Why would your decision to start a diet make a nutritionist cringe? Don’t nutritionists want us to follow diets, a.k.a. eat more healthfully?
Actually, many of us don’t. As a registered dietitian-nutritionist, I firmly discourage my clients from “going on a diet.” There are a number of issues with dieting, but the most important one is that they simply don’t work for weight loss.
“Yes, they do!” I hear you saying. “I lost 30 pounds following the XYZ diet.” I don’t doubt that’s true. The issue with weight loss diets is not that you can’t lose weight on them initially. It’s that the weight loss is unsustainable. We know that as many as two-thirds of people who have dieted will ultimately regain more weight than they lost. Even for those who do keep it off (which may require disordered eating and exercise behaviors), losing weight does not necessarily result in the lasting health benefits we’ve come to expect.
Although many dieters blame a diet’s failure on their own lack of willpower, we now know that there are complicated neurobiological mechanisms pushing our bodies to stay within a certain weight range. Moreover, the disordered eating that dieting often produces is associated with depression, anxiety, poor sleep quality, and malnutrition.
Yikes. So, with a new year upon us, what’s a person resolved to take better care of his or her health to do?
Focus on fitness
Improving your physical fitness regardless of your body size will benefit your health. So even if you’re not planning to train for an Ironman competition anytime soon, adopting a sustainable exercise plan will likely do more for your health than trying to lose weight. Plus, focusing on fitness without a weight loss goal can shift your entire perspective on physical movement. Instead of slaving away on a treadmill in the hopes of burning off that order of fries, you’ll be engaging in activities you truly enjoy in order to see benefits like increased stamina, stronger bones, better sleep, and improved mood.
Although you may suspect that intuitive eating is another diet in disguise, it’s actually the ultimate anti-diet. Rather than requiring you to ascribe to arbitrary dieting rules, intuitive eating encourages you to get back in touch with your own hunger and satiety signals, eating what you want, when you want it, in amounts that make you feel satisfied. If that sounds like a recipe for a diet packed with cake and potato chips, that may actually be so, at least at first. The founders of this pioneering approach, registered dietitian-nutritionists Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch, explain in their book Intuitive Eating that a phase of allowing yourself formerly forbidden foods is a healthy part of the intuitive eating process and that you will ultimately come to enjoy these foods in moderation alongside nutritious choices. If this approach appeals to you but sounds confusing, consider working with a certified intuitive eating counselor.
If you really think the overall quality of your diet could use improvement but you’re not sure where to start, consider a dietitian-approved eating pattern (note that I did NOT use the word “diet”). Reading up on styles of eating and determining which one (if any) resonates with you can be a great jumping off point. It’s important to continually check in with yourself to determine that you’re following the eating style because you feel well on it, rather than because you’re looking for rules to follow.
The Mediterranean diet
This eating pattern is well-established as a positive way to reduce your risk of heart disease and certain cancers. There’s a lot to like about it: Mediterranean eating encourages packing your meals with fruits, vegetables, nuts, beans, and whole grains, using lots of olive oil, feasting on fish and poultry and of course, enjoying the occasional glass of red wine. Although red meat isn’t off-limits in Mediterranean eating, it’s generally reserved for just a few times a month. This eating style prioritizes seasoning food with herbs and spices rather than lots of salt and encourages making meals a social occasion. Salute!
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The vegetarian diet
Following a vegetarian style of eating is associated with benefits including reduced risks of heart disease, diabetes, and certain cancers. But note that cake and potato chips are technically vegetarian foods. A health-promoting vegetarian diet will prioritize plant-based protein sources including nuts, beans, lentils, and soy products, lots of produce and whole grains, and of course, the occasional slice of cake when the occasion calls for it. If you choose an ovo-lacto vegetarian eating pattern, you’ll also enjoy eggs and dairy. But if you’re truly a meat lover, it may not be ideal to give up meat altogether in the hopes of improving your health, as you’re very likely to feel deprived. If plant-based eating generally appeals to you but you’re concerned about giving up meat altogether, consider a pescatarian or Mediterranean eating style instead, which hold many of the same benefits.
The ancestral diet
While ancestral eating prioritizes animal products far more than Mediterranean and vegetarian eating patterns do, all three patterns share an emphasis on whole, unprocessed foods. But don’t confuse it with the popular Paleo diet, which firmly restricts certain food groups like dairy and legumes. Shifting to an ancestral eating pattern is more about cutting back on processed foods, which are a relatively new invention, and learning and considering your genetic background while determining which whole foods help you feel well. Typically, ancestral eating promotes high-quality (often grass-fed) meat and dairy products, eggs, seafood, vegetables and fats including olive oil, coconut oil, and ghee. Many of these foods are rich in nutrients that are difficult to get from the standard American diet, including omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin D and B12. Gut-boosting fermented foods, ranging from kombucha and kefir to homemade pickles, are also generally emphasized in this eating style.
Remember, you don’t have to follow any specific eating style to improve your health. Moving away from dieting can be a long process, but it’s a great first step. Perhaps your goal in 2019 will simply be to ditch dieting, and you’ll narrow down more about the foods that are right for you in 2020!
Diana K. Rice, RD, LD, is known as The Baby Steps Dietitian and is the founder of Diana K. Rice Nutrition, LLC, where she works with families to eat well and reduce the stress surrounding their food choices. She specializes in pre- and postnatal nutrition as well as feeding young children and is a strong advocate for cooking with kids, family meals, and body positivity. Her expertise has been featured in Fit Pregnancy, Parents, U.S. News and World Report, Today’s Dietitian, and many other publications. Follow her blog at dianakrice.com and connect with her on Facebook and Instagram.