It’s January, which means that health and wellness are back at the forefront of many peoples’ minds. Everywhere you turn, people are talking about their New Years’ resolutions to “get in shape”, “eat healthy” and “lose xx amount of pounds”.
I don’t know about you, but we’re only about one-third of the way through January and I already want to cover my ears and scream “enough already!”
Don’t get me wrong, I love that people are feeling motivated to make positive lifestyle changes to better their health. I fully support that. But the way in which many people go about pursuing these goals (especially this time of year) is disheartening – not to mention concerning. Strict elimination diets, detoxes, cleanses… these may seem like great ways to jump start your health goals at the start of the new year, but what happens come February? Or better yet, March?
The problem with most resolutions – and diets in general – is that they’re built for the short term. Sure, they may “work” for a few weeks (maybe even a few months) and you may even see some “results”. But eventually, life happens. Things come up, life gets busy… and, before you know it, you’re part of the 80% of Americans who have “given up” on their resolutions less than two months into the new year.
But, despite what you may have been led to believe, your resolutions don’t fail because you are weak or have no willpower – your resolutions fail because, simply put, they’re not sustainable.
Generally speaking, strict diets are no way to achieve your health and wellness goals. For starters, they bypass all of the fundamental skills that are essential for creating healthy and sustainable lifestyles. They teach you to ignore your body’s internal hunger and satiety cues and instead rely on external cues, such as meal plans or meal schedules. They tell you WHAT to eat, but not HOW to eat. And for the most part, they’re just downright miserable.
That being said, you may be scratching your head at the title of this post. After all, why on earth am I promoting an elimination diet when I just got done listing all of the reasons why diets suck?
Well, hear me out… the thing is, this elimination diet is different. I’m not here to tell you to eliminate gluten. Or to cut out sugar and carbs. In fact, none of the items that I’m asking you to eliminate from your diet are sources of food.
This elimination diet is all about ridding yourself of the diet mentality. Ridding yourself of all those crazy thoughts and actions that keep you trapped in a cycle of yo-yo dieting. And instead, cultivating a positive, healthy, and sustainable relationship with food.
Below are the top five things that I think that pretty much anyone can benefit from eliminating from their diet in 2018 (followed by a few things that I think everyone could benefit from adding in!)
- Labels. I’m not talking about the nutrition facts panels on the backs of packaged food items (although I’d be lying if I said there weren’t days I’ve wished that those would just disappear, as well). I’m talking about the black and white labels that we give to foods. Things like… “Pizza = bad. Salad = good.” or “Apples = healthy. Cookies = unhealthy.” Sure, a bowl full of vegetables may provide more vitamins and minerals than a slice of pizza, but that doesn’t mean that you are a worse (or a better) person for choosing one over the other. Despite what certain diet programs, media personalities, or magazine articles may have led you to believe, our bodies process and utilize the nutrients in pizza exactly the same way as our bodies process and utilize the nutrients in a salad.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that you eat pizza (or insert other stereotypical “junk” food here) for every meal. But, I’m also not advocating that you eat a salad for every meal either. I truly believe that all foods can fit into a “healthy” lifestyle (again, assuming you don’t have a diagnosed medical condition, food allergy, etc.) and that a “eating healthy” means more than just eating fruits and veggies.
When it comes to health and nutrition, there tends to be far too much emphasis placed on the WHAT and not enough on the WHY or the HOW. The way in which we think and communicate about food is equally as important as the foods that we choose put into our bodies. Food serves a multitude of purposes that extend far beyond our biological needs – food not only nourishes our bodies, but also our souls. Letting go of negative connotations and approaching food with a neutral and nonjudgmental attitude allows us to embrace all of our senses while eating, making the experience that much more liberating and enjoyable.
- Unnecessary rules and/or restrictions. Unless you have a diagnosed medical condition that requires nutritional management, there is no need for strict food rules. Deeming certain foods (or food groups) as “off-limits” will only make you want them more. There’s no way around it… It’s basic human nature. We will always want what we can’t (or tell ourselves we can’t) have.
Our bodies are biologically hard-wired to help us endure periods of famine – it’s what helped our ancestors to survive thousands of years ago when food supplies were scarce and oftentimes unpredictable. When we manipulate our diets to voluntarily restrict our food intake, we kick many of these same survival mechanisms into action. And although our bodies are extremely intelligent machines, they cannot differentiate between voluntary and involuntary calorie restriction. As a result, the body goes into Mama Bear protection mode – meaning that our metabolism slows down and our cravings increase in order to preserve what energy we do have and signal our bodies to seek out more food.
These protective mechanisms often trigger what we call the restrict-binge (or restrict-binge-restrict-binge-restrict-binge, you get the idea…) cycle. Now, I’ll refrain from going into too much detail… But those increased cravings that you can’t seem to shake any time you go on a diet? Those aren’t a sign of poor willpower; it’s your body’s way of telling you that it’s literally starving and needs nutrients!
Over time, restriction leads to deprivation, which leads to increased cravings. Chances are, you’ll be able to ignore those cravings for a few weeks – maybe even a few months if you try hard enough. But, eventually, most of us will give into those cravings and go balls-to-the-wall on the exact food that we tried so hard to restrict. Shortly thereafter, feelings of guilt and shame begin to set in, and we vow to “never” eat that food again… until the same thing happens all over again. Sound familiar? That’s the restrict-binge cycle.
The restrict-binge cycle is one of the primary reasons why most weight loss diets actually end in weight gain (yep, you read that right, the most efficient way to gain weight is to try to LOSE weight – let that sink in for a minute). So yeah, swearing off of sugar may SOUND like a good idea in theory. But, chances are you’re going to find yourself at the bottom of an empty sleeve of Oreos faster than you can say “Uh, oh! Oreo”
- Fear, anxiety, guilt, and shame. For those of you keeping score at home… yes, these are technically 4 separate emotions. But, for the sake of this post, I’m just going to go ahead and lump them all together since they tend to travel as a group anyways.
In our society today, the media does a pretty damn good job of brainwashing people into thinking that food is something that should be feared, rather than celebrated. Gluten is the devil. Sugar is toxic. Fat makes you fat. Fat makes you skinny. I’ve heard it all… and let me tell you, 99% of it is not true (I would say 100%, but I’m trying to avoid sweeping generalizations here). Unfortunately, the lack of evidence behind these claims doesn’t stop millions of people from eliminating these things from their diets. And while these dietary changes may not have a drastic effect on our health, they do have a dramatic impact on our relationship with food.
Fear (whether it be a fear of weight gain, disease, body discomfort, etc.) causes us to feel anxious around food. This anxiety, in turn, leads us to over-analyze and stress about our food choices and ultimately create food “rules” or “labels” (see above). These rules and restrictions lead to deprivation, which lead to binges (again, see above) and give us a front row seat on the roller coaster of yo-yo dieting. Banishing fear from our diet is one of the first steps to interrupting this viscous cycle and opening the door to food freedom.
- Comparison. You know that saying “comparison is the thief of joy”? It’s true. Comparing ourselves to others in any capacity never ends well… especially when it comes to things like diet, exercise, and body shape/size.
Constantly striving to keep up with the Jones’ will only leave you feeling inadequate – and not to mention exhausted. Each of our bodies are unique, dynamic, and complex and it’s important that we treat them as such. Just because your coworker or friend or the woman at the gym with the 6-pack of abs is following some crazy diet does not mean that you need to… nor does it mean that you SHOULD. Trying to fit into someone else’s definition of health is like trying to squeeze a square peg into a round hole – it’s never going to work.
Rather than wasting your time and energy trying to (unsuccessfully) keep up with the latest fad diet, why not use that time and energy to create a lifestyle that works for YOU? What foods make YOU feel good? What kind of movement do YOU enjoy? Sometimes putting yourself first means ignoring what everyone else is doing. And that’s okay.
- Perfection. As a recovering perfectionist, I feel obligated to tell you that striving for perfection in anything in life is pretty much an uphill battle. Perfection in and of itself does not exist – it’s an arbitrary and subjective term that we feed ourselves to trick ourselves into thinking that we constantly need to be better.
Eating is not a competition – you don’t earn a gold star when you order a side of steamed broccoli instead of French fries and you don’t get a big red mark on your imaginary diet report card when you eat a cookie with your breakfast. When it comes to eating (or life in general), there’s no place for perfection. Perfection is boring. Perfection is unattainable. And “perfection” is sure as hell not nearly as delicious or satisfying as imperfection.
Alright, so you’ve eliminated the above things from your diet (yay!)… now what? Well, once you’ve eliminated these things from your diet, you open up plenty of room for ADDING things back in. Things like…
- Variety. Remember all of the foods that you so freely enjoyed as a kid? Well, guess what… You can still enjoy them as an adult (though, I would recommend steering clear of the play-doh and gluesticks; although I’d argue that those should never really have been “foods” to begin with).
The concept of allowing yourself to freely enjoy any and all foods may seem scary at first – and that’s a completely normal reaction. After all, how can we be trusted to be around these foods without eating ALL. THE. FOOD.? But, the thing is, the more you expose yourself to previously “off-limit” foods, the more you’ll realize that they’re just that – another food that you can enjoy anytime you like. After a while, you’ll likely notice that your cravings for these foods will actually DECREASE and you’ll be able to open a pint of ice cream without worrying that you won’t be able to stop until you hit the bottom.
Variety is the spice of life, my friends – so embrace all of the delicious food the world has to offer!
- Joy. Above all else, eating should be a pleasurable and enjoyable experience. But, the act of dieting teaches us that eating should be a careful and methodical action, rather than an intuitive and pleasurable experience.
If you find that the act of eating causes you angst or distress, then I urge you to take a step back and re-evaluate the way that you’re approaching food. What is it that’s holding you back from enjoying your food? Fear? Guilt? Perfection? Eliminating these items from your diet will allow you to embrace food in all its glory and put the joy back in eating.
- Permission. Last but not least, give yourself permission. Permission to eat whatever you want, regardless of its calorie/fat/sugar content. Permission to eat when you’re hungry and stop when you’re full. Permission to enjoy a bowl of ice cream after dinner without having to “make up for it” at the gym tomorrow. Permission to trust your body to metabolize the nutrients from that ice cream to provide you with the energy to go about your day. And most importantly, permission to enjoy food again.
To those of you who braved the 2500 words to get to this point, thank you. I hope that you leave this post feeling a little more liberated and a little less stressed about food. A little more confident and a little less confused. And above all else, I hope you leave feeling rejuvenated and ready for a happy and healthy new year!
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