Dieting can be harmful for our mental, physical and emotional health. However, our health is an important factor in allowing us to live a life that matters to us, so how do we tend to it without straying into dangerous diet-territory? These five simple tips can help you to set health goals that are sustainable, balanced, effective and helpful.
1. Choose Self Compassion over Self-Criticism
Think of what your inner-narrative would be if you felt like you really “messed up” in any given situation. It would probably sound pretty harsh, wouldn’t it? We likely would never speak to a dearly loved friend the way that we speak to ourselves, especially when we’re vulnerable, when we feel we’ve messed up. Having self-compassion, which, simply put, means to treat ourselves with kindness, care and concern in the face of negative events, has been shown to be hugely helpful when it comes to engaging in health-promoting behaviours. When it comes to food and eating, a healthy dose of self-compassion can really help us to be more resilient too. Resilience is a great thing when it comes to achieving health goals because it’s most often not a simple or perfect journey.
Be gentle on yourself, practise speaking to yourself the way you would a loved one.
2. Establish Rhythms Not Rules
Dieting involves rules. Rules are black and white, you’re either doing it right or you’ve fallen off the wagon. They aren’t exactly helpful when it comes to goals because when we inevitably mess up and break them, it’s easy to either give up or beat ourselves up. External rules concerning food and our bodies also don’t leave space for us to tune into and listen to our fearfully and wonderfully made bodies. If we set ourselves rhythms that work for us and make us feel good when we do them then we’re better able to “live in the grey”. When we follow our rhythms, great, if we don’t, that’s ok too, we can learn from that experience.
1. Identify rhythms that are helpful when it comes to feeling good.
Examples could be: a set bedtime, daily stretching, only drinking coffee in the mornings not the afternoons, including fibre rich foods like wholegrains, fruit and veg daily to help digestion and energy levels.
2. Put those rhythms in place and see how they work for you.
3. Remember to add a healthy dose of self-compassion, you don’t just pass or fail, every experience can be a learning opportunity in this journey.
3. Choose to Add in Not Cut Out
Unless you have a medical allergy, all foods have a place in a healthy diet. There is very rarely any need to completely restrict any food or a food group. In fact, when we do, a couple of very interesting psychological and physical reactions to that restriction occur. Suddenly it becomes very difficult not to hyperfocus on the food that we’ve cut out, our desire for it intensifies purely because it’s “off-limits”. It’s also hard to eat foods that are “forbidden” in a balanced and moderate way, the way we would eat them if we had free access to them. It’s totally ok to have some food-related goals but it’s most helpful when we frame them as positive rather than negative.
Turn Negatively-Framed Food Goals into Positively-Framed Food Goals
Instead of: I must stop eating fast-food
Try: I will aim to cook at least 4 of my meals a week at home
Instead of: I shouldn’t eat any bread
Try: I’m going to have wholegrain bread instead of white (or half and half)
Instead of: I’ll just cut out sugar
Try: I’ll aim to increase the number of vegetables and fruit that I eat every day by 1 serving
4. Measure Results by How You Feel Not How You Look
We live in a culture that tells us that weight is the same thing as health. That just isn’t the case. Although our health is not only determined by our behaviours (genetics, socioeconomic status, environment all play a huge role) our behaviours are what affect our health. Weight is not a behaviour. Multiple studies have shown that in fact our disease risk factors and biomarkers all improve independent of weight change. The problem can lie in judging our progress purely based on the weight on the scale when we engage in health-promoting behaviours because we can easily lose heart and give up if we don’t see a change in the numbers.
A great way to shift from focusing on external measures of progress is to start to tune into how you feel. How does that extra 20-mins of activity make you feel? What are your energy levels like after that many hours of sleep? How is the added fibre from those extra veggies affecting your digestion? Tuning into our fearfully and wonderfully made bodies is a great way to know whether any changes we’re implementing are making a difference.
5. Look at the Big Picture of Health
When the new year rolls around and we’re bombarded with diets, re-sets, cleanses and workout regimens it can be easy to assume that food and exercise are the only determinants of our health. However, while our diet and exercise can affect our health they are only two aspects of it. Our genetics, environment, our socio-economic status and other factors outside of our control have a huge impact on our health. Also, just as we, as humans, are more than bodies, health is more than just physical - it involves our mental, emotional, relational, spiritual wellbeing too.
Think of ways that you can tend to your health that are more holistic than simply food and exercise when setting goals. Some examples could be:
Getting more sleep
Meeting with friends for dinner once a week
Therapy or Counselling
Walks in nature
If dieting or following strict regimens has been a way of life for you or you feel fearful about transitioning away from it I highly encourage working with a non-diet nutritionist or dietitian to guide your journey and help you to find structure without restriction. Remember, your goals in life can be so, so much bigger than weight-loss!