After you’ve been sitting awhile, it feels good to stand. Eventually your body aches to unfurl from the chair: Your muscles announce what they need loud and clear. It works on the flip side, too; when you’ve been standing for hours, your feet bark for a break.
The same kind of internal cues can apply to eating. After weeks of holiday feasting it feels good – a relief, even – to eat lighter and more healthfully again. But complicating what might otherwise be a gentle shift toward healthier fare this time of year are the judgment and guilt we often shackle to our food choices. We’ve been eating for pure pleasure (gasp!) and may have gone a bit overboard, so our impulse is to counter with a punishing, hyper-strict diet. It’s as if after binge-watching Netflix on the sofa all day, instead of getting up and enjoying a nice stretch or a walk outside, we force ourselves to stand indefinitely in a corner facing the wall.
That culturally ingrained notion that we need to repent after indulging is one reason the diet industry booms in January. Another reason is the social-media-amplified rallying cry that going keto or paleo or doing some kind of “cleanse” is THE ANSWER. If you feel untethered eating-wise and uncomfortable in your clothes, and if you’ve sworn to yourself that you’d start getting healthy in January, you are especially vulnerable to the promise of these diets. There are the convincing before-and-after pictures, the rules that seem so comfortingly straightforward, and the tribe of converts ready to welcome you into their fold.
That’s the veneer, anyway; the reality behind it is a lot more nuanced. While there are valid rationales for going on certain diets, there are just as many – if not more – for going on no diet at all. If you haven’t noticed yet, or you forgot from when you were on one last year, diets can mess with your head. Many are so restrictive that they set you up for failure, which you inevitably pin on yourself and subsequently feel so bad that you binge on all the forbidden foods and spiral down from there. Diets can get you obsessing about things like macro ratios and (ugh!) talking about them at the dinner table (if the plan even allows for dinner at a table) when you could be focusing on the joys of eating good food and engaging in meaningful conversation. The truth is, in the long run, no single plan has proved to be markedly better at keeping you fit than any other.
So instead of punishing yourself in a dietary straitjacket this year, try pivoting in a healthy direction that gives you room to move more freely. Take a path you can realistically stay on, one that allows for the occasional “unhealthy” food so you can finally get off the all-or-nothing diet seesaw. But without the prefab instruction manual of a formal plan, where do you start? How about by checking in with the person who knows you best? You.
Take a moment to think about your usual eating habits, the patterns you have settled into – and do it with a kind, nonjudgmental mind-set. What are your major stumbling blocks for eating well in your typical day? Are there healthy habits that have worked for you in the past that have slipped away?
I’m a registered dietitian, so I know that you might want to enlist the help of a professional for more complex issues, but I also know that most of us could easily list several ways to improve our eating habits. More vegetables, fewer sugary foods, less snacking while watching late-night TV, eating more slowly and mindfully: It’s not as complicated as it’s often made out to be. Write down three changes that you believe will propel you in the right direction and make them specific enough that you can check them off as “done” each day or week. Then anticipate obstacles and decide on the tools you need and the prep you have to do to put these new habits into play.
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