What’s the difference between healthy eating and dieting?

How can you be a nutrition coach and be anti-diet? What’s the difference between healthy eating and dieting?

Dieting and healthy eating are actually very different, mutually exclusive things. In fact, dieting is NOT at all healthy eating.

Dieting

Dieting means drastically restricting what you eat, either by counting calories or outright eliminating foods, with the goal of weight loss. Diets are not meant to be sustainable in the long-term. Rather, they are designed to get you to your goal weight quickly, but not to keep you there. The proof of this is in the pudding: with all of the scientific evidence we have that shows that slashing calories will slow your metabolism and that these approaches almost always result in weight regain (plus more), the diet industry continues with the same fundamental approach. This is because the industry makes money off of dieters coming back for more.

Another hallmark that all diets have in common is the diet mentality. Diets promote deprivation and moralization of foods into “good” and “bad” categories. They entail black-and-white thinking – you’re either on a diet or off, being good or being bad. And, regardless of the specifics of the diet, they are too often a slippery slope into disordered eating. Dieting does not promote a healthy relationship with food. Think about the last time you were on a diet. How much time did you spend thinking about the foods you weren’t allowed to have? Wishing you could eat like everyone else? And how much time did you spend stressing out about how much of what you could eat? You shouldn’t be wasting so much time and energy stressing about fulfilling one of our most basic human needs. Food is not meant to be a source of stress, but the diet mentality makes it so by convincing us that we need to monitor our every bite.

The sneaky thing is, diet companies will convince you that it’s YOUR fault for not maintaining. The truth is that it’s NOT your fault if you struggle to stick to your diet’s strict rules and it’s NOT your fault if you gain your weight back. Our human bodies and minds are simply not compatible with the diet structure. Our bodies are not meant to run on just 1200 calories a day and we are programmed not to respond well to deprivation. If you would like a really eye-opening illustration of this, read about the Minnesota Starvation Experiment (and pay attention to how many calories they were consuming a day).

Healthy Eating

Healthy eating does not require counting calories or cutting out foods. In fact, there is room for all of your favorite treats! Instead of focusing on rules and numbers, you re-learn to tune into and trust your body so that you can securely give yourself permission to indulge. Healthy eating is about finding the right balance for you and for your body. By getting to the factors behind your cravings, eating mindfully, and tuning into your hunger and satiety cues, you are able to balance your diet and release that food stress.

The “healthy” in healthy eating isn’t just about the types of food you eat; it’s also about your relationship with food.

Healthy eating requires you to flip the script on that old diet mentality that we all carry with us. It requires recognizing that what works for me might not work for you. We could eat the same way and exercise the same and our bodies would look completely different – and that’s OK. It requires recognizing that there are no “bad” foods and that eating ice cream is not going to have negative consequences.

One final point: the goal of healthy eating doesn’t have to be weight loss. For example, you can focus on healthy eating to feel better, improve your health, manage certain conditions, or just to care for yourself. Our culture would certainly prefer to have us believe otherwise, but our bodies are supposed to come in different shapes and sizes and they are supposed to change as we get older. At 33, I don’t fit into the clothes I was wearing at 21 and I shouldn’t – my hormones are different, my metabolism is different, my eating and movement are different. Learning what your unique body needs is also an important part of healthy eating.

I write this post not to put down anyone else’s thing, but to give you some important information to consider before you embark on a diet program. If you have questions about this post or how I approach nutrition coaching, please don’t hesitate to send me an email.

The Trouble with the Diet Mentality

More than any of the junk food on the market, I think the biggest obstacle to having healthy balanced eating habits, a good relationship with our body, and a healthy relationship with food is the diet mentality. In order to start truly making lasting changes to your eating habits, you have to start working on curbing that mentality from the outset.

What is the Diet Mentality

The diet mentality is a deeply ingrained way of thinking in our culture that emphasizes black-and-white thinking about eating habits. You hear it in the on-the-wagon-off-the-wagon notion and the idea of “good” foods versus “bad” foods. You hear it in the way we talk about our eating behaviors: “I was bad today because I had chips and dessert.” And it’s behind our negative self-talk when we pick apart our physical appearance, berate ourselves for not following our diet, and say cruel things about our bodies.

The diet mentality is critical for the survival of the commercial diet industry because it supports their unsustainable programs which focus solely on the food, counting calories, carbs, and points, and the number on the scale and ignore balance, the reasons behind our eating habits, and food quality.

Why the Diet Mentality is a Problem

The diet mentality is a big problem for a whole number of reasons. First and foremost, all of that negative self-talk and those unrealistic goals that it emphasizes throw us into a self-defeating, self-berating spiral.

Let me explain. Commercial diets rely on one common ingredient for all of their programs: self-control. Here’s the thing about self-control, it’s a finite resource for every single human being out there. It erodes throughout the course of the day, with stress, with lack of sleep, and the longer we rely on it. However, we are conditioned to believe that when we run out of the ability to exercise self-control, it’s a failure on our part. We are simply not good enough, not strong enough, not cut out for this. Have you ever had those thoughts about yourself?

Pretty much anyone who has withstood the diet cycle has had those thoughts. And what those thoughts ultimately lead to are beliefs that we are simply not good enough so why bother even trying. “Well, I already blew it today, so why not just go all in for dinner, dessert, and wine?” “I just can’t do it. What’s the point in even trying?” “I didn’t have the self control for no carbs….but maybe if I’m counting points instead that’ll be easier”.

This is the diet mentality at work. It make you feel bad about yourself, warps your self-image, and keeps you coming back for more and more diets.

Here’s the thing…

The diet mentality does not reflect reality. There are no good foods and bad foods – just food. There are foods you shouldn’t eat as often because they aren’t as nutritious, true. But eating those foods certainly doesn’t make you bad any more than eating a carrot would make Charles Manson good. See what I’m saying?

The goal that we all need to be working towards is BALANCE so that we can enjoy those treats that we like but also eat plenty of the more nutritious foods that our bodies need. The goal is BALANCE so that we can enjoy food without equating it with our worth, so that we can stop berating ourselves and heal our relationships with food and with our bodies.

Releasing the Diet Mentality

Only by working on quelling those diet mentality thoughts and beliefs can we focus on achieving that balance that we need. But it takes time because that mentality is so deeply ingrained not only in ourselves but also in our society. It’s all around us and we don’t even notice it most of the time. So it takes practice noticing those patterns and then flipping the script on them.

So here’s a homework assignment if you’re willing: grab a journal and write down the diet mentality thoughts and feelings you have today on one side of the page. On the other side of the page, flip the script on them, turn them into something constructive or more observational and not judgmental. For example “I was bad today because I ate a whole bag of chips” could be flipped to “I ate a bag of chips today and they tasted really good.” “I can’t eat bread because carbs are bad” could be flipped to “bread isn’t falling in line with the nutritional goals I have today but I can have it if I want it.”

To get you started: your worth is not dictated by the foods you eat. Your body is beautiful and amazing. You are not defective or weak.

Fitness Industry Sayings that Need to Go

I didn’t get into health and nutrition coaching because I wanted to create weight loss plans. I got into it because I spent most of my younger years obsessing over my weight  and I had a horribly unhealthy relationship with food and my body. I saw how much harm the diet and “wellness” industries caused myself and others and I wanted to help other people embrace healthy eating and balance. This isn’t an easy mission when the giant diet industry is spamming all of our feeds with toxic messages. My intern, Nicki, is totally on the same page about these messages, so we put our heads together on what language we think the industry needs to ditch.

1. Get your beach/bikini body

“Bathing suit season is coming.” “Get your body bikini-ready!” “Time to work on your summer bod.” UGH! We need to stop promoting the notion that only certain types of bodies are worthy of a bikini. This kind of mentality not only is harmful by driving people to extremes to lose weight, it also encourages the policing of other people’s bodies. As the meme says, “the only way to get a bikini body it to put a bikini on your body” and it’s true. Stretch marks? Cellulite? Jiggle? Rolls? Put a bikini on it. I’m no more worthy of a bikini than you or your neighbor and vice versa. 

2. Toxic “motivation”

You’ve definitely heard it or maybe been told it yourself, “motivational” sayings like: “sweat is fat crying,” “pain is weakness leaving your body,” “nothing tastes as good as skinny feels,” “unless you puke, faint, or die, keep going” (looking at you, Jillian Michaels). This is the kind of garbage that lands people hurt or ill. Exercise should not be punishment and ignoring your body’s warning signs is a recipe for disaster. What we need to be focusing on is positive encouragement, tuning into one’s body, and finding balance. It’s the imbalance that this mentality promotes that keeps people pumping money into the diet industry for unsustainable tactics. Also, have you ever had pizza? It definitely tastes better than skinny feels.

3. Good Food vs Bad Food, Healthy Food vs Unhealthy Food

As humans, we like having opposite categories, I will give us that. But, when it comes to applying blanket classifications to foods, we run into some problems. Are some foods healthier than others? Yes, obviously. But that doesn’t mean that one food is good and another is bad. As the saying goes “the dose makes the poison.” It’s about proportionality. You should eat more nutritious foods than less nutritious, caloric foods. But focusing on completely avoiding “bad” foods is unsustainable and can lead to disordered eating habits.

4. Superfood

And while we’re at it, we need to 86 this “superfood” label we are giving to a new fruit or vegetable every 6 months. Say it with me: there is no such thing as a superfood. This is a buzzword created by the food industry (yes, even agriculture is an industry) to increase sales of certain products. Fruits and vegetables are rich in highly healthful compounds called phytonutrients as well as vitamins and minerals. This is what makes them so good for us. But cauliflower is not more super than kale which is no more super than blueberries. They just have different amounts of different nutrients. What you really need to focus on is eating a wide variety of different plants so your body can reap the benefits of those nutrients.

5. “Get your body back”

There are few things that frost my cookies as much as seeing an ad for some program directed at new moms promising to help them “get their body back.” Here’s the thing, there is no body “lost” in the process of carrying a child. Does your body change? Yes. Is that a problem? It shouldn’t be, but in our sexist society some think it is. Until we can stop telling women that they need to “get their bodies back”, women will continue to belittle themselves, resort to varying, sometimes extreme, measures to lose weight, and internalize that hatred towards their own bodies. You body just did an amazing and incredibly difficult thing. Of course it’s going to change and it’s that change that makes it so amazing. What the message needs to be is that the postpartum body is amazing and beautiful and that new moms can focus on caring for themselves and their newborn. 

 

We’re not so naive as to think that this kind of talk is going to go away – it isn’t. But what we do want to encourage through this post is more dialogue around the effects of this kind of language. We want to encourage everyone to become more aware of how this mentality slips into their daily lives and focus on reframing those words into more positive, healthy, encouraging thoughts.