5 Ways You’re still Dieting (even though you’re not “On A Diet”)

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I’m Sarah (she/her), a Toronto-based writer, anti-diet nutritionist, and Certified Intuitive Eating Counsellor. I teach folks how to have a healthy relationship with food and accept their natural body size.

Hi, I'm Sarah

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Since upwards of 90% of eating disorders (Binge Eating Disorder included) begin with a diet, chances are good you’ve dieted in the past or are on one right now — even if you don’t realize it.

Even if you’re “not on a diet” — Weight Watchers, Paleo, Keto, sugar-free, Atkins, and their ilk — dieting isn’t just something you “do.” It’s also (and I would argue predominantly) the way you think. 

Binge eating is a reactive response to deprivation, which can take all kinds of forms. Because of our fat phobic, weight-centric culture, disordered attempts to “get healthy”, such as giving up entire macronutrient groups or vilifying specific ingredients, are often completely normalized.

I’ve had many clients claim they’re “not really restricting” only to see through our work together how restrictive they really were. I don’t share this with the intent to shame anyone — how could you know? — but merely to reflect the layered and nuanced impact diet culture and the thin ideal has had on our relationship to food, our bodies, and our selves.

All of this to say: it’s very possible you’re dieting without being “on a diet.” To find out, read below for 5 ways you may still be dieting without realizing it (and what to do instead.)

Some examples of “diet thoughts”:

Choosing eggs with avocado and bacon for breakfast is not a diet…unless you believe reducing your carbohydrates will help you to shed fat. 

Opting for the vegetarian entree is not a diet…unless you believe it will help you to weigh less. 

Using almond milk instead of cream in your coffee is not a diet…unless you’re actively trying to “eat clean.” (read: not dirty.)

Yes. That means the habits and behaviours you’re employ to keep yourself “under control” or “in line” may effectively lead you in the opposite direction. They are keeping you in the restrict-binge cycle.

Some of these subtle forms of dieting— of physiological or psychological deprivation — include the following:

#1. CHOOSING THE “HEALTHIER” OPTION.

Let’s separate “health” from “diet”, shall we? Some foods are more nutritious than others — this is true.

But a) you don’t have to eat exclusively “healthy” foods to be healthy, and b) ordering the so-called “healthiest” option on auto-pilot isn’t necessarily the healthiest option for you at the time.

Some ways you might be employing this mindset:

You always order the lowest calorie option.

You skip the bread basket and avoid starch with dinner. 

You order the “healthiest” meal vs. the one you actually want.

You order a side salad instead of the fries. 

You avoid gluten, dairy, meat, soy, etc. without a religious, ethical, or medical purpose (i.e. Celiac’s Disease, lactose intolerance, peanut allergy, kosher.) 

You adhere to a plant-based diet because you believe it will help you to lose or maintain your weight.

You skip breakfast or dinner (intermittent fasting) to lean down (even if you’re hungry). 

You stop eating after 7pm, even if you’re hungry, to suppress your weight. 

#2. AVOIDING DESSERTS, OR ONLY CONSUMING “NATURAL SWEETENERS” OR SUGAR SUBSTITUTES.

You actively avoid desserts or you adhere to a sugar-free diet. I wrote a whole post about why avoiding or eliminating sugar isn’t necessary (or recommended).

While your body could live without white sugar, intermittent access has been shown to ramp up the “charge” we associate with sweets, and may lead us to binge eat or overeat them when we do come into contact with them.

These feelings may make us feel as though we’re “addicted” to sugar, when in fact studies show these “addicted” feelings have more to do with our relationship to sugar than sugar itself (how many people do you know claim they’re addicted to yogurt or bananas, both sugar-containing foods?)

Some people aren’t much for sweets, and that’s totally cool — but the difference is they’re not actively avoiding them.

#3. ENGAGING IN COMPENSATORY BEHAVIOURS.

“Compensatory behaviour” is exactly what it sounds like: behaviours, like exercising more or eating less, to “compensate” for consuming extra calories or food (perceived or actual.)

Now, some behaviours are considered clinical and are symptoms of an active eating disorder (i.e. purging, laxative abuse, over-exercise).

Some are sub-clinical but equally problematic from a psychological standpoint, such as: skipping meals all day to “save up” for a big dinner, “earning” your pizza and wine night by working out earlier in the day, or joining a hot yoga class the morning after a party to “make up” for the night before.

“Normal eaters” — those who are not restricting physiological or psychologically — do not “earn” or “make up” for energy consumed.

#5. USING DIET LANGUAGE. 

Using phrases like “being bad” when eating chocolate cake or enjoying a crispy French fry — or alternately, “being good” when eating a salad — are symptoms of a diet mentality.

Discussing the calories, carbohydrate count, or fat grams in a food while “enjoying” it is also a sign you’re dieting. Food really is just food! It may seem incredulous, but food is morally neutral (not “good” or “bad.”)

We’re socially conditioned not to trust our bodies, so of course it feels as though you must exercise control or keep yourself “in check”. But your body actually does a wonderful job of maintaining homeostasis — and this extends to monitoring your energy needs.

In the comment section below, please let me know: What’s your biggest takeaway from this post? 

Comments +

  1. Maria Salus says:

    I am currently on treatment from Anorexia Nervosa. I have tried many ”meal plans”. However, they were also the restriction and didn’t allow me to treat the food just as a part of life. It was a centre of it. Recently I set my own meal plan which has only one rule: 3 big proper meals and whatever I want in between. I noticed that our bodies are really smart and know what they need. I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to stop eating sugar once I am commited to my rules. However, even though through 4 years of starvation I had recently ate A LOT of sugar (the whole jar of nutella included) I know now that I can have it any time I want so If now someone told me to eat a whole jar of nutella I just wouldn’t be able to do it. Not because of psyhichal boundaries but because my body just wouldn’t allow me to do so. I was also afraid that eating smaller amounts of high in calories products wouldn’t satisfy my. However, to my surprise eating one slice of cheescake was more satisfying than 2 kilos of apples (literally). So no matter what I know that we cannot cheat our bodies. YOUR BODY is YOUR BODY and it knows exactly what YOUR BODY WANTS. Even though during anorexia recovery sometimes I need to eat a whole loaf of bread as a snack after dinner I know it is because I have starve myself for 4 years and with time passing my cravings are smaller, so I can’t wait for more ”normal” needs. However, I am commited and for now even if these amounts of food seems scary to me I allow myself to eat. I am sorry for all grammar mistakes, English is not my first language. If you have any advice for me please feel free to write maaria206salus@gmail.com I’d love to use some help.

    • Sarah Berneche says:

      Hi Maria! How amazing that you recognized the limitations of your meal plan and implemented a system that honours the progress you’ve made as well as your current needs. It sounds like you’re learning to trust your body (creating unconditional permission to eat, discovering the importance of satisfaction — and learning what is satisfying!) It sounds like you’re currently experiencing extreme hunger, which is very normal and expected when someone is recovering from a very restrictive eating disorder. I don’t know where you’re currently at in your recovery, but it’s very possible this exists for you. Do you have a team assisting you at this time? I’m not clear on where you’re stuck, but I’d be be happy to help you and/or connect you to others who can — simply email me at sarah[at]sarahberneche.com.

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