The Easiest Way to Tame Treats: Plan for Them!

I don’t lead the most rigid, über-organized life, but when it comes to treats—candy, cookies, alcohol and other not-so-nutritious foods—I’m a fanatic planner. That’s because I love chocolate so much, and, OK, I’ll admit it basically every dessert in the world, that I simply have to give myself a daily allotment.  Otherwise I could go way overboard.

Listen, I know some of you might feel out of control around sweets or other treats, and so it may seem unrealistic when I say that the act of planning will actually curb your habit and keep you from overindulging. But if this tactic even helps you cut back by 25 percent, that’s a great start. Because, the fewer treats you consume, the less you crave them. So, that 25 percent could lead to 50 percent, then more.

One caveat: Some people just have to eliminate certain foods altogether because even a small portion of fudge, ice cream, chips, and the like triggers powerful cravings. If that’s you, then go ahead and cross these foods off your list, either temporarily or permanently.

But for many of us, it’s just a matter of cutting back.  And firmly telling yourself in advance what you are—and are not—going to eat is surprisingly powerful. Here are some tips:

Set a daily treat calorie limit. A rough rule of thumb: On 1,600 calories per day or less, you can have about 100 treat calories daily; on 1,700 daily calories, about 150 treat calories is your max. Click here for the Best Life recommendations on treat calories for a variety of daily calorie intakes (or see below*).

Anticipate tempting situations today and tomorrow. On one of these days will you be in a situation—like a birthday party or out to dinner—where you’re going to want a piece of cake, a glass of wine or other treat. Decide exactly what you’re going to have. And, if the calories exceed your daily treat max, then the day before or after, skip a treat altogether (that’s why I’m asking you to look at today and tomorrow together).

Write down your treat decision on a note card or other piece of paper. Pull it out when you feel your resolve weakening. For instance, you might write: No treat today, moderate slice of birthday cake tomorrow. So if you get the urge for a treat tonight, take out your card to remind yourself of the plan. And here’s a tip from the wonderful book The Beck Diet Solution: Keep another card around you at all times that says “NO CHOICE.” It solidifies your commitment to yourself: You will follow your plan—there’s actually no choice once you’ve made that pledge. These techniques help you avoid that struggle in your head over whether or not to give in.

Visualize success. Let’s say you’re meeting a friend at Starbucks and are unsure whether or not you’ll be able to resist getting a scone instead of the iced reduced-fat latte that you planned (because a Starbucks treat was not on your plan that day). Before you head off to the coffee shop, take a minute or two to close your eyes, and visualize yourself confidently ordering the iced latte, taking it to the table, and no matter what your friend orders, happily enjoying your beverage. I describe this type of visualization, along with plenty of other ways to combat cravings, in The Life You Want, a book I co-wrote with Bob Greene and psychologist Ann Kearney-Cooke.

Acknowledge the rewards of your behavior. This is very motivating. In The Life You Want, I quote Adrian Brown, M.D., a psychiatrist specializing in eating disorders and a Best Life adviser: “At first, people don’t see how cutting back on foods can be rewarding, but if they’re persistent, they soon understand. The sense of pride, control, and accomplishment—and, usually weight loss—become worth the temporary discomfort of not devouring a doughnut.”

* On the Best Life program, treat calories are called “Anything Goes” calories. Here’s how much you get at various daily calorie levels:

  • Calorie Level: 1,500
    Anything Goes Cals: None
  • Calorie Level: 1,600
    Anything Goes Cals: 100
  • Calorie Level: 1,700
    Anything Goes Cals: 150
  • Calorie Level: 1,700
    Anything Goes Cals: 210
  • Calorie Level: 2,000
    Anything Goes Cals: 280
  • Calorie Level: 2,500-2,550
    Anything Goes Cals: 300 (Women); 350 (Men)

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