Last column I got into the perils of diet and exercise New Year’s resolutions, specifically how they often encourage us to ignore our bodies and instead listen to a society telling us we have to eat and train a certain way to look a certain way. Over the next three columns, I will get into how each of these three aspects of our health and our relationship with our bodies – how we eat, how we train, how we look – are all influenced by a toxic society. We’ll start this week by tackling diets and how the restriction that is so often central to “success” is a slippery slope to dangerous and destructive behaviors.
Whether it's an article on a less-than-peer-reviewed website or the posts in your feed, odds are the central theme of the diet you’re looking at is restriction. You might be cutting carbs, eating like a caveman or following a complicated list of what you can and can’t eat. Each of these diets has research to back them up and countless testimonials as to how they helped users finally lose weight or feel better. What they all lack is an approach grounded in balance and intuition.
Following a restrictive plan for what you can and can’t eat works for some people, but for many – myself included – it simply isn’t an option that life or mental health will allow for.
It always starts off great. You get excited about the new challenge you’ve set out for yourself and the results it promises. You bookmark recipes and make a grocery list. You proudly place every item on the conveyor belt and bask in the beauty of your colorful fridge when you get home and put everything away. You prep meals or cook every night. The food you make is delicious and your body feels great. At this point, you are probably overflowing with motivation.
This anecdote could go on for another paragraph or two, eventually arriving at the late night after an exhausting day of work where you really want a pizza and either eat it and begin on the rollercoaster of guilt that follows, or you skip it, and maybe dinner as a whole, and go to bed hungry and deprived. The thing is, we don’t have to go that far to see the problematic nature of restrictive dieting culture. It is already clear in the last word of the paragraph above.
Eating a certain way shouldn’t require motivation or at least not any motivation beyond the biological drive to nourish our bodies that every one of us has. If a diet involves regularly relying on the pictures you post of your grocery haul, the comments you get on your mirror selfies, the number you see on the scale or a mantra that highlights the results you are getting in exchange for suffering as sources of “motivation,” then the diet isn’t healthy.
If humans needed anything other than our own innate sensations and thoughts to drive how we eat, we wouldn’t have lasted very long on the plains of Africa a few million years ago. We certainly wouldn’t have made it to a world with so much external feedback to create endless possibilities for a spiral into an unhealthy relationship with food and eating. We have all the guidance we need when it comes to nourishing our bodies and none of it resides online.
An important caveat to include here is that all of our genius as human beings has given us the ability to produce food that overrides our intuitive drive to nourish ourselves by triggering the pleasure centers in the brain. What I mean is we invented pizza and burgers and fries. These foods are delicious and have a place in just about everyone’s life, just perhaps not as big of one as we would give them if we only listened to our taste buds.
With that out of the way, we can talk about intuitive eating. The term will mean something a little different to everyone, but the basic principle is letting your body and mind guide your eating. Need evidence that this approach works? Look no further than the graveyard of diets that received just as much praise as anything around today only to be later labeled unsustainable or even unhealthy. When taken with the rather obvious observation that humans are still around and thriving (in most ways at least), the evidence is clear. Diets don’t work and we don’t need them.
It’s time to replace the diets we find online with the drive we have inside. If we keep in mind that some foods flout this model and should be eaten in moderation, all we need to nourish healthy bodies and happy minds are inside.
As a parting shot, allow me to present you with the Mediterranean diet. Recognized by experts as an incredibly healthy and sustainable way to eat, the Mediterranean diet didn’t come from an influencer or even a researcher. It came from people eating what was around them in the quantities their bodies desired. The “healthiest diet” in the world isn’t a diet at all, but rather the intuitive eating approach of some very healthy and happy people.
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Aidan Rhodes (he/him) is a journalism major from Flagstaff, Arizona. He is a passionate chef, athlete and writer.