If you’ve ever tried to stop eating a certain food you likely have experienced the backlash that comes with restricting foods. Telling yourself “no” is the easiest way to crave a food more, to obsess and dream about the food, and to binge uncontrollably on a tough day when your guard is down.
Polarizing foods as “good” or “bad” not only leads to an unhealthy relationship with food, but it isn’t effective either. Research shows that people who have “rigid restraint” and eliminate foods are less successful at weight loss than those who have “flexible restraint” and avoid strict rules about what to eat and what not to eat.
But many people struggle when it comes to being flexible while developing healthier habits. It’s true, it’s easier, in the short term, to draw a line in the sand and say: “I will never eat _______ again.” It feels so final, so absolute, and and a thousand times simpler than “just eat a little bit better.” But in the long term, the all or nothing approach just doesn’t work.
So we need a better solution. Solutions that will help you get healthy, fit, and lean without feeling restricted.
I have that solution for you today. But first let’s talk a little bit about what doesn’t work:
Permission to eat “all foods” isn’t enough
The good news is that the conversation around food and nutrition is changing. A lot more people are realizing the need for a healthy relationship with food and that restriction doesn’t work.
The bad news is the advice that is now replacing the dated restrictive advice isn’t much better. At best, it’s ineffective, at worst it may be just as damaging as eliminating certain foods. Here’s what others are recommending:
Just eat intuitively
This is the advice that comes from most non-diet gurus. They fill their instagram feed with images of them eating cupcakes saying: “hey, it’s ok!
” and tell you to just “listen to your body.” The problem with this advice is two fold: for one, if we haven’t uncovered why we feel shame and judgment about certain foods, we may find ourselves eating those foods with the feeling of shame and judgment in an attempt to “not restrict.” This leads to more feelings of inadequacy and self-loathing, while simultaneously eating chaotically.
Which brings me to problem #2 with the “eat whatever you want” advice: most of the time we don’t know what we want. Our environment and our habits dictate our choices much more than we know, and assuming we will choose “what our bodies need” when we eat is a false misconception. Choice is an illusion, so assuming we will always chose well is ineffective.
“80% healthy and 20% crap”
A lot of fitness personalities these days are talking about the 80/20 diet, which is the idea that if you eat “healthfully” 80% of the time, then you can splurge the other 20% of the time. The problem with this approach is pretty obvious: you are STILL polarizing foods as good or bad. Coming from this mindset of good versus bad, then opening up the floodgates of “here, eat the bad stuff” may still lead to feelings of shame and judgment around food (especially if you’re calling it “crap”), which increases the likelihood of out of control eating when you are around those “20%” foods. This is similar to the problem with the “cheat meal” concept that usually doesn’t work.
If it fits your macros
Counting macros are all the rage these days. The idea: if you eat the precise amount of protein, carbohydrates, and fat your body needs, you can just eat whatever fits into those numerical goals. While some people hail this as the healthiest way to eat, I’m not convinced. For one, not many people have the willpower or dedication to count absolutely everything they eat forever. Plus this strategy can become just as obsessive and restrictive as eliminating foods.
A second problem: what happens when you don’t have easy access to nutrition labels? For example: you go to a family dinner, where everything is homemade. And speaking of nutrition labels: nutrition labels can be wildly inaccurate. The US Food and Drug Administration allows for a 20% margin of error on food labels. Meaning that pizza slice reported to be 500 calories could really be 400 calories, or 600 calories. You’ll never know. And in truth you don’t need to know. Because if you boil nutrition down to just a select few numbers without accepting the feedback coming from your body and tuning into your individual needs, you’re missing the point.
Eating well without restrictive rules
In high school I drove a plum colored 1991 Ford Escort. It had no tape player, no CD player, no MP3 connection (we didn’t even know what that was at the time) and definitely no XM radio. What it did have was bad reception for AM/FM radio and an elaborate set of knobs for different acoustical settings. After playing around with it a bit, I realized I could make the scratchy radio reception sound much better by turning a few knobs. Turn down the treble a bit. Turn up the bass (because I thought I was cool). Turn off the right front speaker that was blown. Although that car is now in the scrap heap, its memory gave me a new way to think about food and moderation.
Most people think of food and nutrition as a light switch. You’re either “on” or “off”. When you’re “on” you’re eating how you should, and when you’re “off” you’re eating poorly.
A better alternative: the dial model, which is exactly as it sounds: start where you are, then dial UP certain things and dial DOWN other things. These dials aren’t based on an arbitrary list of “good” or “bad” foods. Instead they are based on objective characteristics of different foods, and what you want to achieve.
Want to feel less ravenous hunger between meals? Eat more fiber.
Want to feel satisfied with fewer calories? Eat more vegetables and protein.
Want to have better energy? Drink more water.
Want to lose weight? Eat less calorie dense foods (refined carbohydrates, protein bars, liquid calories, NUTS, dried fruit), and less highly palatable foods.
It doesn’t mean you can’t eat ANY of those things. If you have a couple corn tortillas for tacos, but decreased the amount of snack crackers you ate throughout the day, you’re still dialing your refined carbohydrate intake down.
A simple way to automatically set the “dials” on your nutrition goals
Now I want you to imagine with me that you’re watching me set the dials on my old POS car. I play around with them for a while; get them just right… and then what? Do I have to keep going back every time I turn on the car and reset it? No way, the dial is already set and once it’s done, you no longer have to mess with it (until your little sister starts driving…)
A lot of people approach nutrition with the intention of using willpower. “Just tell me what to do, and I’ll do it” they say. They expect they will muscle through pizza cravings and eat vegetables when French fries sound better. But the problem is: relying on willpower for nutrition is like having dials that snap back to their factory settings as soon as you take your hand off the dial.
So how do we set the dials so that they stay in place without willpower? We do it by changing our habits and our environment.
Here’s one way changing the environment can automatically change the dials for you:
Research by Dr. Barbara Kahn and Dr. Brian Wansink has shown that the more variety increases, the more we eat. Here’s an example. Trail mix separated out into multiple small bowls leads us to eat more than the same trail mix in just one bowl. Having a variety of yogurt flavors can cause a person to eat 3 times as much as when there is only one flavor.
So one key way to “set” the dials on your food frequency: change your variety to fit your needs.
If you want to eat more vegetables, serve two varieties of vegetables with a meal.
If you are struggling to get adequate protein, add some variety to your protein sources.
If you are trying to decrease sweets consumption, keep just one type of treat in the house.
I did this recently by purchasing a variety pack of hummus from Trader Joes. The different flavors and variety helped me eat more raw veggies dipped in hummus. Now our entire family has increased our raw veggie consumption.
To get healthy, fit, and lean without feeling restricted, consider the dial principle instead of thinking of your nutrition as an “on” or “off” phenomenon. Think about turning the dial “up” on certain things and “down” on others. Even just changing one dial can improve your nutrition, so you don’t get stuck trying to do it all at once.
When you can, find ways to easily turn up and down the dials without requiring much thought.