More and more often these days you’ll hear people say “diets don’t work” and “it’s about a lifestyle change”. And although these statements are true, with society’s ongoing obsession with weight loss and appearance, giving up on mainstream diets in pursuit of a “healthy lifestyle change” doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve given up on dieting.
Despite your best intentions, your diet-brain may still be running the show. You may be vegan or paleo, or you don’t eat after 6pm or you intermittent fast or you stay low-carb, or you only eat “clean” foods, and on the list goes. You think you’re just making healthy choices. You read studies that say x, y and z and you care about your health — and probably, if you’re being really honest with yourself, your appearance — and so you do what the research tells you.
And every time you avoid eating that food you “shouldn’t”, every time you say no to seconds at the dinner table, every time you pick the “healthiest” item on the menu you feel great about yourself. You feel in control, like you are the Queen of willpower, like you are making the best possible choices for your body.
But then sometimes you don’t. Sometimes you just really want that oatmeal chocolate chip cookie you’ve been thinking about and avoiding ever since you made this “lifestyle change” and one day you want it so badly that you eat one, or two, or maybe a whole batch of them. And then you feel terribly. Like you’re a bad person. You might feel unwell physically, and you’re beating yourself up emotionally, planning how you’re going to “undo” what you’ve done, and double down on your new healthy ways. I ask you, does that seem like a “healthy” lifestyle change to you?
And you may be thinking, well, no but if I could just stick to these healthy changes I’ve implemented like all the smiling paleo/vegan/low-carb/clean eating people I see in magazines and on Instagram, then I would be healthy and the fact I can’t is all my fault. It’s not. Just like with true diets, not being able to stick to strict rules or ways of eating that cut out whole food groups or tell you that you should eat a certain way is 0% your fault. Because your brain still thinks you’re on a diet. And, as we know… diets don’t work.
Your body > Any diet
Our bodies are complex and incredible instruments which need all kinds of nourishment to take on everything we ask of them day after day. That means sometimes we’ll need more food, sometimes we’ll need less. Sometimes we’ll need breakfast the second we get up, sometimes we’ll need a snack right before we go to bed. Sometimes we’ll crave protein, sometimes it will be fat and sometimes it will be All. The. Carbs.
You can pick up one book that tells you to cut out grains, another will tell you to eat 80% fat, another will declare that sugar will be the death of you. And so you hop from low-carb to low-fat to paleo to vegan and back again. All along the way getting down on yourself when you can’t stick to the “rules” and feeling guilty because you had too much quinoa.
And look, I’m a Registered Holistic Nutritionist. I believe deeply in the role food and nutrition has in our health and well-being. I know for myself, if I have dairy I can expect to feel like I am both pregnant and coming down with a severe case of Norwalk for the next 2-3 days. So eventually I learned I prefer not to eat dairy. Allergies and sensitivities are very real things, but discovering them and making gentle changes to support them should be done by listening to your body and doing what feels right for it.
It can be problematic when changes are instigated by a book or newspaper headline telling you a certain food is without a doubt killing you and the rest of the human race. A more helpful approach may be to work with a qualified professional (Hey! That’s me! #shamelessplug) who can help you get a full picture of what’s going on in your body and what changes might be worth experimenting with to see what could help. But food doesn’t need to be the enemy and there’s no need to fear whole food groups or macronutrients.
But… the science!!
Unfortunately, a lot of these “non-diets” can seem really appealing because there’s a lot of scientific research cited for each of them and we just want to do right by ourselves. But here’s the thing, nutrition research is complicated. There isn’t nearly enough of it, it’s often funded by large companies that have a vested interest in the results and although correlations can be discovered, it’s pretty hard to determine causation — meaning that we know for sure one thing caused the positive or negative result — since we eat so many different things and so many lifestyle factors can also come into play.
Listen, I’m very science-minded. I love reading the research and learning about what it has to offer us. But here’s the thing, ultimately, in a way, I don’t believe any of it matters *gasp* Because in the end it’s all about how it affects you. Kale, Brussels sprouts and cabbage are all incredibly nutritious, but for my friend who has a terrible allergic reaction when she eats them… they’re doing far more harm than good.
Ultimately, it’s all about what fuels you, what you like, and what feels good in your body. If you have an allergy or there’s an ethical or spiritual reason why you don’t eat a certain food then chances are not having it will feel natural and easy. But if you’re forcing yourself to not eat something even though your body is telling you it needs it, or you’re following strict rules about when and how you can eat, you may be stuck in a diet-mentality without realizing it.
Summer Innanen perfectly captures the diet-mentality in her podcast episode, “Why Diets Don’t Work” — which is a must-listen. She explains, “the diet-mentality is when weight and self image and food are all intertwined.” And she goes on to list some of the symptoms:
- Judgment of food choices
- Looking at food through the lens of good vs. bad
- Eating according to lists or rules instead of giving your body what it wants and desires
- Bouncing between restriction and bingeing
- Perception that you “overeat”
- Any kinds of “shoulds” or “shouldn’ts” around food
- Feeling out of control around food
- Fixating and obsessing about what you’re going to eat later in the day
- Feeling guilty when you eat certain foods
- Feeling self-righteous when you eat certain foods
- Feeling addicted to certain foods
- Not knowing what hunger or satiety really feels like anymore
- Overthinking and analyzing the food on your plate
- Avoiding social situations because of food concerns
- Fearing and avoiding certain foods
- Being obsessed with the nutritional value of food
- In general, food becomes the enemy and something you feel like you’re fighting against instead of a source of physical and emotional nourishment and pleasure
Do any of these feel familiar? Many eating styles or healthy lifestyle changes make similar promises to traditional diets — you’ll lose weight, feel better, be healthier — all of which can certainly happen. But they shouldn’t come at the expense of your mental health or your social life or your relationship with food. You can feel better and improve your health, and if it’s truly right for your body, lose weight, without any of the above negative symptoms. It just means not letting these types of diets in disguise take the place of traditional diets, and instead, focusing on letting go of the diet-mentality.
Bye-bye diet-mentality — Hope the door hits you on the way out
Saying goodbye to the diet-mentality can be really hard. After all, it has spent years or even decades settling into your subconscious and taking control of how you feel around food. But a great first step is working on releasing any rules these types of diets in disguise may have over you. If a certain way of eating really resonates with you spiritually and physically, that’s great. But if you feel like you’re white-knuckling it, like you’re desperately trying to hold onto your willpower and beating yourself up when you can’t — then try to notice what that’s about and let go of those rules. You don’t need them.
The important thing is to listen to your body. There’s no need to judge yourself for your cravings or to double down on your willpower. Your body is constantly growing and changing and that might mean different nutrients and quantities of food are necessary. Listen to your body and don’t judge it for what it’s telling you it needs — just listen. It can take time, but all you have to do right now is start.
Letting go of the diet-mentality and food rules can be hard. If you want some support on your journey towards making peace with food and your body, please don’t hesitate to contact me. I am always here to help.