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The good news: Healthy eating is not about fasting, medication, or fad diets. – Psychology Today

5 minutes, 27 seconds Read

This post was written by Gia Marson, Ed.D.

Springtime brings fresh energy, longer days, and a chance to introduce new healthy habits.

But in a culture obsessed with body shape and size, this time of year can be filled with harmful diet messaging.

It sneaks up on us everywhere:

  • Someone at the office turns down the donuts your boss brought to the meeting because one of their goals is to completely cut sugar from their diet. You overhear them saying that they gave up bananas and apples, too.
  • Gym advertisements invite people to come “shed those winter pounds.”
  • A friend says no to dinner because they “ate too much” yesterday.
Source: Madison Lavern Yogagenapp/Unsplash
Source: Madison Lavern Yogagenapp/Unsplash

But diet culture is full of empty promises, deprivation, and self-criticism.

The truth is that diets rarely create lasting, healthy change. Eating less and exercising more rarely works in the long term. The reality is that when you engage in caloric deprivation, your brain sees it as a threat and responds accordingly.

A recent New York Times article, “Can Dieting Actually Lead to Long-Term Weight Loss,” described the complex interplay among appetite hormones, metabolism, weight, and dieting:

“When you lose weight, your body responds by increasing your appetite and reducing the number of calories you burn.” — Dr Hall

Here are 10 science-backed ways to kick-start more intentional, mindful, and healthy eating.

Instead of wreaking havoc on your body and trying to override its innate biological drives, take small, sustainable steps that are easier to stick with—and help you get closer to your health goals.

1. Avoid diets.

Significantly restricting food intake or cutting out entire food groups can cause more long-term problems than short-term benefits. Dieting disrupts your appetite hormones, including ghrelin and leptin. When these are out of balance, you feel hungrier, and it takes longer for your brain to tell you you’re full.

2. Eat enough food.

Our culture has consistently told us that eating less equals eating better. But that’s not the case. Your body needs enough calories to maintain metabolic functioning. When you undereat, your metabolic rate can fall below a healthy level. This can make you feel more fatigued and negatively affect your heart, brain, and immune system. Listen and respond to what your body needs.

3. Boost your gut microbiota.

Tiny microorganisms in your gut interact with the foods you eat and influence your health. Eating a diverse range of foods helps your microbiota function better, which improves digestion, nutritional absorption, and your immune system. To build up a rich gut microbiota, enjoy more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats.

THE BASICS

4. Increase fiber intake.

Getting enough fiber promotes regular bowel movements and also benefits your gut bacteria. High-fiber foods include fruit, leafy greens, lentils, seeds, and whole grains like oats or quinoa.

5. Get plenty of probiotic and prebiotic foods.

Include foods with natural probiotics (another bacteria that benefits your gut health), like yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi, and other fermented foods. Prebiotics, which nourish your microbiota, are also helpful. These include garlic, onions, bananas, and asparagus.

6. Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate.

More than half your body mass is made up of water. Drinking enough ensures optimal digestive function, prevents constipation, and helps maintain a healthy body temperature. Try for at least 64 ounces of water per day.

7. Add servings of fruits and vegetables.

Instead of targeting foods to limit or cut out, add more foods that you know will make a positive difference to your health. You can start by trying to eat five servings of fruits and vegetables daily. Take a gentle approach. Don’t make this an all-or-nothing rule that can backfire later.

Diet Essential Reads

8. Explore supplements.

Even with a healthy diet, it’s sometimes hard to get all the vitamins and minerals you need. For example, some people struggle to get enough calcium, iron, vitamin D, and magnesium. Check with your doctor about taking specific vitamins or supplements to make up the difference.

9. Manage chronic stress.

Chronic stress is linked to cravings. Stress can also interfere with appetite awareness, making it more difficult to notice hunger and fullness cues. Stress management strategies are personal but can include exercise, meditation, and time in nature. If your stress comes from PTSD, anxiety, or depression, consider talking to a professional about a path to healing.

10. Stay active.

Regular exercise supports healthy digestion and gut microbiota. But this doesn’t mean you need an hour of high-intensity workouts every day. Focus on finding activities you enjoy, like pickleball, long walks with your dog, yoga, golf, or a dance class. When movement is fun, it’s easier to stick with.

Of course, consult with your doctor or a registered dietitian before you make any changes, especially if you are one of the many individuals with special nutritional needs.

Are you ready to take a non-diet approach to your relationship with food?

When it comes to eating, it’s tempting to think in extremes. Diet culture has taught us that healthy eating is all or nothing. Foods are “good” or “bad.” But there is a middle ground.

In one recent study (popularized in the Netflix documentary You Are What You Eat, researchers looked at the impact of different eating habits among identical twins:

“Although our findings suggest that vegan diets offer a protective cardiometabolic advantage compared with a healthy, omnivorous diet, excluding all meats and/or dairy products may not be necessary… cardiovascular benefits can be achieved with modest reductions in animal foods and increases in healthy plant-based foods compared with typical diets.” — Landry et al. (2023)

Not only are plant-based foods healthy, but finding new ways to add vegetables into your diet is more pleasurable than fixating on what to cut out.

Despite common language like “failed diets” or “falling off the wagon,” remember that sustainability is most important.

In one review of non-surgical and non-pharmacological treatment approaches to weight loss, researchers investigated the challenge of restrictive diets after a three-year follow-up.

“This review concludes that… weight can be lost but is likely regained over time, for the majority of participants.” — Morten Nordmo et al. (2019)

Small steps matter. By making tiny changes over time, you can improve your health without fixating on your weight.

This year, say no to the sweeping fads, fasts, and “resolutions.” Not only do they fail most of the time, but restrictive diets can make you vulnerable to developing an eating disorder or becoming hyper-focused on your body.

Instead, say yes to sustainable, intentional changes and having an inspired, joyful life.

Your mind and body will feel the difference.

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