If you’ve ever worked with a dietitian, you’re likely familiar with the idea that while weight loss requires changes to your overall diet, there’s also room in every eating plan for the occasional treat. Though there are plenty of balanced ways to incorporate indulgences into your eating style, it’s pretty much inevitable that at some point, you’re going to overeat — no matter how healthy your eating habits are.
Even the people who are trained to give diet advice do it occasionally: “Every dietitian overindulges, and since they should have a healthy relationship with food as fuel, the name of the game is modification and not restriction, which will definitely backfire,” explains Amy Goldsmith, registered dietitian and owner of Kindred Nutrition. Instead of getting too hung up on the indulgent meal or snack itself, it’s often more helpful to think about actions you’ll take before, during and after to enjoy yourself — and then get right back on track.
Here’s how to enjoy that indulgence — and bounce back — like a nutrition pro.
Knowing you’re going to have an special, off-plan meal ahead of time can help you feel better about it and figure out how your food for the rest of the day will be structured. “I always try to plan what my day is going to look like,” Goldsmith says. “I am still very flexible, but if I know where I am going out to eat, I generally have an idea of two or three items I’ll get from the menu. For example, if I know I’m going to go out for Thai food for lunch, I am most likely going to order drunken noodles, which gives me a healthy serving of carbs, chicken, some vegetables and fat.”
By thinking about what you’ll eat ahead of time, you can consider what you really want to order, rather than going overboard in the moment.
“I’ll eat a small snack, like veggies and hummus or a large apple prior to going out so that my appetite isn’t ravenous, and I don’t clean my plate, which I could easily do when hungry,” Goldsmith says. Serving sizes at restaurants (or even at a friend’s house for dinner) are usually pretty large, so by having something nutritious within an hour or two beforehand, you’re likely cutting down on the actual volume of food you’ll eat without ruining your appetite.
There’s no point in having something indulgent if you feel bad about it the whole time, right? “When I overindulge, I thoroughly let myself enjoy the food I am eating,” Goldsmith says. One way to simultaneously enhance enjoyment and prevent yourself from going overboard with your portions is to practice mindful eating while you’re eating something you wouldn’t normally have.
“Focus on properly chewing food (15 times or more) and putting the fork down between bites,” suggests Katrina Trisko, a registered dietitian. “Eating with your non-dominant hand is also a great way to increase awareness at meals. By taking steps to be more mindful during meals, you’re less likely to overindulge, more likely to savor every bite and will eat until you’re satisfied — not stuffed.”
“If I happen to eat a heavy meal that leaves me feeling a bit ‘overstuffed,’ I like to treat myself to a 15–20 minute walk outside to get some fresh air,” Trisko says. “Getting in some light physical activity after a heavy meal prevents me from falling into that post-meal food coma.” Research also suggests that taking a post-dinner walk can aid in digestion and speed up the rate your meal moves through your stomach, helping your body deal with your meal quickly and efficiently.
While she’s all for having one really special, extravagant meal, the first thing registered dietitian and sports nutritionist Shoshana Pritzker does afterward is ditch anything that’s left over. “One meal is one meal; leave it at that,” she says. Once you’ve had one indulgent meal, the tendency can be to continue the trend, so it’s best to prevent that from being possible. “I get rid of the leftovers — toss them out or give them away,” Pritzker says. And if you’re eating out? “Don’t take leftovers home from the restaurant; that way they’re not around to tempt you.”
You probably already know this is a good idea, but it’s worth mentioning because it really works. “Aim for one glass of water every hour or at least 8–10 glasses in total for the day,” Pritzker recommends. “This will help flush out any extra salt and fluids your body is hanging onto from the junky meal.”
It’s important to wait until you’re actually hungry to eat your next meal, Goldsmith says. “When I truly feel I’m hungry, I prepare my next meal and snack focusing on first eating the macronutrients that were absent from my last meal,” she explains. “For example, if I have some chicken wings and beer, I’ll focus on eating some fruits, vegetables and grains at my next meal, or possibly a large salad that incorporates one or two servings of quinoa and is mixed with fresh berries. This cleanses the palate and provides fiber to help move food through the body, as well as many vitamins and minerals that support important bodily functions.”
”Chop up some asparagus into your next omelette or get it as a side with your dinner entree,” recommends Tracy Lockwood Beckerman, a registered dietitian-nutritionist in New York City and founder of Tracy Lockwood Beckerman Nutrition. “Asparagus is filled with asparagine, which is an amino acid that acts as a diuretic. Asparagine also pushes out excess ammonia in the body, which may help improve metabolism.”
Hydrating by drinking water is essential, but one of Beckerman’s go-to strategies for regaining lost hydration — something that’s crucial after a night of drinking, for example — and fighting bloat is to eat foods that contain a lot of water. “By adding foods rich in water, such as iceberg lettuce, grapefruit or cauliflower, you are more likely to correct dehydration or sodium imbalance and move things along in your system faster,” she says.
Whether your indulgence was planned or spontaneous, don’t let yourself get hung up on it. “My number 1 rule after overindulging is to forgive yourself and move on,” Pritzker says. “Cut yourself some slack; treating yourself here and there is totally normal (and healthy) and if you beat yourself up over it, you’re just feeding the urge to indulge again. Move on after a treat and get right back to your usual healthy diet and routine as soon as possible.”