You got the memo right? Diets don’t work.
Instead we hear about making a lifestyle change, working on a wellness plan, clean eating or whole foods only. But how healthy are these healthy eating rules really? Do they actually help us to connect to our body or are they just a diet in disguise?
It’s pretty clear that diets don’t work. The research shows they fail 95% of people and all long-term follow up shows that people who diet either end up heavier or back to their starting weight. Diets are restrictive, incompatible with real life and actually turn your body into a fat storing machine.
What’s a girl to do instead? Enter the “wellness diet” or “healthy lifestyle change.” Now don’t get me wrong, sometimes people really do adopt healthy lifestyle changes and improve their wellness. But, sometimes these changes can merely be diets operating under another name.
So, how can you tell if your healthy eating plan is a diet in disguise? Well, read on.
1. Foods have labels
I’m not talking package labels but moral labels. You know the ones: good vs bad; allowed vs forbidden; clean vs toxic. When we use these types of words to label our foods, we are placing a moral judgement on the foods we eat. And, when it comes to virtues and morals, food is just food. Food didn’t betray anyone. Food never stole anyone’s TV.
Moralizing food is all based on an arbitrary set of rules and beliefs. This is a diet.
“But what about the nutritional value?” I hear you scream through the interwebs. Yes, all foods have a different level of nutrients, but unless you’re eating plastic food, all food gives us nutritional value. All foods have their place.
Plus food is so much more than the sum of its parts. Food gives us comfort, connection, nourishment and enjoyment. When we label our foods and reduce them to simply what they offer us nutrient-wise, we miss this important part of food’s role. We aren’t eating well, we are dieting.
2. You have to track what you eat
Do you have to count your macros? Pop deets into your Fitbit? Weigh your food?
Awareness is an important part of healthy eating. It’s good to be connected to what you eat but sometimes tracking can get a little obsessive. It also can emphasize control.
In this case, it’s all about intention. What is the purpose of tracking?
If it’s about control or “checking up” then you’re on a diet. Normal, flexible eating is just that – flexible.
3. It’s harder to socialize around food
Does the way you eat make it harder to head out for a bite with friends? Does it get you a little stressed out about social functions? Are you worried there won’t be foods that you can eat? Worried that you won’t be able to “stay on track” or stay in control?
This is a red flag. Diets are all about control. Social situations will have you stressed because you simply can’t control what’s available to eat.
Healthy eating includes flexibility. It also incorporates the role of food in connection to people –– which boosts our physical, emotional and mental health.
4. Total energy or calories are limited
Does your healthy eating detox come with a calorie count? Are there only a certain amount of points you can eat in a day on your wellness plan?
Yep, you guessed it. This is a diet.
Our daily calorie needs actually fluctuate depending on what we do in a day. When we listen to our physical cues of hunger and satisfaction, we can adjust our intake to meet these changes. When we follow a diet, we are told to stick to a certain number, or at least below a certain number.
Generally a diet will under-fuel you. And yes, this will lead to weight loss in the short term – which is what diets are all about. But it wont lead to a healthy relationship to food and it’ll leave you with some serious rebound eating (and generally rebound weight gain) when it’s all done and dusted.
5. Specific foods or food groups are restricted
If you’re cutting out specific foods, food groups or nutrients, then you are on a diet.
Let’s get real here and cut through all the rules and BS. Unless you have an allergy or diagnosed intolerance to a food, there is no reason to cut it out. Firstly, it’s unsustainable and as per #3 above, makes it hard to live life.
Secondly, it makes it harder to actually get all the things you need from your food. A diet high in variety gives us a better chance of getting all the nutrients we need to actually keep us healthy. Reducing variety by restriction does not.
Restriction also has a couple of bonus (not so fun) side effects – it increases our focus on food, increases food cravings and leads to more emotional eating.
This, again, is about control. It’s a diet…run!
6. Your habits get between you and your body
Does your eating plan encourage you to listen to and honor your body signals like hunger and satisfaction? Or, does it set arbitrary rules on the amounts you eat and encourage you to disconnect from your body’s cues?
One of these is a diet, the other isn’t…I think you can figure out which.
7. You still feel crazy around food
Diets will make you feel crazy around food. Surem while you are on your new “lifestyle transformation plan,” you’ll feel great, energized, in control and completely regular. But once life gets in the way (and doesn’t it always?) the plan goes out the window and the swing-back from the restriction is epic: you feel like a crazy person around food…again!
This is what diets do –– no matter what fancy name they are going under. They set you up for failure; they make you blame yourself for that failure; and they get you to internalize your eating as a problem. The only problem here is the diet. It sets up unrealistic expectations, ridiculous food restriction and rigidity, and it blames you for it all.
What’s the alternative?
Ultimately, we all have to be the experts in our own eating experience. But we wont get there through control. We need curiosity, connection and compassion.
Curiosity to listen to our body, to figure out what feels good, what tastes good and what works for us as individuals. If you have an allergy or there’s an ethical reason why you don’t eat a certain food, then you’ll feel better by not eating it. 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 what and how you can eat, you are following a diet, or at the very least, stuck in “diet mindset.”
We need a connection to our body to learn and follow our physical hunger and satisfaction cues. We need connection to our mental and emotional well-being, so that we can take care of that alongside our physical nourishment.
We also need compassion with ourselves. Compassion when we revert to diet rules. Compassion when we eat in a way that doesn’t work for us. Compassion when we talk to ourselves. We are doing the best we can. It’s okay if we’ve been following “diet mindset” and it’s become ingrained. We can move towards a healthier relationship with food.
It takes time to truly ditch diets and “diet mindset” but all you need to do is start. Start being curious, connected and compassionate with yourself, your body and your food.