It sometimes seems like our society considers dieting synonymous with healthy eating. When I talk about dieting I am referring to restricting the amount and/or type of food that you eat for the purpose of losing weight.
Now, some diets clearly go against generally accepted, evidence-based nutrition guidance. I’m talking about the ones that tell you to cut out entire food groups, or use a bunch of supplements or meal replacement products. However, the diet mentality is not only seen with these more extreme fad diets. Often we are exposed to messages of dieting and restriction under the guise of sensible, evidence-based recommendations (I will talk about some examples later).
OK, so what’s the problem with dieting? It can put us into a cycle like this:
Your body is smart. When it’s not getting enough food, sophisticated physiological mechanisms will kick in to help you survive! Your metabolism will slow down and neurochemical systems will ramp up the biological drive to eat. This is why diets don’t work over the long run. They also come with the risk of side effects like preoccupation with food, feelings of failure, and social withdrawal.
So how can we use all the evidence nutrition science has to offer, without falling into this cycle of dieting? Well, honestly, when diet messaging is so pervasive – it can be hard! This is why in the process of Intuitive Eating, we usually take the focus off of details about nutrition until you have a solid foundation of a healthy relationship with food. This can help you pursue healthy eating without turning it into another diet.
I’m going to try and give you some examples to make this a bit more concrete.
Focus on eating plenty of vegetables and fruit.
I think this is probably one of the least controversial nutrition recommendations out there. The evidence is strong and I think most of us can agree that vegetables and fruit are healthy. But it is sometimes approached with a diet mentality, as seen in the following examples:
- Glorification of vegetables and fruit based on their low calorie content
- The notion that adding fat to vegetables defeats the purpose, and that they must be eaten plain/raw, boiled, steamed, etc.
- Tying the consumption of vegetables and fruit to moral superiority
- Using vegetables in place of other foods, out of fear of calories or carbohydrates (I’m looking at you, cauliflower “rice” and zucchini “noodles”!)
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to eat health-promoting foods like vegetables and fruit. But when you look at the examples above, the intentions come down to restriction (often for the purpose of changing body size). When vegetables and fruit are used as just another way to restrict intake (whether that’s intake of calories, fat, or carbohydrates), it can put you right into the diet cycle we talked about above. Taking a very rigid, moralistic approach can also hurt your relationship with food. And if eating vegetables and fruit becomes a “chore” or even a punishment, it is going to be difficult to sustain the behaviour over the long term.
But diet culture shouldn’t get a monopoly on vegetables and fruit! Here are some examples of how you can embrace them in a non-diet way:
- Appreciating all the different things we can get from vegetables and fruit (e.g., vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates, fibre, phytochemicals)
- Paying attention to how these foods make you feel (e.g., maybe you notice that when you eat enough vegetables and fruit, your bowel patterns are more regular)
- Experimenting with different types of vegetables and fruit, along with different ways of preparing them, to find what you actually like
- Using vegetables as substitutes because they actually sound good to you, or to mix things up (but knowing that if you want to have real rice or noodles, that’s OK too!)
Let’s say you’ve decided you should have a plain salad with lemon juice for dressing every day for lunch because it’s low in carbs, fat, and calories. Is this likely to be filling and satisfying – or will you be hangry in an hour? And how long do you think it’s possible to keep this up? A week? What about for two months? A year? Going back to the cycle of dieting, this is an example of restricting food intake. This in turn leads to deprivation, which is bound to lead to backlash at some point (for example, in the form of bingeing).
An alternative might be trying out different types of salads with fat, protein, and carbohydrates. Imagine a salad with some type of grain, a nice olive oil dressing, and some nuts or cheese. And imagine all the different combinations you can try to keep things interesting. Or what about a hearty stew or vegetable curry? Trying different ways of eating vegetables will help you find meals that are filling, satisfying, and enjoyable. It’s a lot easier to stick with something you actually enjoy over the long term. Remember that variety is also key in a healthy diet.
Cook at home more often.
I definitely believe that cooking your own food can be a very healthy habit. I love exploring strategies to help people make more of their own food, if that is a goal that interests them. However, a diet mentality can creep into this pursuit, as in the following examples:
- Using cooking as a way to avoid foods that are seen as “bad”
- Rigidity around needing to have only home-cooked meals to make sure you can stick to whatever diet you’re on at the moment (e.g., feeling guilty about or avoiding social situations that involve going out to eat)
- Feeling guilty when circumstances prevent you from cooking food from scratch
Once again, these examples come down to restriction. We also see the theme of guilt and morality around food. So how can we incorporate this nutrition guideline with a non-diet approach? Here are some ideas:
- Finding ways of cooking/prepping food that work for you. Sometimes that might be enjoying taking the time to make an elaborate meal. Other times it may be using canned and frozen ingredients to put together something very quickly. Maybe you like making a big batch of food once a week, or maybe you prefer cooking every day
- Choosing recipes that actually sound appealing to you
- Giving yourself a break when competing priorities mean you can’t cook
If cooking becomes all about cutting out fat, carbs, or whatever else, it’s basically another method of restriction. And if we go back to the diet cycle, where does that lead us? What if we focus instead on making meals that are varied and satisfying? This can make cooking more enjoyable – something we will want to keep up in the long term.
As you can see, it really comes down to our intentions behind these behaviours. Nutrition can be a powerful way to honour our health and take care of ourselves. But when we approach healthy eating with a mindset of restriction and rigidity, it’s not so helpful! Of course, the process of exploring these thoughts and beliefs and working on our relationship with food is not always simple or easy. It can take time, and some may find that getting support from a professional is helpful. But ultimately this process can help support all aspects of our health in an authentic way.