What is a dessert, exactly?
This probably sounds like a dumb question. It’s something sweet that you eat after a meal, right? Duh.
The reason I mention it is that getting more precise in what, exactly, constitutes a dessert changed my eating habits in a way that nothing else probably would have. That in turn led to the complete physical transformation that I enjoy today.
I have a set of little glass bowls that I use as “ice cream” bowls. (I call it “ice cream” because “frozen non-dairy dessert” is a mouthful, and I’d rather that mouthful be creamy sweet deliciousness, wouldn’t you?). Using these bowls means that we actually get four servings out of a pint, like it says on the label. Before the acquisition of these small bowls, I used a cereal bowl, just like everyone else, and that means that my dessert used to be much larger.
If you sit down and eat a cereal bowl full of ice cream most nights, is it still a treat?
My thought is that anything done on a routine basis is just a routine. It’s not special anymore. Having “treats” so often puts us on the hedonic treadmill, searching farther afield for what used to give us a thrill. In the same way that we always find a way to spend a higher income, we are pretty good at just incorporating extra food into our bodies. I mean, speaking for myself here, if I’ve already eaten a slice of cake at dinner, that’s no reason why I’m not going to eat another slice for breakfast the next morning.
Here’s the thing I figured out about desserts. I was eating what I would now think of as a dessert at least three or four times a day. I would eat a large bowl of cereal for breakfast (or sometimes, if I had it, a slice of cake or pie or a handful of chocolate chip cookies with walnuts). I would have a soda at work (or, in college, at least three cans a day). I might have a bag of candy at my desk. I was “good” at lunch, usually eating dinner leftovers. Then I’d go home and eat dinner, another “healthy” meal, after which I’d have a little container of soy yogurt. And another big bowl of cereal. And possibly also a can of peaches or a bowl of “ice cream.”
It wasn’t until I spent a year writing down everything I ate that I started to see the problem. I was eating a lot more calories than a 5’4” frame can handle. Much of it was from various forms of sugar. I either needed to raise my activity level to match my fuel intake, or I needed to change what I ate to match my affinity for melding into my couch cushions with a book in front of my face.
A couple of years later, I managed to make another connection. I had been driving myself and my husband crazy with my night terrors, and no matter what metrics I tracked, I couldn’t seem to figure out what I was doing wrong. Finally, I realized that the trigger for these terrifying episodes was eating too close to bedtime. Blood sugar fluctuations. As soon as I quit eating three hours before bedtime, the problem went away. I’ve only had two episodes in the past three years.
As a simple guideline, look at the ingredients list of anything you’re eating. Find the section on the label that says Total Carb. If it has more than 30mg, it’s a dessert.
Or at least, that’s what worked for me.
I’m not a low-carb dieter. I’ve tried increasing my protein intake and cutting carbs, and it made me feel horrible, low-energy, headachy, and nauseated. It’s hard to find any endurance athlete who will even bother to try eating low-carb; those are things that don’t go together. Low-carb may work for weight lifters but it doesn’t work for marathon runners. The thing about that 30mg guideline is that some people eat that much carbohydrate in an entire day. I’m talking about consuming that in one single food item.
As far as the “carbs” thing goes, I don’t generally eat white bread, pasta, rice, or anything that comes from a supermarket bakery. I do eat tons of potatoes, I eat whole-grain sandwich bread most days, and I almost always eat oatmeal for breakfast. I eat gluten, I eat wheat, I eat yeast, I eat grains… I’m just not really about white foods. That’s why, when I decide to eat cake or cookies or pie or donuts or more cake, I just go ahead and eat it.
When we were in Iceland, we noted that Icelanders are about three notches leaner than Americans. Yet they have the world’s highest consumption of Coca-Cola and we saw them eating little ice cream cones all the time. It turns out their Coke has 30% less sugar that ours. It also turns out that, due to the price of imported foods, almost everything in their food supply contains only a few ingredients, all of which can be pronounced and understood, and they don’t really do added sweeteners. Most stuff we saw had four ingredients or fewer. Also, their portions were significantly smaller and food was much more expensive. About half the portion for twice the price, with none of the added sugar… and you can start to understand why almost everyone on the entire island had visible muscle definition.
I’m totally in favor of desserts. I happen to think that they should be special occasions. It’s not so special to have something every day, or several times a day. In my case, I guess you could call “running through the house screaming in my sleep” “special” - in a bad way. When I cut my sugar intake in favor of high-fiber, high-micronutrient vegetables and fruits, my sleep problems and chronic migraines resolved themselves. Having a body that functions properly and being pain-free is a major upgrade over any dessert you could put in front of me. When I indulge, I want a dessert, exactly that and no more.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.