It’s hard to be anti-diet (January 2023)
This article is used with permission by Claire St. John, MPH, RDN, CEDRD-S
If you’ve followed diets all your life, making the decision to ditch diets and start eating intuitively can seem like a monumental challenge. So how do we move away from diets and toward listening to our bodies and eating what sounds good in the moment when we’ve spent our whole lives doing the exact opposite?
Babies are said to be perfect eaters, crying when they’re hungry, and turning their heads away when they’re full. All of us slowly lose touch with that perfect-eater ability pretty early in life. Our parents may tell us we have to eat our vegetables before we can have dessert, or they may express concern that we’re “eating too much,” or they may make us stay at the table until we’ve cleaned our plates.
As early as our adolescence, we’re ushered into the $4 billion dollar diet industry, told our bodies aren’t thin enough, or pretty enough or good enough, and presented with a bunch of ways to “fix” ourselves. Lots of diet books and companies target young people, and parents are sometimes complicit, anxious for their kids to fit in or to avoid being bullied for their body size or shape.
A lot of my clients come to me after years of being on diet after diet. They want to move toward eating in a more self-directed way, but without that familiar guidance of what not to eat, they’re not really sure what to eat. Diets have given them the structure and the certitude about what they should eat each day, dampening the body’s signals and messages over time. When the body’s needs do get through (driven by hunger or deprivation of craved foods) it is likely perceived as traitorous to the diet, and a failing of willpower.
To make the decision to stop following diets and start respecting one’s own body can feel like taking the scaffolding off an unfinished building, or pushing off a familiar continent in a small row boat with only the promise of a better continent across the endless sea. In other words, it’s terrifying. What if I eat too much? What if I eat too little? What if I only ever want to eat ice cream? What if my hunger signals are super strong but my fullness signals are broken? Or vice versa? What if, given the opportunity to eat what sounds good to me, I never stop eating again?
The bad news is, all of these things might happen.
The good news is, it’s totally okay. If you’ve been depriving yourself of ice cream all these years, you’re going to be pretty excited that you can have it now, and you might want it all the time, with lunch, after dinner and yeah, maybe at breakfast, too. But that intensity of desire for ice cream (or whatever food you’ve dreamt about when you’re on a restrictive diet) will fade the more you allow yourself to have it. No matter what the food is, if you truly believe you can have it whenever you want it, you calm down about it. You still love it, but you don’t crave it three times per day any more. You have it when it sounds good.
And you will mess up on your hunger and fullness signals, we all do. Sometimes you won’t eat enough and you’ll be hungry before you expected to eat again. Sometimes you’ll eat beyond fullness because a meal or snack is so delicious, and you’ll feel overfull. Neither of these things constitute a crisis. If you didn’t eat enough at lunch, you’re able to have a snack or eat dinner earlier than you anticipated because YOU’RE IN CHARGE OF YOU not some diet book. If you ate until you were overfull, your body is perfectly capable of using that energy and then letting you know when it’s hungry again, maybe a little later than you expected.
Your body’s cues are a total mystery to you? No problem, learning about different ways the body can signal hunger and fullness, being mindful and listening to your body, and being gracious with yourself if you get it wrong are all steps on the path to better understanding.
Your body’s metabolism is an absolute wonder, but it has been hampered and unable to perform to its full ability in a restrictive dieting phase. In fact, the metabolism fight, fight, fights when it isn’t getting the nourishment it needs, and even when it gets too much nourishment, always striving for homeostasis. That’s why everyone who has ever gone on a diet on this planet has experienced the dreaded “plateau.” Yep, that was your metabolism, just fighting to keep you alive in the face of possible starvation.
Because that’s the thing. Your metabolism doesn’t know you’ve decided not to eat carbs anymore, or that you’re sticking to a laughably low calorie count, it thinks you’re not getting enough food because there isn’t enough food available to you. If these conditions continue, the body takes very impressive action to preserve your tissues, redistribute your nutrients and protect the brain at all costs to keep you alive as long as it thinks this famine might last. It also has some fun tricks up its proverbial sleeves, like making you think and dream about food all the time so you never lose sight of how you should be out hunting or gathering. Dieting is a losing game. The house always wins, as they say, and when one diet fails, there’s always another one promising amazing results for you to try next.
Letting go of dieting is scary, and the process of listening to your body is messy and non-linear, with lots of land mines along the way.
But it is so, so worth it to eat the foods you want, nourish yourself when you’re hungry, and unleash your metabolism to its full, revved up potential.