After years of observing friends, family, my broader community, and even myself, I have come to realize that many people, especially women, mistake dieting with healthy eating. It’s almost as if the thinking goes like this: “It is healthy to lose weight, so if what I am eating helps me lose weight, then it is healthy”.
Yet nothing could be farther from the truth. Most diets, especially fad diets that go in and out of popularity quickly, are typically not healthful at all. Generally they require cutting out whole food groups, or concentrating the majority of calories on one type of food (i.e. animal protein, cabbage,) to the exclusion of other important healthful foods. Many popular diets promote the consumption of highly processed food-like substances such as shakes, “nutrition bars”, pre-packaged meals, or “100 calorie snack packs” all full of harmful preservatives, sugar or toxic artificial sweeteners, and refined flour. Most focus too heavily on the reduction of calories, forcing the body into starvation mode, which slows down metabolism, encourages the body’s maintenance of fat over lean muscle mass, and for many, leads to binge behavior, either during the diet or once the diet is “over”.
Even when folks adopt a healthy eating pattern (like, say, veganism) as their diet, the long-term outcome is not generally healthful, simply because they are on “a diet”. Let me explain. In my opinion, one of the biggest reasons why any “diet” doesn’t equal healthful eating is that eating solely for the purpose of losing weight sets up what I call a “dieting mentality”. By dieting mentality I mean a particular set of thoughts, goals, beliefs, attitudes, and ultimately behaviors that are inconsistent with health. Lets break down the dieting mentality and compare it with a wellness mentality.
Experience of Time
The dieting mentality is short-term goal oriented. Dieters expect to engage in their eating patterns only as long as they need to lose weight, and/or until they “fail” at the diet by going back to previous eating patterns (which their personal experience suggests is likely). Dieters are concerned only with the here and now, and are typically obsessed with numbers—calories, weight on the scale, amount of time exercising. Yet none of these obsessions is out of concern for their overall health and wellbeing. It is all about the weight that they wish they could lose yesterday already.
In contrast, those who eat and exercise for health have a long-term outlook. They seek long-term healthy eating habits rather than short-term fads. They are concerned with current health, but also disease prevention, so that decisions about what goes in their mouths are based not just about today or the next 6 weeks, but about their entire lifetime. There is no obsession with numbers, although some can be overly obsessed with how healthful their food is (we call this orthorexia and it is considered a type of eating disorder all on its own). Further, there is less weight anxiety with wellness eaters. They feel fairly certain that if they are successful maintaining a healthful lifestyle, the weight will fall where it should, at a healthy place (which, by the way, is not likely to be society’s unrealistic, underweight, unhealthful ideal.)
Types of Foods
Those with a dieting mentality care only about foods that will lead to weight loss. Those with a wellness mentality care about foods that promise the biggest bang for the buck in terms of current and future health. For example, wellness eaters are not afraid of avocados, nuts or other high (healthy) fat foods because they know that these fats are critical for brain health and other bodily functions. In contrast, dieter’s will eat anything they think will help them lose weight, whether it is healthful or not. They are highly susceptible to the influence of the profit motivated multi million dollar diet industry that advertises and promotes products and food-like substances that often do not work and are filled with toxic, unhealthful ingredients and are a poor substitute for real whole foods.
The diet mentality, with its short-sighted focus, tends to be highly reactive. Thus, if something happens to derail the dieter (like eating cake at a wedding), strong feelings and reactions often follow. The dieter feels tremendous guilt, shame, and sense of failure. These feelings often trigger a “well I already blew it so I might as well go whole hog and start again on Monday” response and sometimes even promote a full-on binge. Nothing less than perfect adherence to the rules of the diet bring the dieter a sense of peace and contentment. Since it is nearly impossible to follow any strict diet prescription perfectly, dieters tend to be riddled with negative feelings much of the time.
However, the experience of deviation for most wellness-focused eaters is much less reactive. Since they are motivated for the long-term, a blip here and there in their eating patterns does not result in severe negative emotions. In fact, wellness eaters probably truly enjoy that wedding cake and in fact, are more likely to enjoy the wedding itself because their reaction to eating the cake is not so reactive and catastrophic. They know they generally eat very well and will continue to do so, so having cake every now and then is simply one of life’s small but rare pleasures. It is certainly nothing worth threatening one’s peace and self-respect.
Intuitive Connection to Body
Dieters, because they tend to follow one strict set of prescriptions after another, have often lost the ability to connect with their bodies. Their hunger and satiety cues are completely screwed up and they have lost a sense of what kinds of foods and activity actually make them feel energized, healthy, satisfied, and happy. Foods are categorized only into “good” and “bad”.
However for the wellness eater, foods have many categories such as healthy and unhealthy, satisfying or unsatisfying, filling or not filling, energizing or enervating, or those that help digestion and those that hinder it. Thus the wellness focused lifestyle is more diverse, interesting, intuitive, and flexible. Frankly, dieters are terrified of food and continually look to others to tell them how to eat. Wellness eaters have a more individual, intuitive sense that allows for a much broader food experience. Thus, I would venture to say that the wellness eater has the opportunity to truly cherish and love food, while the dieter can only fear it.
When I suggest to chronic dieters that they should stop following diets, weighing themselves obsessively, counting calories, and giving up their “safe” but toxic processed diet foods, they panic. But part of this panic is because they have no sense of what will replace their dieting lifestyle. They are stuck in the narrow diet mentality, which shields them from knowing that there is a much better way.
I challenge all of you to consider ditching dieting and developing a wellness-oriented lifestyle. This shift represents not just a change in what you eat or how you exercise, but as you’ve seen above, it is a complete change in mindset. However, it is a mindset shift that offers peace, food enjoyment, joy, self- respect, self-love, and a reconnection to self.
Now doesn’t that sound appealing?