Today’s post is on something I see all the time with clients and is a huge barrier to improving your eating. I’m talking about the idea that you need to “eat clean” and eliminate foods completely from your diet in order to be healthy. Why is this not a good idea? Frankly, it’s not sustainable and it usually ends with people eating way more of those foods they were trying to cut out to begin with because they feel so deprived.
Tell me if this sounds familiar: you decide you’re going to start eating healthier in order lose weight or feel better. In order to do this you decide this means cutting out sugar, refined carbohydrates, possibly dairy, etc. Maybe you even find a diet to follow that dictates exactly what and how much of which specific foods you’re allowed to eat. You follow it for a while and then there’s a party or other gathering where your favourite foods are that are ‘off limits.’ Next thing you know, you’ve eaten those off limits foods and give up on the diet and go back to what you were eating before. Usually not before you eat a whole lot more of those foods you missed.
The other situation is that you might eat the food, feel guilty about it, and become even more restrictive or decide to ‘make up for it’ at the gym. Then you ‘break the diet’ again, become more restrictive again and end up eating even more when you go off the diet. This situation is arguably worse because it breeds disordered eating and could possibly be the path for an eating disorder.
Many of the people I speak to and many of my clients have followed one of these paths and may require both hands to count all the different diets they’ve tried to improve their health or lose weight. Yet many of us still believe that the next one will be different and will ‘fix’ their eating.
Why does this never work?
The trouble with this situation is that you’re subscribing to what dietitians and psychologists call “all-or-none thinking.” Essentially, you either need to eat ‘perfectly’ or not at all. The trouble is that this is not sustainable and that’s why people give up on diets. A lot of people think that something is wrong with them because they couldn’t follow that diet but what if it’s not you but the diet that isn’t allowing you to be successful?
The thing about diets is that they generally don’t allow for a lot of flexibility and don’t account for the fact that different people have different struggles when it comes to healthy eating. Some people only need information about which foods aren’t the greatest for their health; these people are usually the minority. For some people, the issue is time and for them, figuring out ways of fitting in meal planning and meal prep is probably going to be what works for them. If someone is eating because they’re bored or sad, that needs to be addressed otherwise the person won’t be successful.
The other side of this is the way we have started addressing food. Instead of food being enjoyable, it has become the enemy. I think the reason restrictive diets have become so prevalent is that foods that contain refined grains and sugars are everywhere in our diet and there are certainly health consequences to this. But completely eliminating these foods, especially if you really enjoy them probably isn't the answer. The answer probably has more to do with the way you're approaching these foods.
Food is Enjoyable!
Our culture of dieting seems to forget that an important part of food is pleasure. If you look in other countries like France or Italy, meals are long, social, enjoyable affairs. Eating isn't just another thing in their busy lives that they have to check off their list. Eating is something to be savoured or enjoyed in the company of others, not something you do in your car between errands. If it's not something to be enjoyed but rather something that just needs to get done, it makes sense that our mentality around it has become so skewed.
Without taking the time to savour foods, we don't feel as satisfied from them. Tell me if this sounds familiar: you are having a snack while watching television or maybe in your car. You're eating the food but not really paying much attention because you're distracted. Next thing you know, the food is gone but you didn't really taste it, let alone enjoy it!
When it comes to food, my approach is this: if you’re going to have a food that’s a treat, whatever that may be for you, try not to eat it when you’re distracted! If you really want that chocolate, sit down at the table, focus on the chocolate, and enjoy it. Focus on the look of it, the smell, the way it melts in your mouth and really enjoy the flavours of it instead of eating it in the car or in front of the television. You’ll notice that you’ll probably take more satisfaction from eating the food and you won’t end up eating as much of it.
I have even had clients who thought they loved potato chips for example but once they started focusing on them, they found they were too greasy in their fingers and found the flavour to be too fake! I'm not saying this is true for everyone, some people still love potato chips but they learn to appreciate the flavours more! Getting to a point where it doesn’t feel awkward to not eat when you’re distracted takes a while but this is something that often gets lost in the discussion about healthy eating that is so important! This is part of a concept called Mindful Eating that I will be discussing in future blog posts.
So as a dietitian do I eliminate foods that aren't necessarily considered healthy? You've probably guessed that I don't. If I really want a certain food, I eat it and take the time to enjoy it. That way I don't feel deprived and really get to enjoy my food!
Ditching the diet is hard and takes time because it doesn't tell you what skills to use for eating instead! If you want help navigating eating without 'clean eating' or a diet, you can contact me here.