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Diets don’t work — and actually result in added weight gain the majority of the time. And they’re not always easy to spot. Cabbage soup and grapefruit diets of the past were surpassed by more complex systems like Weight Watchers and The Zone, portioned out plans like Jenny Craig, low-fat diets touted by the likes of Dean Ornish, and a slew of low-carbohydrate diets (Atkins, South Beach), which were replaced by “eating styles” (Paleo, Keto, Bulletproof, clean eating, therapeutic diets, and veganism, depending on the approach). Each varies in nutrient-density and research, though the copy all reads the same.
But while diets are easy to quit, ditching the diet mentality is a whole other story. Many of us are unaware of how easily we internalize these thoughts, alongside the slew of toxic messages about how unworthy we are of an incredible life. I mean, you can’t turn a corner without being told you’re not thin enough, tall enough, pretty enough, glowing enough, shredded enough, successful enough…just not enough. So even if you’ve managed to ditch the diet, the hangover it leaves can feel nothing short of killer.
That’s the thing about diets — they’re not just about what we’re eating. Within the context of food and eating, they’re equally about what we’re thinking, how we’re behaving, what we believe, and, as Kris Carr said, a manifestation of what’s eating us (I’m throwing this last statement out of context, but it’s still true.)
1. You worry about “healthy” vs. “unhealthy” foods (or “good” vs. “bad” foods.)
It’s endlessly fascinating to me how “balanced diet” now means 100% healthy foods, which change on a dime depending on the year, and sometimes come with a set number of “cheat days” or “cheat meals.” Did you have to steal money for your pizza? Did you hurt someone for your nachos? Ending the diet cycle means you’ve stopped worrying so much about cheating on your diet and have started seriously wondering if you’re cheating on yourself.
One of the core beliefs of intuitive eating is that all foods fit. While there are exceptions (always), the conviction that health and potato chip consumption or a daily cookie or a handful of M&Ms cannot co-exist is actually dissonant, since our bodies can handle a variety of foods. Evolution has moulded them into masters at letting us know when we’ve had enough of something. What happens if you’ve eaten too much fruit or too many cookies? Your stomach probably hurts, right? You might get a headache or feel generally unwell. How do you feel if you’ve had too many fried foods? If you’re eaten too many fibrous foods?
If you’ve eaten too many heavy meals, you may naturally start craving lighter fare. If you’ve been without vegetables, you may desperately crave a salad. All of this is to say that while gentle, foundational nutrition knowledge is helpful, especially in connecting us to what we actually need, our bodies are pretty good are telling us what they need if we were only to stop listening to external voices and to start honouring the one that matters most.
I’m not saying this is easy. It’s challenging to shift from a diet mindset to one that embraces all foods. But try to venture into the grocery store with a fresh set of eyes. Look around. What do you gravitate towards? What looks good to you? If everything carried the same emotional attachment, what would you like to eat? The only “unhealthy” thing about enjoying pizza on a Friday night is feeling guilty about it the next day.
2. You count calories, macros, or some other number for the purpose of weight loss or weight maintenance, and you fear your eating would be out of control without MyFitnessPal.
Many people fear that without the constraints of diet culture they would relentlessly overeat. But I want to clarify that intuitive eating is not the Netflix of diets — we’re not eating on demand. We’re eating when we’re hungry, stopping when we’re full (usually — you’ve gotta live a little), and eating foods that always taste and usually feel good. Seems so sound and yet so radical, doesn’t it?
Dieting actually silences your natural hunger/fullness cues and satiety because you become accustomed to external eating guidelines as opposed to internally-motivated ones. Diets also prevent us from reaching our natural weight — a weight best suited to us — because we use them to reach and maintain a size that may not be healthy for us at all. If you’re dieting and always hungry, it’s very likely you’re not eating enough.
For example, you may eat only 1200 calories per day because you were told to and find yourself constantly starving — even if you actually need more like 2, 200. And since we’re on the topic of calorie counters, I’m not a fan of any diet, but I have a real bone to pick with calorie counting apps. Do you actually know how many calories you need not just to survive, but to thrive? Sometimes I’m super hungry and sometimes I’m not. How does a fitness app know how many calories you need on any given day?
The same goes for macronutrients. There are days you may need more protein than usual (say, if you’ve just completed a really tough, arduous workout.) Maybe you need more carbs on those days, too. But sometimes you might really want #alltheavocado or feel an irrational desire for a big bowl of noodles for no reason at all. Should you dismiss these very natural inclinations in favour of some arbitrary rules around eating? I say no. If holistic nutrition promotes listening to our bodies, perhaps the best thing you can do is actually answer when it speaks. You don’t need to justify your mashed potatoes, bowl of oatmeal, cherry cheesecake, chicken salad, green smoothie, or glass of wine to anyone.
Genetically speaking, some of us are meant to be smaller humans. At just under five-foot-two, I can assure you I was never meant to be tall, regardless of what I ate, drank, or did for my health, even if there’s a six-foot-tall person inside of me sometimes ;). The same can be said for our weight, even if some feel conflicted regarding the science behind this.
3. You avoid foods high in fat, carbs, and/or protein for non-medical reasons.
It seems like a new food is culled from the approved list with every day that passes.
In the 90s, fats were out. Forget the yolks, bacon, avocado, olives, coconut, nuts, seeds, cream, whole milk, and everything that’s good in this world. Then it was carbs, general, followed by gluten, followed by all grains. Bread is bad. Sugar is bad. Corn is bad. Soy is bad. Don’t drink fruit juice, but cold-pressed fruit juice is okay. Hold up: just green juice sweetened with lemon or lime. Chocolate is okay, but make it 80%. Actually, 90%. Make sure it’s raw and sweetened with stevia. Eventually we’ll be left with air or Jetson food and a hella lot of anxiety, neither happier or healthier than our grandparents.
So what do you aim for? Variety, dear reader. Above all, food should be pleasurable. Food is joy. Some foods will rank higher in carbohydrate, like the potatoes you roast, tossed with capers, parsley and lemon; the frozen, overripe bananas you throw into your morning smoothie or fold into banana bread; and corn tortillas, heated over the stove and served with strong coffee that eats whatever cream you give it, slow-poached eggs, the spiciest salsa, and the sun as it rises over the park.
Some will fall higher in fat, like the avocado you mash into the guacamole you serve your friends one hot June evening between glasses of wine and roast pork and salads dressed in lemon vinaigrette; the nut butter you eat from the spoon between projects; the red lentil curry with coconut milk; and glorious, delicious, house-smells-like-Sunday-morning bacon that crisps and spits and squirms in the cast iron pan.
And some will be higher in protein, like the tempeh stirred into spiralized zucchini noodles and the roast beef I slow cooked on Saturday with tomato paste and leftover stock made in-house at my local butcher. It’s all part of a balanced diet, and somehow, if you aim for this, I think you’re going to be okay. More than okay.
4. You tell everyone you’ve gone vegan for ethical reasons…and you’re lying about it.
Veganism can certainly work for some people, but the approach determines its diet status. While many people do choose veganism for ethical reasons, just as many default to it for weight loss. Animal foods become another food group you don’t have to think about or control. Suddenly, you have an excuse for declining so-and-so’s birthday cake and eating at home before joining your friends for dinner.
Whether veganism is right for you depends largely on your motivation and the stage you’re at in your intuitive eating journey (and a few other factors I’ll leave for another day.) But if you’re doing it with the hopes of weight loss or have yet to ditch the remaining threads of the diet mentality, I would hold off until you’ve healed your relationship with food before eliminating anything to avoid viewing and using veganism as another diet.
The point here: be honest with yourself.
5. You’re eating or avoiding certain foods because you’ve been told to — and less because you want to or have legit reasons for doing so.
Many people have very serious allergies, but many of us do not and are avoiding foods for reasons that may or may not make sense for us. Gluten-free, dairy-free, soy-free, corn-free, sugar-free, Earth-free…the dizzying array makes it hard to keep up. To complicate matters, most food sensitivity tests are not scientifically validated. While I’m not saying sensitivities and intolerances don’t exist, I’ve also seen people pick and pry at various foods, looking to solve problems that don’t exist. I also suspect that a fear of food can create a placebo effect, convincing someone they’re allergic or sensitive to foods to which they are flat-out not.
I recommend paying attention to the way foods make you feel and making conscious decisions based on those experiences. For example, I can’t eat tons and tons of cow’s dairy — but I can comfortably enjoy a bowl of whole milk cow’s yogurt, cream in my coffee, or a serving of cheese. I also really like goat and sheep’s milk products, which I find easier to digest. Last week I discovered an amazing goat’s feta at my cheesemonger and an aged goat’s cheddar that’s out of this world. This isn’t a perfect science, but approaching food like an explorer or adventurer as opposed to a judge can really help you to select choices that feel good and help you to make peace with food.
6. You stop eating carbs after 2pm and all foods after 6pm.
Time recommendations have “diet mentality” written all over them. Guidelines as to when to start and stop eating are usually arbitrary and not science-based. At the same time, I encourage listening to your body. If you’re not hungry when you first wake up, maybe you need to post-pone breakfast until you do, rather than eating immediately to “jumpstart your metabolism”. But if you’re hungry and it’s 9pm, you might need to eat — particularly if you enjoyed a lighter dinner or if you feel your hunger will prevent you from sleeping. If I eat an early dinner I’ll often have a piece of fruit, some cheese, or yogurt before bed.
The point is: if you’re hungry, eat. There is no magic weight loss bullet. Eating breakfast is not going to save your life and eating after 6pm is not going to kill you.
7. You avoid social situations for fear you’ll eat or drink something forbidden.
You might still be dieting if you refuse to go out to a restaurant because there aren’t any “clean” food options. In the past I’ve been asked about what to order at restaurants or where to eat. While I love all of the options popping up in my neighbourhood — variety is the spice of life, amiright? — I also recommend eating what you actually want vs. what you think you should be eating. If you’re craving a cheeseburger, my fish recommendation won’t serve you. And if what you want is a Greek salad with chicken, perhaps my vegan restaurant suggestion won’t work.
You might also want to consider how you’re feeling. There are times when only red meat will do, especially when my energy tanks, and times I avoid alcohol because of my workload. Today (a Monday) I really wanted Greek salad, mango, and potatoes, and tomorrow I may want an entirely different set of foods (like Cobb salad, a smoothie, and lentils). This is all part of intuitive eating.
These days, I make the following suggestions: 1) eat what you want 2) chew your food 3) try to eat slowly so you can adequately feel your fullness 4) stop when you’re full (most of the time) 5) love your food.
8. You stop eating when you feel you’ve had enough regardless of hunger or fullness.
Many people are concerned about eating too much (the opposite is less common.) Myriad messages about portion size and over-eating have sent us into a tailspin, where we question if we’re overdoing it, too. Let me break this down.
For those who are working out like crazy and never satisfied, consider the possibility that you’re overexercising. But keep in mind that your appetite may increase slightly when you’re exercising as opposed to when you’re sedentary because you need more energy (calories).
And again, if you’re hungry, eat. Even if you think you’ve had enough. Your “enough” may not actually be that much food. If you’re eating a ton of vegetables, it’s possible you’re eating a lot volume-wise, but not quite enough calorie-wise. The goal is not about counting, though — the goal is about eating food you like until you are satisfied and comfortably full (for me this is around 75-80%.) Try this experiment for yourself.
9. You feel you need to detox or cleanse.
In the event someone thinks I’ve forgotten my roots, I do remember where I come from (ahem, holistic nutrition.) Many people believe in nutrition-based cleanses and detoxes, but I have to respectfully disagree. Yes, certain nutrients are required for Phase I and II liver detoxification, but you can get them by eating a variety of foods. If you feel you need to cleanse/detox, ask yourself why. Whether you’ve overeaten while travelling or consumed more alcohol than usual over the summer, the answer, from my standpoint, is always the same: return to your body. Listen to your body. Show your body respect, love, and loyalty. If you’re craving lighter fare, honour that. If you feel like you’ve had too much to drink, perhaps the answer is moderating your consumption rather than latching on to a new fad diet.
10. You experience guilt when eating delicious foods.
Last, but never least, you’re still carrying the diet mentality if you experience guilt or remorse when eating delicious food. Food is an impossibly amazing, breathtaking, joyous part of life. Sunday morning breakfasts with your family, marked by coffee and conversations that linger too long. Wine and cheese nights with your best girls. Tacos and tequila on a summer day. Picnic salads and kombucha. Homemade lemonade mid-August in your backyard. Vine-ripened tomatoes, just-picked apples, watermelon juice that runs down your face, fuzzy peaches that soften with your touch, cheese that tastes tangy and salty and like experience all at once, ice cream that melts too fast, lime popsicles and gossip, toast with honey and sea salt, and egg yolks, so private until they open.
Darling, enjoy it all.