There is a lot to be said for treats. Everyone has those guilty or even not so guilty pleasures which they indulge from time to time, and that is perfectly OK. Pastries, cakes, pies and, of course, the assorted chocolate combinations we all see on grocery and convenience store shelves play a considerable role in our lives. We all love a good indulgence, whether it be a full-blown departure from “eating clean” or simply a “blip” on our healthy regimen radar.

Advertisements play into this, obviously, with tag lines such as “it really satisfies” or the amusing and unlikely event of a candy bar “tropic-calling” us and implying that it will transport us to a much more desirable place than where we currently reside. Such encouragements can be subtle or quite obvious — one brand of trail mix is actually named “Indulgent” — but they all share one thing; they aren’t completely wrong. Conversely, however, they are not always or even usually right.

Over the years I have had my fair share of indulgence in food and snacks that served no other purpose than to make me (at least momentarily) a little happier. Apple pies, strawberry pies and peanut butter pies have been my go to indulgence of choice, and to quote a popular ad, “sorry; not sorry.” 

Though the last might be a little of what my daughter might call “snarky,” I have not, in recent memory, purchased any candy bar that wasn’t king-sized. But before I am relegated to the amusing hypocrisy of Larry Groce’s 1970’s classic “Junk Food Junkie” (YouTube is wonderful, isn’t it?), I will explain my position on those things health professionals unilaterally denounce.

The thing to remember is, don’t make it a crime. Seriously, one, two, or even three candy bars or as many slices of pie will not completely derail an overall healthy lifestyle; and unless it is the size of a Buick hood, one brownie is a harmless enough indulgence. It is when you cut those “treats” out of your diet completely that the real problems occur, though not in the way you might expect. The reality is that a piece of celery is “better” for you than one of grandma’s amazing chocolate chip cookies — but no one, to the best of my knowledge, has ever got excited for a plate of her celery. And not a single person has ever asked her for her tofu recipes.

Now I will admit this seems somewhat unfair to celery in particular and vegetables in general, both of which I actually enjoy. Tofu, well, it is a viable substitute when a person is looking for lower fat options that many people enjoy. But are there any examples in either of those categories that qualify as a treat or an indulgence? Probably not. And this is not the slightest bit surprising because they are not, in fact, supposed to be. Both healthy and (somewhat, at least) unhealthy food options have their place in our eating profiles but overemphasizing either has inherent pitfalls and problems. And replacing one category with too much of the other can be unpleasant at best and disastrous at worst.

There are many quite delicious and healthy alternatives to the things we have added into our diets over the years. It would be of both an immediate and an overall benefit to take advantage of these, especially when, as in the case of medical conditions such as diabetes, there is a serious medical reason to eliminate food properties such as sugar and certain carbohydrates. And artificial sweeteners in any form are best avoided whenever possible. But there are also a few (at least) good reasons to limit our favorite indulgences to an occasional departure rather than routine consumption. The main reason to do this is that, unless they are limited, they lose their overall value.

One of the reasons we all love snacks and treats is that they are different from what we normally eat. Imagine it as a factory worker whose job it is to label things on a conveyor belt, and how boring (though necessary) the daily grind of carrot … celery … potato … etc., would be in an unchanging progression throughout the day, every day. Then imagine the spike in the attention of the same factory worker on the days it becomes carrot … celery … chocolate-nougat-caramel. Of course, that worker is going to let out his best Homer Simpson “Woo-Hoo!” and will pay close attention until returning to the normal grind. And, what many fail to realize, the reverse would be true as well.

There is a reason why snacks and treats are not called meals. Though quite tasty, they were intended to be an occasional addition and never the main course. No mother ever said, “Eat that whole apple pie, Johnny, if you want to grow up big and strong!” And, though it does contain at least trace amounts of nutrients, the same mother never said, “Have another sundae, Suzy, because you need strong bones!” The same mother, however, has probably said “Eat all your vegetables!” to both children. And one thing many of us fail to realize is that sweet treats especially have a psychological impact.

The adult human has 32 teeth, 28 of which could be categorized as a “sweet tooth” — the other four, well, they’re in denial. If you question this, and say it is simply learned behavior, test it on a baby. Babies instantly respond to sugar (even with 0 teeth) in a positive way because sweet things are pleasant. But over time, just like anything else, sweets fail to generate the same pleasant response as they once did. And at that point, one candy bar doesn’t give us the same satisfaction as it did, so in response we eat two. Then three or four, until we are the ones “tropic-calling” and paying long distance charges as well. At that point the only way “fun-sized” actually is fun is when you eat the whole bag. Sorry, kids, Trick or Treat has been canceled this year due to supply issues.

As always, everything is about balance. Keep the treats as treats, and if you want the occasional sugary snack then make sure it is an occasional indulgence you will actually enjoy to the fullest extent. And don’t disrespect broccoli because it doesn’t taste like a Twizzler — it isn’t supposed to. I have never once expected my apple pie to taste like Brussel sprouts and would be disappointed if it did. By the same token, I don’t want my Brussel sprouts to taste like a hot fudge sundae. These things all have their own places in our lives, some a larger place than others. We just need to be honest with ourselves about their importance.

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