Although many of us choose certain dietary patterns to lose weight, a 2021 survey found that fewer of us are focusing on simply looking better. Instead, we're more interested in long-term health, which includes increased energy and the reduction of risk for future chronic conditions. The "d” word — as in diet — may be finally dead in the water. For most individuals — including many of my patients, and myself — losing the diet mentality was not easy, but the act of doing so was essential to long-term change and success.
Before I became a dietitian who helps patients, I was the patient. My adolescent years were spent in a perpetual state of dieting, overeating and obesity. I had spent many early days of a new year determined to finally change, only to have failed by March. Then one day, when my pediatrician realized that I was only a few numbers away from a diabetes diagnosis, I was sent to a dietitian. After a 30-minute discussion, I was asked to eat less overall and to increase fruits and vegetables (foods that, at the time, I did not like eating). I was sent out the door with a paper outlining a 1200 calorie diet not tailored at all to who I was or the environment in which I lived. I spent the next ten years figuring out that focusing on health ultimately led to a better weight — and I made that focus my profession.
Here are five real world ways I learned to use food to develop healthier habits — and now share with my patients:
1. Determine the why.
As an obese adolescent, my “why” never seemed to get me over the finish line. It was always about getting into a pair of size 6 jeans, or having the same flat stomach like the other girls I was friends with. My vanity "whys" weren't enough to elicit long-term change. I’d get into the size 6 pants and then I'd start eating again. However, my understanding of diabetes and the consequences that came with the diagnosis was what ultimately drove me to adopt healthier habits. I tell my patients that they need to list out three whys — why they want to lose weight or change their diet — and only of one them can be related to looks. Do you want to get on the ground and play with your grandkids? Do you want to live longer than your parents did? Think about it. Write it down, share it with someone you love — and then start achieving it.
2. Define the “perfect” diet for you.
The perfect diet does exist but it looks different for everyone. Despite these differences, the focus remains the same: sustainability. Achieving long-term success in developing healthier eating habits comes down to your food preferences and your environment. Do you struggle with sugar addiction but live with someone who keeps a lot of it in the house? Your chances of success will most likely go down. Do you want to go vegan but dislike most plant-based proteins? You'll probably struggle. Even your choice of who you follow on social media may have an impact. A 2020 study in the journal "Appetite" found that individuals tend to follow their social media peers' eating habits, even if it's done subconsciously. To define your perfect for you diet, scan your environment and assess what's possible, define your food preferences and your access to certain foods and look at what dietary pattern you were to maintain successfully in the past.
3. Eat until you feel satisfied — not full.
I remember doing everything I could to control my portion sizes. I’d use measuring cups to precision and counted every pretzel I put in my hand for a snack. It didn’t work. I still overate. The reasons why I did (and you do, too) are complex, but they boil down to a few things: eating while distracted, eating too fast, eating low nutrient-dense foods, or simply not stopping because food tastes good. The solution to most of these challenges is finding foods that fill you up (think fat, fiber and protein), and eating until you are no longer hungry, not full. Eating until you're full is the equivalent of keeping the nozzle in the gas tank while gas flowing onto your feet. If you focus on slowing down (for example, put your fork down in between bites) and losing the distractions (turn off the TV and silence your phone) you may develop more mindful eating behaviors. Studies also show that managing stress and getting adequate sleep can help with assessing hunger and fullness as well.
4. Fuel up for better emotional health.
We often learn early on in life that food can soothe or reward. Do you ever remember falling off your bike and having your mom run out offering a big bowl of steamed broccoli to take the pain away? Ice cream, chocolate, and pizza are often the mental health fixes that made you smile — and then you perhaps took that lesson into adulthood. It took me 20 years to figure out that eating more plants made me happier and healthier — and that eating sugar and refined carbohydrates ultimately made me feel worse. A decade of data in nutritional psychiatry has confirmed this. Data show that the dietary pattern most highly correlated to reduced depression and anxiety scores is the Mediterranean diet (abundant in extra virgin olive oil, fatty fish, beans and legumes, fruits and vegetables and whole intact grains and limited in sugar and refined grains).
5. If you fall off the wagon (and you will), pick yourself up and keep going.
In my over 20 years in health care, one thing is certain: falling off the healthy habit wagon is inevitable. I was guilty of falling off — and staying on the ground — for far too many years. The shame of not being able to change kept me down. No one is perfect, and occasionally allowing indulgences is not what ultimately impacts overall health. It’s when we have a cookie, feel bad about the choice and respond by finishing the entire box. It's important to realize you will most likely have times when you eat too many of the wrong foods — so enjoy it, move on from it, and keep going. You’re not weak, you're human.
Food plays a huge role in health, but before we can determine the right foods to eat, we have to determine everything else that impacts our eating habits. I ended losing over 50 pounds which ultimately improved my entire metabolic profile. I found success in health, not the scale — and in the end, that’s what matters most. Start by getting healthy today. January 1, after all, is just a number on a calendar.