I bet that if you’re reading this, you’ve been on some form of a self-prescribed “diet” at one point or another, as I have. In fact, going on a “diet” was part of my routine for a number of years. I’d usually restrict my eating in some form for a few weeks or months, sometimes in preparation for a special event or “bikini season,” and once I’d reached my goal weight I’d resume normal eating (or even go a little overboard due to the restriction) and gain the weight back - and then do it all again a few months later.
I’m sure that many of you guys can relate, and, sadly, it's not even remotely surprising. We’ve literally been conditioned as a society to accept dieting and diet culture as normalcy, a part of everyday life. But what does the word “diet” even mean, at its very core definition? To find out, I turned to good ol’ Merriam-Webster:
a: food and drink regularly provided or consumed
b : habitual nourishment
c : the kind and amount of food prescribed for a person or animal for a special reason
d : a regimen of eating and drinking sparingly so as to reduce one's weight going on a diet
Hmm… the last one kind of hits home, doesn't it? Eating and drinking sparingly to reduce one’s weight. Ugh. Eating less and simultaneously being less - a hallmark of today’s standard diet structure - from low-carb to low-fat and everything in between. For example, just think of all those magazine covers that promise miracle diet results in [insert unrealistic amount of time]. Thankfully, I do believe we’ve made some progress in the healthy living community in terms of removing the word diet from our vocabulary and embracing what we eat and staying active as an overall lifestyle change, not something temporary - but despite the progress, the diet mentality still often remains.
You guys know what I’m talking about: that non-stop tracker you’ve got going in the back of your mind estimating calories or daily steps; the feeling that a workout didn’t count if you didn’t sweat enough (or at all); the anxiety you feel when an unexpected event comes up and the only food option available is something you wouldn’t normally eat. Maybe you aren’t counting calories religiously, but you are still generally anxious about food and exercise, and live more by the rules rather than by intuition. This, my friends, is proof that you don’t need to be on a diet to have a diet mentality.
So what can we do to eliminate this whole thought process that’s become so ingrained? Start by asking yourself the following questions:
- Do you feel stressed out in situations where you will have less control over what you are able to eat (i.e. a party, food festival, dinner at a friend's house, long travel day)?
- Do you only seek out the healthiest or “cleanest” food options without checking in with your intuition first to see if that particular food is what you really want to eat?
- Do you find yourself restricting without even thinking about it, such as automatically saying no to seconds, an extra snack, or dessert without checking in with yourself because you are afraid of going overboard?
- Do you feel general anxiety, shame or guilt when you’ve eaten “off plan”?
If you answered yes to any or all of the above, it sounds like you might still be trapped in diet culture and need to find a way out ASAP. Below are three three ways to ditch the diet mentality and get yourself back on track with food freedom and eating intuitively.
Break the rules - because there are no rules
Fat makes you fat! Sugar is the devil! Dairy should be avoided at all costs! And on and on it goes. In fact, I’m pretty sure you could Google any food or food group and find a dozen articles touting why it's the worst thing on the planet for you and why eating it will wreak havoc on your body. It's easy to say we should just eat intuitively, but many of us have been conditioned to adhere to the diet mentality since we were very young. Our hunger, fullness, and satiation cues are probably all out of whack. If you struggle with placing too much structure around what you eat, then intentionally plan to break those “rules.” For example, use Friday nights as a time to eat something you wouldn’t normally, something you’d consider not so great for you or an indulgence. I know that this is commonly called a “cheat” meal, but I don’t like the negative connotation it brings at all. Remember: There are no rules, so there’s no such thing as cheating. By doing so, you’re giving yourself permission to cut loose and let go of rigidity, more for the mental benefit and less the physical.
Instead of labeling foods, consider how they make you feel
One day, you eat a sandwich for lunch. It has bread, meat, cheese, and all sorts of veggies. After eating it, you feel energetic, satisfied, and generally great - except a sandwich is a “bad” meal choice. The next day, you eat a salad with all the fixings - and you’re tired, bloated, and feeling icky. But you continue to eat that same salad despite how crappy it makes you feel because it's “good” for you. This is a classic example of food labeling and assigning our food morality. But food is just food, period. Repeat with me: Food is just food. Whether you eat the sandwich or the salad, it doesn’t change who you are as a person. That’s why we need to focus on how we feel, not the food itself. The only foods that should be avoided are the ones you don’t want to eat or make you feel like crap - and sometimes even the latter is worth the stomachache once in a while!
The diet mentality doesn’t just impact what we eat, it also impacts our relationships and overall mental and physical health. Think about it - how many times have we gone out to lunch with friends and subconsciously judged the person who got salmon and steamed veggies as “being healthy” and the person who got a burger and fries as “unhealthy” or “cheating”? More importantly, how often have we judged ourselves this way? Just like we need to stop assigning food morality, we need to stop labeling ourselves as behaving good or bad based on what we eat.
Focus on the marathon, not the sprint
To truly ditch the diet mentality, you need to get rid of the “diet” completely. How do you do that? By focusing on a sustainable eating plan that work for you and your lifestyle. For example, the paleo diet might be great for some people and may work for a short period of time, but if it's not manageable long-term then it's totally ok to make modifications or find your own new way of eating all together. That’s why I’m such a proponent of counting macros! It allows for you to make your healthy eating plan work for you - with your lifestyle in mind. If an unexpected trip or event comes up, you can still stick fairly close to foods that make you feel great while allowing for life to happen - and trust me, it will happen. In addition, macros are a guideline that you can follow most of the time, not all the time (see above for no food rules). I love tracking macros and prepping macro-friendly meals, but there are definitely days where I just don’t track at all - either because I am busy living my life or because I just want a break. Sometimes we just need to follow our guts when it comes to food - literally!
I know I've said this before, but food and guilt are two things that should never be associated with each other. Unfortunately, keeping them separate is no small feat given the diet mindset we’ve been conditioned to accept as normal. The next time you feel yourself becoming a little too strict with your diet, remember that you can only do the best you can at any given moment. Trying to control every morsel of food you put into your mouth 24/7 will not only be detrimental to your willpower, it can also set you up for a binge and restrict cycle. Sometimes we have to consciously practice food freedom - I truly believe tracking macros can give you this freedom while providing balance in your diet at the same time. Once we make a habit of it, it will eventually become second nature - and, at the end of the day, I just want us all to be happy with our food choices.
Question of the Day
What's the hardest part about ditching the diet mentality?