What’s the Difference Between “Healthy Eating” and Dieting?

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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

Have you ever wondered, “What’s the difference between “healthy eating” and dieting?

If so, you’re not alone. In fact, it’s one of the most common questions I receive. It can be tough to distinguish diet mentality from “healthy” eating or a desire to make nutritious choices.

Like many questions, there’s a number of nuances to this. What “healthy eating” might look like to someone in active eating disorder recovery might look different than what “healthy eating” means to someone in their 70s seeking to manage type II Diabetes. Because each one of us is different, I’d say this is all the more reason to look at this question holistically and individually rather than defaulting to blanket statements. And all the more reason for an intuitive, embodied approach to nutrition.

If you ask me, this question also reflects just how deeply diet culture has permeated our culture.

How Marketing Confuses “Healthy Eating” and Dieting

In the diet days of old, diets were bold. Diets came out and told everyone they were here for weight loss.

Weight Watchers wasn’t promising to get you the glow.

People didn’t join Atkins to improve their gut health.

The goal of consuming bowl after bowl of Special K wasn’t to ward off cancer.

But over the past few years, I’ve witnessed the diet industry completely re-brand itself in it an attempt to stay relevant. As diets have gone out of fashion, weight loss marketing has changed.

Today’s diets really focus on morality: good vs. bad, clean or pure eating styles, detoxes and cleanses, and the elevation of some foods (namely expensive ones) over others. Weight loss is still a goal, but it’s less explicit. Instead, it’s been sent to the bottom of the pile, usurped by promises of a great microbiome, clear skin, reduced risk of illness, excellent digestion, improved mood, and so on. While it’s certainly possible to improve digestion by eating more fibre or getting clearer skin by drinking water, the idea that we need to follow a specific plan or abstain from certain foods to reap some of these benefits is certainly not evidence-based. And the truth is, you can eat all the plants in the world and still struggle with acne, insomnia, digestive concerns, chronic illness, and so on. Plus, no diet has ever been shown to result in sustained weight loss.

Several weight loss companies have co-opted Intuitive Eating and the non-diet approach to sell their programs. Noom tells us to “stop dieting” and “get life-long results”, even though it very much is a diet — has yet to offer any evidence to support its claim of “life-long results.” WW, formerly Weight Watchers, now offers “wellness coaches” that help you to lose weight with “groundbreaking science.” 

At the same time, many folks arrive in my inbox under the impression that Intuitive Eating is about eating a lot of donuts and throwing all nutrition science to the wind. For some, eating a salad can feel like a betrayal. Enjoying vegetables can seem like “cheating” on their diet recovery. To the outsider looking in, rejecting dieting can look a lot like rejecting nutritious foods or health entirely.

No one wonder people are confused when they decide to leave diet culture behind. 

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Where’s the Line Between “Healthy Eating” and Dieting?

What’s the difference between “healthy eating” and dieting? What’s the line between wanting to feel good and restricting? How do I enjoy vegetables and “diet culture” foods such as salads and smoothies without feeling as though I’m “cheating” on Intuitive Eating?

Before I head into the weeds of today’s post, I do want to offer the following caveat: there’s a reason “Honor Your Health with Gentle Nutrition” is the final principle of Intuitive Eating. There’s serious value in honouring your hunger, rejecting the diet mentality, exploring which foods you find satisfying, learning to sit with fullness, and allowing yourself to enjoy all types of foods before contemplating gentle nutrition.

It can also take time to feel ready to start thinking about your health again after dieting or to consider adding vegetables without getting triggered. 

Gentle nutrition — or eating a balance of foods — is also difficult to access when your nervous system is dysregulated. If eating the “right” way has been a way of managing uncomfortable sensations or emotions, it might be best to attend to this before delving into gentle nutrition. Keep in mind that eating the “right” way or managing nervous system dysregulation through food can show up whether you’re restricting/dieting…or not. 

One of the hallmarks of dieting is caloric restriction. Many people define dieting as eating below a certain calorie count or eliminating food groups. But as I’ve mentioned in the past, you can be dieting even if you’re not drastically restricting your intake. Why? Because dieting is a state of mind. Rather than focus on what the food looks like, I think it’s more helpful to address thoughts and beliefs about food: 

1. Gentle Nutrition or “Healthy Eating” is Internally-Motivated

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  • Gentle nutrition, or healthy eating, is about eating in ways that feel supportive to you. It’s not motivated by external factors. These might include weight, shape, physique, or appearance. External factors could also include the day of the week (“cheating” on weekends and “making up for it” during the week), the number of calories you’ve consumed at any given time, or your current weight. 
  • Unlike dieting, it’s something you need to “should” yourself into doing. Whether you’ve decided to eat vegetables or snack on potato chips, your behaviours align with your values and desires (provided you have the choice, to begin with.) Gentle nutrition or healthy eating coniders hunger, appetite, fullness, and satisfaction.
  • Gentle nutrition is not undertaken with the goal of appeasing others. This might include the clean plate club, eating less or more to please others in your life or skirt criticism, or eating in ways with the goal of being praised or validated. 
  • Healthy eating is based on what feels good to you, not on what others say you should be eating. In essence, it’s about self-care over self-control (a line I first heard from Christy Harrison.) You may choose to eat or not eat foods for various reasons, such as digestion, sleep, pre-existing health concerns, blood sugar balance, and so on. For example, you may wish to include protein at meals to make them more satisfying and to stay fuller for longer. Maybe you opt to add fibre to your meals to support regulation digestion. Or you generally eat an earlier lunch because you get up early and that’s when your body needs a meal. 

2. Gentle Nutrition Satisfies Both Physical Health and Mental Health

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  • Julia Child once said something along the lines of, “in matters of health consider taste. In matters of taste consider health.” Consider what would taste good — offer satisfaction and pleasure — and feel good, too, honouring your hunger and fullness.
  • Gentle nutrition involves eating physical health foods such as protein, carbohydrates, fat, and — possibly — produce. But rather than forcing yourself to eat bland chicken breast, brown rice, or plain carrot sticks, gentle nutrition asks us to consider satisfaction. Which types of protein do you enjoy? If you added butter to your vegetables or a delicious dressing to your salad, would it be more appealing to you?
  • You don’t have to opt for the “more nutritious version” if it takes away from the experience. While you might want to eat whole grain bread for the health benefits, you might prefer white bread (or white bread in certain instances.) Maybe you get the most satisfaction from curries when they’re served over white rice rather than brown. Or you just don’t care for fish as much as you enjoy chicken and tend to not eat it very often because of this fact. 
  • You may also choose to abstain from certain foods because of an allergy, intolerance, or for religious or ethical reasons.

3. Gentle Nutrition is Flexible

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  • It’s not rigid about types of foods consumed, timing, meal planning, and so on. Meal planning might be used for logistic or financial reasons, not to enforce restrictive behaviours. Meal planning is flexible: there’s a plan, but room for adjustments. For example, cooking pasta with chicken rather than a planned chicken and potatoes.
  • You might eat a variety of foods depending on access and availability. You might choose to eat ice cream in middle of the day for a snack or enjoy pizza for lunch on a Wednesday. 
  • Rather than following a certain carb count or protein goal, gentle nutrition is flexible and responsive. There aren’t any rules — only guidelines. You might eat when you’re not hungry because you have a long day of meetings, or choose to have protein with dinner to balance your blood sugar. But that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy a plate of pasta marinara. 
  • It doesn’t require that you stop or start at any point in time. You can eat past fullness sometimes without panicking, or eat a little less at meals to have space for dessert or popcorn at the movies. There is no perfect stopping point.
  • Eating changes from day to day based on what is going on. This might look like three meals or a couple of meals and many snacks. It could also include relying on convenience or frozen food to fill in the gaps and get meals on the table. And it could include experimenting with the portioning of different food groups based on how you feel: more or less protein, more or less fat, more or less veg, more or less starch, and so on. 
  • Noticing which foods give you energy and which are less energizing so that you can plan your day accordingly e.g. baked goods tend to make me sleepy, so I will have something else for a mid-day snack and have a cookie later when I don’t care so much whether I get tired

4. Gentle Nutrition is Additive

  • The emphasis is on adding foods for health — e.g. fibre to support regular digestion, protein to support balanced blood sugar — rather than removing foods.
  • Encouraging balance of foods rather than restriction or eating less.
  • Including all three food groups to support satisfaction and sense of well-being. 
  • This might look like making a batch of protein pancakes so that breakfast fills you up for longer or having a side of yogurt with your waffles; adding vegetables to a pasta dish to add colour, fibre, and flavour; enjoying a smoothie with breakfast to increase your produce intake; ordering a side salad to go along with your restaurant dinner
  • It might also include adding structure, such as planning to eat every 3-4 hours for balanced blood sugar

What questions do you have about gentle nutrition?

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