If there’s one thing I like to do, it’s eat. But I hate to diet. I don’t think I ever have, actually.
I spend all day working with men and women to become as strong as healthy as they can be. If there’s any one thing I can say that’s messing us all up, it’s how we think about food. It’s not just food itself, but the incredible drama, dogma and shame that we have about food.
So let’s make this simple. NO MORE DIETS, ever. Got it?
A diet (unless you’re dealing with a medical condition) is a set of rules that someone else made up, based on generalities, myths and averages, that you have to follow and you will feel bad if you mess up, which will probably feed whatever food-related shame issues you’ve already got. (And we’ve all got them.) It’s not even a lifestyle. That sounds like something that requires a uniform and a special language and a handshake so that you know who else is in “the lifestyle,” and that’s creepy.
It’s just nutrition. Okay. That’s it. Food is about nutrition. If you are a car, food is the gas and oil.
Let’s start with that analogy: You are a car. Food is the fuel. A car runs on gas, if you put something else in it, it will mess up the system and the system won’t run. Your body is very similar, only it runs on food. So let’s use that as our framework. You can be whatever car you want. I’m an old VW Bug, because those are still my favorite. (Black. Convertible. With long eyelashes over the round headlights.)
1. Know the role of food. Food is the fuel you use to live the life you want to live. Period. So the first step is to decide what you want the daily patterns of your life to look like, and eat accordingly. If you want to live a very active and athletic life, you need to eat more in order to have the energy and muscle mass to do that. Conversely, if you know you are more sedentary, then you need less fuel.
How much you need depends on how much you move, like a car. A road trip takes more gas than a trip to the corner store. A car won’t run on milk any more than you can run on gasoline. The fuel has to match the needs of the machine.
2. It’s nutrition, not a diet. The job of food is to be fuel, so what you eat matters. When I am putting food in my body, I am looking for a balance of fat, protein and carbs, those are macronutrients. But it ALL has to be full of micronutrients also – vitamins and minerals.
I don’t want things that I know make my body feel bad, like lots of sugar. It also can’t be full of all sorts of crap. Emulsifiers, stabilizers, wonkifiers and crapifiers. (Yes, I made up those last two.) In our house, the rule is that if they could have eaten it on Little House On The Prairie, then we eat it. It’s obviously a loosely-interpretable rule, but the idea is simple: If it’s shelf-stable for weeks and full of crap we can’t find in nature, we probably don’t eat it. At least not very often. (Sugar was hard to come by on Little House On The Prairie, so it was used sparingly.)
3. Know that it’s different for everyone. The fact that your neighbor had life-changing results by only eating pineapple while standing on their head is awesome. For them. But it might not work for you.
What you eat needs to be formulated around what your nutritional needs are, based on your activities and how your body responds to food. You have to pay attention to your body and figure out what works for you based on your goals. (The ones you outlined above.) Do NOT compare yourself to someone else, because you are you, not someone else.
4. Read your body’s signals. Do you have enough energy to do what you want? If not, make a change, one change, give it a month and see if it helps. NOTHING works over night. Make decisions based on your own body and how you feel in it. If you feel chronically ill and tired, chances are good that food is playing a part in the problem, and can play a part in the solution.
5. Keep it simple. “Eat less sugar” is simple. “Eat 6 grams of this and 4 grams of that and have it total 1,367 calories” is not simple. If it’s hard, you will most likely fall in a trap of “this is too hard, I’ll start doing it tomorrow.” If it’s simple, you can start right now, and keep doing it.
My two cardinal – and simple – rules are: Eat REAL Food (not chemical crap) and Eat LESS ADDED SUGAR.
6. Avoid feeling famished. Hungry people make regrettable decisions. Carry snacks with you, always. I started doing this when I had a kid, and then realized I was the one eating her snacks. So I never stopped. (I still have a soft spot for those “fruit snacks” that are in no way related to fruit. For me, those are a sweet treat.) I always have Epic Bars, Larabars and Nuts on me. In my bag. In my car. In my cubby at work. There is ALWAYS food somewhere near me.
7. Don’t use food as a punishment or a reward. Focus instead on “need” and “want.” Strike a good balance. My general rule is that I give my body what it NEEDS first. Then I think about what I WANT, how I will feel afterwards, and I decide if I still want it.
It’s worth mentioning that 9 times out of 10, if I eat a big nutritious meal, my desire for dessert often goes away. But for me, a life without chocolate and wine is not a thing. I love dessert, I have a mouth full of sweet teeth. I just do it less often than I used to. It’s healthy to treat yourself, it’s not healthy to feel shame about it.
I just gets down to being rational about food. And that’s not easy in a world in which everyone is telling you that you’re doing it wrong and you’re not good enough.
Learn to use food as a tool that will help you live the life you want to live. And let it be a way that you love your body.
Which is a great step towards YOU learning how to love your body.
And your life.