I am a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist & Certified Personal Trainer with a primary focus on fat loss and fitness coaching. I spend most of my time educating, mentoring, and supporting clients who have health or physique goals. I teach the importance of portion control, healthful eating, and daily movement. I guide my clients to set specific action and product goals to keep them motivated to stay on their plan. But the most difficult lesson and skill that I approach my clients with is the idea of balance and mental freedom from food. I was inspired by a recent blog post Dieting is for the Birds written by my friend and fellow RDN, Liz Westinghouse of Rooted Nutrition, to share my thoughts on why the all or nothing approach is self-sabotage.
As a fat loss focused RD, I come across SO much intensity and restriction when it comes to diet and nutrition. We are all so bipolar when it comes to food (and exercise). It’s partly our innate impatience...but I’m going to mostly blame the diet & fitness industry for ingraining the idea that restriction and perfection are key when it comes to getting results.
The industry is notorious for creating poor self-esteem and body image. Because let’s be honest, causing you to feel insecure about yourself is the easiest way to motivate your urgent desire to change which ultimately results in another restrictive diet plan sale. Marketing 101: Speak to the fears and frustrations. What is the best way to ensure those fears and frustrations exist? Create them yourself.
There is nothing more appealing to us than crash diets that promise fast results and flaunt airbrushed images and photoshopped before and afters to “prove” their effectiveness. These plans are either ridiculously low calorie, only allow a few certain foods or vilify certain foods and/or macronutrients. Sometimes these plans do produce weight loss (if you can stick to them). But more likely than not, the victim of these plans (even if they did initially lose weight) end up gaining back all the weight they did lose and more.
Why do restrictive plans backfire? While nutrition and fat loss should first and foremost have the focus on supporting physical health, mental health, impeding/preventing chronic disease, and making you feel better--we instead tend to get caught in this suckfest of a hamster wheel “I can’t have carbs”, “I can’t have fat”, “I can’t have dessert”, “I can’t eat out” etc. to the point where we drive ourselves (and those around us) crazy. We let our need to fit into a certain pair of pants or reach a specific goal weight (most times unrealistic) get in the way of enjoying life. We normally can only last so long before we get a massive case of the “eff-its” and ransack the kitchen. We then feel guilt, self-loathing, and shame which brings us right back to our restrictive eating patterns. And so the cycle continues.
I have been caught in this cycle, myself. Needless to say, I continued to put on weight, feel miserable, and hate my body.
There is one specific memory that stands out. From a very young age, my brother Caleb would cook and bake with my dad. One time when I was home from school for the weekend, Caleb offered me a cookie and asked “Do you know what the secret ingredient is?” and then whispered into my ear “love”.
This beautiful and sweet memory is tainted by the overpowering shame that I felt eating that cookie...caught between loving every second of watching him, watch me enjoy the cookie he had made for me and feeling like I was sabotaging my goals and “never going to be skinny”.
If I could go back in time, I would tell myself this: Cool your freakin’ jets. One cookie is not the problem. The problem is the restriction, guilt, and self-loathing that ultimately transpires into episodes of binge eating. The problem was the pressure I felt to look a certain way rather than learn how to listen to my body telling me what foods made me feel good and what foods didn’t. The problem definitely was not one cookie.
Sometimes...food is not nourishment. Sometimes it is not “fuel”. Sometimes the purpose of food is bonding. Sometimes the purpose of food is comfort. Anyone who has ever had the pleasure of visiting Lombardi’s Pizzeria or Bobby Flay’s Gato knows that eating food can sometimes even be likened to a religious experience. Every culture has their flavor. Every family has their favorite Holiday dishes. Isn’t nostalgia, experience, and cultural association of food also beneficial to your overall person?
We all know that nutrition is a major factor in supporting health and longevity. If you have a realistic physique goal, go after it. Eat in a way that aligns with your goals. Eat in a way that supports your health and extends your life. And certainly, there is a time and a place to decline foods offered by a friend or family member (we all have a relentless “food pusher” in our lives). But find your balance. Eat food that you need to nourish your body as well as food that feed your soul. Be restrained, not restrictive.
Results do not come from perfection. They come from consistency. You will see results when you choose healthful foods because you love your body, not because you hate it. You will see results when you are empowered by discovering how energized you feel, how much better your quality of sleep, how much happier you are when you choose foods that nourish your body. You will see results when you free your mind from restriction and give yourself permission to enjoy your food.
As the meme says “I just don't want to look back and think ‘I could have eaten that’”
So what do you do when you have goals and your baby brother offers you a cookie with a secret ingredient of love? You enjoy the damn cookie. You savor the experience of sharing a small treat with a loved one. You continue to eat according to your goals 80-90% of the time. You eat to nourish. You eat to fuel. And you give yourself the freedom to experience nostalgia, culture, and love through food.
Food is meant to be nourishment. Food is meant to be experienced. Food is meant to be love.