Ditch the Diet if You Want to Get Healthy this Year

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'Tis the season of detoxes, diets, and packed gyms (aka my least favorite time of year to workout). Are you resolving to lose weight, get in shape, or finally "eat healthy?" If so, you're not alone.  One survey showed that the top 2 New Year's resolutions are to get in shape and lose weight. Four of the top 5 resolutions on another list I saw recently had something to do with eating better and exercising more. This year's list is no different than last year or the year before. So, why is it that every January we set the same goals only to be back to our old habits before Superbowl Sunday? Because our culture tells us it's what we are supposed to do and that the answer to health is a diet. We are told that health is determined by how much we exercise and how little we can eat. 

Somewhere between 95-97% of diets* fail. Let that sink in for a minute.  If your doctor told you that the medicine he or she was about to prescribe only had a 3-5% success rate, would you try it? Or would you ask for another option? 

Dieting is a predictor of weight gain. And restrictive eating almost always leads to a binge. We know from experience that diets don't work. If they did, we wouldn't have to try a new one every January (or May or September). Yet, we continue to try the same thing every year, just packaged slightly differently. Sounds like the textbook definition of insanity to me, doesn't it? Except it's deemed culturally normal.

Now, there is nothing wrong with wanting to make changes to improve your health. I wish more people would commit to this (hello, I'm a dietitian and spend my life helping people get healthier).  It's the way we go about it that's the problem. 

So what if you took a different approach this year? What if instead of counting calories (read why this doesn't work) you choose to listen to your body and trust that it will tell you what it needs? What if instead of eliminating certain foods from your diet you choose to add something positive to your eating plan? What if instead of looking for the latest quick fix or detox you commit to making small positive changes? What if instead of focusing on a number on a scale, you focus on how you feel both physically and emotionally? What if instead of punishing yourself for getting fries instead of a salad you savor those fries and then move on with your day?

What if, this year, you ditched the dieting mentality?

The first step to ditching the diet mentality is to acknowledge any food rules that might be lingering from previous diets. Here are a few examples:

  • Eating only at  certain times of the day or not after a certain time at night. 
  • Only allowing yourself to eat bread at one meal per day (i.e. if you had toast for breakfast you don't let yourself have a sandwich at lunch). 
  • Putting certain foods in good or bad/off-limits buckets. 
  • Avoiding buying certain foods you like because you "just can't have them in the house." 
  • Trying to satisfy cravings with healthy alternatives. 
   Because sometimes you need some chocolate at breakfast. 

Because sometimes you need some chocolate at breakfast. 

Once you recognize any rules you still have in place, pay attention to how those food rules are dictating your food choices. For example, I used to never keep desserts in the house because I was afraid I wouldn't be able to control how much I ate. But when a craving for something sweet came along, I would eat fruit then often move on to chocolate chips (hidden away in my baking jars), maybe dipped in peanut butter, and still not be satisfied. Over time I realized that I am much better off keeping some quality dark chocolate in my pantry so I can enjoy it when I feel like it. The funny thing that happened is that I often forget that it's even there. But when I feel like chocolate (which is not nearly as often as I thought I would), I have it. I realized that I crave fruit far more often than chocolate, but when I do,  I end up eating far less than than I would if I went searching for an alternative. 

Tuning in to Hunger and Fullness

If you're not following food rules, you might feel a little lost at first, but our bodies have an amazing way of telling us what we need. You just have to listen. 

Have you ever watched a little kid eat? They eat when they are hungry (and cry if we don't feed them!) and stop when they have had enough even if their plate is still half full.  I was watching my friend's 1 1/2 year old son eat a cookie on Christmas. He ate a few bites, carried it around for a bit, and then eventually gave it back to his mom after only eating about 1/3 of the cookie. Without any thought, he enjoyed what he wanted and then stopped when he'd had enough. 

We are born with an innate ability to regulate how much food we need due to a complicated, yet very efficient, system of hormones and neurological signaling. Diets tell us what and how much to eat and teach us to ignore our inner cues, so many of us have lost touch with what it really feels like to be hungry and full.

Learning to tune into what your body needs takes time and practice. As I tell my clients, it's always a work in progress. The thing about this way of eating is that there is no right or wrong. The most important thing is to let go of any perfectionist mentality and any food rules you've been living by. 

   Now this salad is anything but boring. 

Now this salad is anything but boring. 

Fuel Your Body with Food that Makes You Feel Good

You may be thinking: Well this sounds great, but if I ditch food rules, I'll just eat pizza and french fries for every meal. Here's my response: Does that make you feel your best? Most people aren't going to answer yes to that question.

As yourself: What can you put on your plate that makes you feel good and gives you the energy you need to get through your day?

Instead of a total overhaul of your diet, think about one or two positive changes you can make to improve your health this month.  Here are a few simple ideas: 

  • Make half your plate vegetables at most meals. 
  • Aim to drink half your body weight in ounces of water per day. 
  • Add fermented foods to your diet (it's good for your gut and overall health) like sauerkraut, kimchi, or kefir. 
  • Go meatless one meal or one day per week -- it's good for you and the earth! 
  • Cook one more meal per week at home than you currently do. 

Remember that these are not black and white rules to live by, but positive actions you can do to improve your health. It's OK if some meals are missing vegetables or if you have a week or two where you eat out more often than you'd like. When healthy eating becomes stressful, the benefits begin to diminish. 

If the idea of letting go of food rules and dieting sounds scary to you, think about this: By choosing to ditch the diet mentality, you open open up brain space for so many other things that can promote health. Being healthy is not what the number on the scale says or how many vegetables you ate or how many cookies you avoided. It's about limiting stress, getting enough sleep, feeling emotionally well, and making social connections. What you put on your plate and how much you exercise is only one part of the picture. 

If you're ready to ditch the diet and want some guidance along the way, I'm here to help. Schedule a 15 minute introductory call to get started. 

*When using the word diet here I am referring to some sort of restrictive food plan, not the real meaning of the word diet, which is just the way we eat.