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Can I lose weight without restricting myself from foods like pizza and dessert?

Summary List PlacementDear Rachel, I eat relatively healthy and like to be active in a variety of ways but for the last year, I have struggled to lose weight. When I eat less healthy, it's because I want to enjoy food that falls under the 'guilty pleasure' category (pizza, bagels, desserts). Years ago when I tried to lose weight, I eliminated these and other food groups and developed a very unhealthy relationship with both food and exercise. While I've now decided it's healthier to enjoy these foods in moderation, I feel this is what has caused my weight gain (10-20...

Woman eating brownie

Summary List Placement

Dear Rachel,

I eat relatively healthy and like to be active in a variety of ways but for the last year, I have struggled to lose weight. When I eat less healthy, it’s because I want to enjoy food that falls under the ‘guilty pleasure’ category (pizza, bagels, desserts). Years ago when I tried to lose weight, I eliminated these and other food groups and developed a very unhealthy relationship with both food and exercise. While I’ve now decided it’s healthier to enjoy these foods in moderation, I feel this is what has caused my weight gain (10-20 lbs over the last few years).

I don’t want to go back to restriction, but I recognize cutting back would probably help me reach my goal. What can I do to enjoy those foods a little less without triggering past unhealthy behaviors? I thought I reached a happy medium of being able to enjoy those foods as part of my diet (not something I consume daily or ate in secret) and without mental anguish, but the weight gain has caused its own anguish of being unhappy with my appearance and wanting to improve my physical health.

— Despairing Dieter

Dear Despairing,

Firstly, I applaud you for being so mindful, self-aware, and well-informed.

You’ve recognized your past behaviors, educated yourself about damaging food thoughts, and worked on your mindset, which is so important when it comes to making healthy lifestyle changes — it wasn’t until I addressed my thoughts that I managed to lose fat and keep it off.

You’re absolutely right that you don’t need to cut out any foods you enjoy to lose weight and live a healthy lifestyle, but it sounds like you’re struggling in your body at the moment, and you can change that.

Weight is not the best way to measure health or happiness

It’s OK to want to lose weight and get back to feeling like yourself again if you’ve lost your way, but remember that weight isn’t everything.

“Weight is not a defining factor of health, weight is purely a number and it doesn’t tell you how happy you feel, how your organs are functioning, anything about the activity you do, your quality of life, or your social interactions,” registered nutritionist Rhiannon Lambert told Insider.

With that in mind, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to lose weight, especially if it would improve your health.

Registered dietitian Priya Tew told Insider that there are many factors that contribute to weight gain, so it might not necessarily be that you’re eating too many “guilty pleasures.”

 

“Often we simplify weight gain to diet and activity levels, but actually stress, sleep, age, hormones, medications, the types of gut microbes you have, and your past diet history can be other factors,” Tew said.

She recommends looking at your lifestyle holistically, considering whether you’re sleeping enough and moving in ways you enjoy.

Your diet is more important than exercise for weight loss, studies show, but Lambert recommends thinking about how you can keep active over the course of the day and focusing on your non-exercise activity thermogenesis (aka NEAT)  — this means all the ways you move that aren’t formal exercise, like cleaning or mowing the lawn.

Look at your portion sizes

Weight loss comes down to being in a calorie deficit, taking in less energy than you expend, so both Lambert and Tew recommend looking at your portion sizes.

Wanting to enjoy all foods in moderation is the right approach, Lambert said — it simply comes down to eating a little less of some.

“One thing that can be done is to try and half portion sizes of these particular items that you have labeled as ‘guilty pleasures,'” she said. “Of course, there’s no reason to feel guilty, but instead of having three scoops of ice cream, have two, instead of having a whole dessert, share half with a partner.”

ice cream tubs

I personally am a big fan of the 80/20 principle, which essentially means focusing on nutrient-rich foods 80% of the time, and enjoying less nutritious “treats” guilt-free for the remaining 20%. Keeping a food diary might help you assess your progress and see whether it’s actually more like 50/50.

If have a hard time crafting healthy, balanced meals, Tew said chatting with a dietitian to figure out where you can make changes in a sustainable way that doesn’t feel restrictive.

Lambert recommends making sure you’re eating plenty of fiber-rich foods and keeping an eye on alcohol consumption too.

Be proud of the mindset progress you’ve made, but consider psychological support

It’s important not to gloss over the amazing progress you’ve already made on challenging your thoughts about food groups.

“I think this is huge and far more important than being at a certain weight,” Tew said. “Sometimes we have to let go of the weight in order to have a better balance in life and be happier.”

She recommends taking a step back and thinking about body image and acceptance rather than automatically thinking you need to lose weight.

 

However, if your weight gain is a result of unhealthy behaviors creeping back in, Lambert said psychological work needs to take place first.

“I always say that it’s important to address these underlying issues and triggers surrounding the dieting before actually looking at the weight loss itself,” she said.

Reach out to a psychologist, dietitian, or even a supportive friend.

Ultimately though, you are not stuck. You don’t have to feel this way forever. You can make the changes that are right for you and will help you feel happier, healthier, and like yourself again.

Wishing you well,

Rachel

As a senior health reporter at Insider and a self-described fitness fanatic with an Association for Nutrition-certified nutrition course under her belt, Rachel Hosie is immersed in the wellness scene and here to answer all your burning questions. Whether you’re struggling to find the motivation to go for a run, confused about light versus heavy weights, or unsure whether you should be worried about how much sugar is in a mango, Rachel is here to give you the no-nonsense answers and advice you need, with strictly no fad diets in sight.

Rachel has a wealth of experience covering fitness, nutrition, and wellness, and she has the hottest experts at her fingertips. She regularly speaks to some of the world’s most knowledgeable and renowned personal trainers, dietitians, and coaches, ensuring she’s always up to date with the latest science-backed facts you need to know to live your happiest and healthiest life.

Have a question? Ask Rachel at workingitout@insider.com or fill out this anonymous form. All questions will be published anonymously.

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