When It Comes to Sweets, Never Say Never

Even Candy Can Be Healthy -- in Moderation

By Jean Lawrence
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed By Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD, LD

For some people, the scariest part of starting off on a new, healthier way of eating is the idea of giving up their favorite sweet treats -- forever!

If you're a cookie-and-candy-craver, don't despair. Sweets can be part of a healthy, lifelong eating pattern. But for the least harm and -- don't forget this -- the fullest enjoyment, they should be eaten in moderation. That means in small amounts, or only a couple of times a week. Even a woman who has made a career out of eating candy admits she has cut back her consumption to one day a week. Hilary Liftin, blessedly svelte and cavity free, wrote the critically acclaimed, tongue-in-cheek memoir Candy & Me: A Love Story.

"Candy's meaning," she says, "has more subtlety than its taste. It affords a fleeting spike of pleasure, sometimes guilty or elusive or bittersweet, like an impossible love affair."

Such romanticization aside, the smorgasbord of candy -- not to mention cheeseburgers, cookies, cakes, pies, fries, chips, barbecue, and ice cream -- that Americans consume has helped lead to skyrocketing obesity rates and a near-epidemic of diabetes.

So why would anyone in his or her right mind (sorry, Hilary) ever think it's OK to eat candy, cake, or pie?

"Some choices are better than others," says Larrian Gillespie, MD, author of The Menopause Diet, The Gladiator Diet, and The Goddess Diet. "You have to know the consequences before you make the choice."

When asked about the half-pound of candy Liftin reportedly eats in a sitting (only on Fridays, mind you), Gillespie said such a binge would definitely affect insulin levels, stressing the body's hormone system and leading to a slumpy, tired "crash." In other words, it might taste good going in, but a price will be paid.

The price: You'll get hungry again sooner.

Too Much Denial Can Lead to Bingeing

But if eating too many treats can touch off more hunger, constant self-denial can lead to dietary defiance and end up derailing all your good intentions, Gillespie says.

"It takes a week to lose two pounds," she says, "yet you can eat [those two pounds] on in a day. If you keep telling yourself not to eat something, you will just get in a cycle of hopelessness and eat things you don't need."

Gillespie herself caves in to the occasional chocolate craving but tries to keep her indulgences on the lighter side. "Last night, I microwaved some chocolate sauce and dipped strawberries," she says. "I picked a healthy fruit."

Liftin, hardly the Moderation Kid, says the once-a-week approach works best for her.

"One bite is torture for me," she says. "I need to eat as much as I want if I am going to eat it." But "I don't start eating candy until after lunch. You have to have some standards."


"Anything under a hundred calories won't make or break you."

Molly Kimball, RD, a sports nutritionist at Ochsner Clinic's Elmwood Center in New Orleans, says some of her weight-loss clients need something sweet each day. "I tell them anything under a hundred calories won't make or break you," she says.

Kimball recommends treating yourself to something that is not 100% sugar, which can create more cravings. She often chooses a sweet treat that includes nuts.

"My favorite is 10 to 12 Peanut M&Ms," she confides. "You can eat 24 of the regulars for 100 calories, too, or those fun-size Snickers." She also eats one square of dark chocolate, sometimes dipping it in peanut butter.

"Once you say it's OK to eat something, there is no guilt," Kimball stresses. "You don't inhale three without tasting them and then taste the fourth. You enjoy every one."

4 Ways to Stay on Track

The goal, according to Gillespie, is to create your own, long-term eating pattern. "It's the short-term (on, off, lose, gain) diets that cause the problem," she says.

Four basic lifestyle changes, made mindfully and over time, can help your diet accommodate the occasional dessert or overindulgence in candy:

  • Reduce portion size. See if your plate looks like a restaurant plate. If so, halve everything on it. Forget the seconds.
  • Eat more often. That's more often, not more food. This keeps your digestive hormones on an even keel and you won't get out-of-control hungry. It's normal to feel a twinge of hunger every three or four hours.
  • Eat more slowly. According to Gillespie, scarfing down dinner too quickly doesn't let your digestive hormones cycle through. Then, the only way to know you're done is to feel physically "stuffed," by which point you've probably eaten too much.
  • Exercise. "We're slugs!" cries Gillespie, who says that after strapping on a pedometer, she found she averages only 2,400 steps a day. "My birds in their cage walked more than I did," she recalls. Some experts recommend fitting in 10,000 steps each day.

But what if, despite your best intentions, you throw moderation to the wind and have that second piece of cake, or even a whole bag of candy?

"Start anew," Gillespie says. "You can't change the hormone response, so forgive yourself and get on with life."

Originally published Aug. 26, 2003
Medically updated Oct. 18, 2004.


SOURCES: Hilary Liftin, author, Candy & Me: A Love Story. Larrian Gillespie, MD, author, The Menopause Diet; The Gladiator Diet; and The Goddess Diet. Molly Kimball, RD, sports nutritionist, Ochsner Clinic's Elmwood Center, New Orleans.

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Last Editorial Review: 4/12/2005 7:22:19 PM




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