014

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Recently I explained how restrictive dieting makes losing weight harder than it needs to be, not easier. But one reader wondered how my advice about limiting sugar and processed foods jives with this concept:

You say that mainstream diets encourage nutritionism and cut out groups of food like fat, gluten and sugar. However, much of what you discuss also encourages limiting sugar. How do you differentiate the two?

Am I hypocrite or trying to pull a fast one? Is this just a matter of semantics? As usual in biology, the truth is more complicated.

The issue here is that we are not robots. For humans with all of our beauties, faults and nuances, health is more complex than filling up our gas tanks. Yes, certain foods are healthier than others, but that is rarely why we choose to eat them.

Unhealthy but tasty foods like sweeteners and flours highlight the differences between physical health and mental health. Yes, sugar can be dangerous when consumed in large quantities (which most of us do). Yes, we are all better off when we eat less of it (regardless of body weight). But no, it is not good to live in a state of constant deprivation. No, you couldn’t live that way forever even if you wanted to. And no, smaller more sensible amounts of these foods do not doom you to a life of ill health.

The physical-mental divide is the reason getting healthy is so difficult. The secret of success is learning to navigate it.

Step one is understanding your mental limits, which is what my post about dieting was addressing. Strict eating plans backfire because they ignore the realities of how our brains work and what they are (and aren’t) capable of.

Step two is using this information to devise a set of guidelines for your behavior that optimize your health. If attempting to deprive yourself of chocolate or chips ultimately results in overeating, which we know it does, then it does not optimize our health and should not be our goal. It’s much better to develop strategies that are known to reduce (not enhance) cravings, even if it means making room for foods we know to be less-than-healthy.

In Foodist, I describe an experiment where people who tell themselves they can “have it later” end up eating far less than people who attempt to deprive themselves, and even less than people who don’t restrict their eating at all.

Similarly, tactics like mindful eating and using smaller plates and serving utensils encourage eating less without the perception of deprivation. Other tactics include improving the quality and enjoyment of the healthiest foods (e.g. buying fresh, seasonal ingredients), so that the relative appeal of an unhealthy treat isn’t as great and requires less willpower to resist.

Step three is understanding your personal values when it comes to food and health, and making sure your choices optimize your happiness. Does Grandma’s apple pie whisk you back in time, filling you with a Proustian bliss of nostalgia and joy? Then it is probably worth the 450 calories and subsequent spike in blood sugar. Are you eating donuts during your meeting because you ate a chalky energy bar for breakfast instead of something good? Then it probably isn’t worth the 200 calories, and you should consider re-engineering your mornings to avoid this situation in the future.

All sugar isn’t bad, but lots of sugar is certainly bad. Cutting down on unhealthy foods is a good idea. Eating more healthy foods to replace them is a great idea. Completely eliminating things you love is a horrible idea.

Making value-based decisions when it comes to indulgences is easy when you build a healthstyle around habits you enjoy. Good habits make all the hard decisions for you without using up willpower, so when a special occasion or treat comes along you know exactly how both your brain and body will react. You get to enjoy the things you love and guilt never enters the equation. It’s like having your cake and eating it too.

How do you navigate the physical-mental divide?

Originally published August 21, 2013.

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22 Responses to “Sugar’s Sweet Spot: How to Eat Less Without Saying No”

  1. Mike says:

    I love your writing style. It’s a breath of fresh air to read such well-reasoned, usable advice when it comes to nutrition. I have followed you for a few years now and I can honestly say that your advice has helped me improve my diet and has probably added a few years to my life.

    Keep up the good work!


  2. Hilary says:

    Great post!!!

  3. Charlotte says:

    Thanks for this thorough reply, Darya! I think you’ve clarified the difference between your philosophy and mainstream diets well. Cutting out measly, cheap half-pleasurable sweets isn’t hard when you get to enjoy the luxury of gram’s homemade apple pie. Essentially: eliminate what you don’t truly love and you won’t be depriving yourself.

    So, out of curiosity, what’s utterly worth it to you?

  4. I love your point of view on this. I look at the things that are worth the splurge to me and I will splurge on those things and won’t feel the guilt that is associated with eating foods that don’t really satisfy anything and leave me wanting more. I know that I feel better when I don’t eat those kinds of things, so it makes it easier to leave them alone.

  5. Laura says:

    I think this is interesting, but I really wonder about the addictive quality of sugar. I read an interesting post by Gretchen Rubin “The Happiness Project” where she asked, “Are you an abstainer or a moderator.” She said that she found it easier to abstain than moderate.

    I used to try to be a moderator, but found it easier (in most cases) to be an abstainer. Once I’ve had a taste of sweets – even if it’s awful supermarket cake – I have a hard time not eating the whole piece, or 2 or 3.

  6. Heidi says:

    Hi! So I’m struggling with getting in tune to how much food I need to eat because I exercise so often but always in the evening (I do Kung fu for about an hour five times a week) and sometimes I want food even if I’m not hungry during the day, and I’ve binged multiple times this month, or even week, (not even on junk food, just calorie dense foods like nuts and animal products like fish, but then that leads to less healthy foods and eventually a full out binge) so after a binge how do I “recover”. Also, how do I eat enough to accommodate exercise while still losing fat? Is the timing of my meals important? I also often find I over eat right after Kung fu but I’ve gotten better about that by taking a snack and having it in my room so I can’t gorge myself on food in the kitchen.

    • Heidi says:

      So basically what do you do after a binge? Any advice more specific than “listen to your body”? Because I’m not too good at that yet. Also, any tips on preventing another binge/the what-the-hell effect?

      • Dee says:

        I have the same problem these days … But Think i sovlved the problem recently and seems to work….. On evenings after a hard exercise session, I feel like a tired furnace. I dont bother with typical dinner/ food. I have something voluminous and cold with lots of water like a gazpacho, green smoothie, fruit salad with yougurt dressing, protein ice cream…. It stops me and cools me down… I guess the most calories downed is 500. I drink tons of water after take a shower… Have tea and vitamins before I go to bed…. The Evenings can be really tough…..

  7. Jessica says:

    wonderful post! how do I navigate the divide? I find it’s best to think in terms of habits, like: “I’m not a bread eater, so I won’t eat that bread” … more sustainable than: “I can’t have bread”, I’ve found. Similarly, “I am a cyclist” is a better way to get me cycling than “I really must go for a ride today.” thanks for the inspiration!

  8. Julia says:

    I’ve been losing some weight after having children. The main thing I’ve done is cut down on sugar (having never been that into sweet stuff, I developed an awful sweet tooth when pregnant!) and reducing portion sizes.

    To conquer the post-dinner need for something sweet, I have a square of 85% dark chocolate – a naughty-feeling treat, but with less sugar than milk chocolate 🙂

  9. Tina says:

    When it comes to less than healthy foods, I think mindfulness and having a plan are key elements in not overdoing it, or feeling guilty. I was addicted to pasta, now my body doesn’t grave it since I’ve regulated my insulin with healthy foods and exercise more…but when my brain sees everything as a noodle….I go to my favorite restaurant with just my husband; no big party to distract. I make a reservation and dress up. I eat my meal slowly and we discuss our day, I enjoy every bite and take home nothing. It takes some planning to arrange all this and it makes it all seem more special. Another effort might be a picnic in the backyard complete with candles, and a special dessert. Plan, and slow down that’s my key.

  10. Dee says:

    Good article Darya ! Thanks

    • Dee says:

      As you said Darya, I’m still devising a set of guidelines for my behavior that optimize my health. It seems like a continuously evolving plan, my mind always seems to outsmart me….

      Today I’m using “Dee’s eating guidelines” 500th revision. I’m trying menu planning and knowing hat I’m going to cook and eat at least 1 day before….

  11. Darya, Please Em me when you plan on getting to the Boston area so we can have that meetup and get my book signed. Thanks, Lawrence

  12. Will you guys try to make plans to make in the Bostom area for the :
    Boston Security Meetup (Boston, MA) – Meetup
    Tell Kevin he should attend , see him there.

  13. Adriane says:

    This article was a great read and I agree with a lot of important points of dieting. This summer I lost 5-6 pounds in two month workout out at home and limiting what I eat. At that time I was still eating those foods I craved, (cookies) but manage to eat less carbs and fat. I signed up for the gym. Wish me luck trying to lose a couple more lbs.

  14. Morgan says:

    This is such a well-written post! I find that I often have to really explain my own eating habits to friends, because they seem to think they are counterintuitive. People see me as a very healthy person, and are startled when I choose to indulge in a delicious dessert or entree. It makes me sad that there is such a pervasive perception that to live a healthy life, you can never enjoy eating experiences. This post, along with so many others you’ve written, explain how that belief is unhealthy in itself. Thank you for sharing your perspective!

  15. Darya, what an excellent post! There is such a huge myth out there about dieting and deprivation. When you allow yourself to have the foods you like in moderation and while eating with balance and flexibility, you begin to shift your mindset automatically. Then if you dive a bit deeper to uncover and then clear, the subconscious reasons for the overindulgence on certain foods, you’ll see results even faster. It’s amazing how food, that was once feared or obsessed over, no longer has a hold over you! Thank you again for sharing such wonderful information! 🙂 ~Maryann Candito

  16. Laura says:

    Hi Darya, I LOVE this post! Thank you. You’ve articulated so well what I’ve been trying to articulate recently with my audience and I’ve just scheduled to share this on my FB page and socials. Very much align with all you said which is tricky as I know both sides can conflict if not explained well. Laura x

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