There Are No Rules for Healthy Eating

We’re in the midst of a global pandemic and national political upheaval unlike anything we’ve seen in the past 150 years. Still, wellness influencers, major news outlets, and even the CDC are finding plenty of time to fret about dieting and weight gain. In response, anti-diet nutritionists, therapists, and activists have taken to social media to point out that a too tight grip on your eating habits can cause anxiety and unhealthy patterns that leave you frustrated and physically uncomfortable.

I agree. In April I wrote about how quarantine-induced worries linked to food and exercise can backfire, and why a more relaxed approach to food leads to better health. However, this is easier said than done. Our relationship with weight and diets is complex, and it can be tough to distinguish a healthy habit from an unhealthy one. If you’re working toward a healthier mindset about food, a good first step is to identify your own food rules and then challenge them.

A food rule is any kind of black-and-white thinking about food. Some might be holdovers from a specific diet you’ve tried in the past, like the idea that you should avoid carbs, or that there’s a static number of calories you should eat in a day. Others are extreme versions of generally sound advice, like the idea that you must only eat whole foods, or that sugar and processed goods are explicitly off-limits. 

Some of these ideas are grounded in evidence, but there’s a critical difference between food rules and healthy eating habits. The latter are flexible: you prioritize nutritious ingredients but don’t agonize over what to eat and aren’t stressed if you go a day without vegetables or finish a meal feeling overly full. Food rules are rigid: you have strict parameters around how you should eat, and feel guilty or anxious (or like you need to compensate) when you don’t eat according to that plan. “Following food rules can be physically, mentally, and socially exhausting, which impacts overall quality of life,” says Taylor Chan, a dietitian and certified personal trainer. Here are six new anti-rules to learn in the new year. 

There Are No Bad Foods

Morality has long snuck into the way we talk and think about eating. Look at the way that various foods are marketed: something low in calories, sugar, and fat might be labeled “guilt-free.” High-sugar, high-fat, and high-calorie foods are deemed “sinfully delicious,” an indulgence to feel a little ashamed of. It might seem normal to think of certain foods as good or bad, seeing as how moralizing eating patterns is a natural product of our culture’s fixation on healthy living. But that doesn’t mean it’s helpful, says Chan.

If a certain food is deemed inherently bad, and eating it is bad behavior, it isn’t a huge leap to think you’re a bad person for eating that way. Food quickly becomes a source of stress and shame, rather than nourishment and pleasure. Dalina Soto, an anti-diet dietitian, expertly called out the problem in an Instagram post: you aren’t a horrible person with no self-control because you ate some ice cream; you just ate something delicious because you wanted it. Thinking of it this way makes it easier to let go and move on. The point isn’t that ice cream is nutrient packed or that it should be the cornerstone of your diet—those wouldn’t be accurate or helpful, either! It’s that there’s never a reason to feel guilty about eating, no matter the nutritional value of the food.

Forget About Clean Eating

Clean eating is such a common phrase that it might not raise an eyebrow, but it’s problematic, too. It implies that other foods and ways of eating are dirty, which falls into the same moralizing trap mentioned above. Plus, there’s no real definition of what “clean” means. “People start developing arbitrary rules about their food, which leads to restrictive and unhealthy food patterns,” says Heather Caplan, a dietitian who specializes in intuitive eating and sports nutrition.

There’s evidence to back this up. A 2020 cross-sectional survey of 1,266 young adults published in the journal Nutrients found that over half the participants had heard of clean eating and thought of it as healthy, but that their definitions of clean were all over the place. The researchers pointed out that while clean eating is often portrayed as healthy, it is often linked with disordered eating. It’s a dichotomous way of thinking, “characterized by extreme ‘all bad’ or ‘all good’ views toward food,” the paper states. Additionally, someone can use clean eating to mask behaviors like severe calorie restriction, claiming that they’re avoiding various foods for health reasons when in fact they may have an underlying eating disorder or disordered-eating behaviors. The researchers also found clean eating to be associated with nutritional deficiencies, since restrictive behavior can go undetected and unchecked for so long.

If you want to eat healthfully, a better approach is to prioritize nutrient-dense foods—fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, legumes, healthy oils, and lean proteins—without vowing to only eat these foods. It’s a flexible and realistic approach that won’t have you constantly questioning whether certain foods are clean enough or not.

Stop Tracking Your Intake

Religiously counting calories or macros (carbs, fat, and protein) probably isn’t going to have the effect you want it to. One 2013 review of 25 existing studies published in Frontiers in Psychology found that restricted eating habits rarely led to weight loss and, in fact, often corresponded with weight gain. 

There’s no consensus on why exactly this happens, but a 2015 article in the International Journal of Obesity explains that the body is designed to protect against weight loss. Restriction-induced weight loss precipitates physiological adaptations, including fewer calories burned overall, less fat oxidation (converting stored fat to energy), a decrease in the fullness-signaling hormone leptin, and an increase in the hunger-signaling hormone ghrelin. Even if someone who has lost weight successfully manages to override their hunger signals, their metabolism may still be slower than before, making it increasingly harder to keep burning fat. This might be why many dieters don’t see the results they want from calorie counting.

Soto instead encourages an intuitive eating approach: eat what you want, when you want it. Our bodies know to seek out the variety of nutrients that they need to function, and proponents of intuitive eating explain that paying close attention to your cravings will naturally lead to a nutritious diet. When it comes to gauging how much food your body requires, it’s far easier to eat until you’re satisfied than it is to count and track calories.

Don’t Demonize Macronutrients

Popular as the keto diet may be, there’s no evidence that a low-carb diet is any healthier than one that includes a balance of all macronutrients. The same goes for low-fat diets. A 2020 review of 121 previously conducted, randomized controlled trials published in The British Medical Journal found that none of the diets limiting certain macronutrients like carbs or fats are any more effective at improving health than a regular, varied diet.

Still, it’s common to demonize certain carbs or fats, even if you aren’t on a particular diet. Maybe you pass on the bread basket because you don’t want to eat too many carbs, or always use nonstick cooking spray instead of oil because you’re wary of adding too much fat to a meal. Soto says this isn’t necessary. All three macronutrients play an important role in health and function. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend getting anywhere from 45 to 65 percent of your calories from carbs, 10 to 35 percent from protein, and 20 to 35 percent from fat. There’s a lot of wiggle room there. Most people’s intake already falls within these ranges, so striking the perfect balance of macros day after day isn’t something you should overthink.

You Don’t Need to Burn Anything Off

Food is more than just a source of energy, Chan says. “We eat food for so many reasons, and it’s important to honor those,” she says. “We connect with our culture through food, we connect with others over a good meal, and we eat for pleasure and nostalgia, all of which supports overall well-being.” But the idea that you must earn food with a grueling workout is still pervasive.

Trying to compensate with exercise when you feel you’ve eaten too much can have a significant negative impact on your quality of life, Chan says. At worst, it sets into motion a cycle of overeating, compensating, and overeating again. Instead of beating yourself up, or trying to atone for eating more than feels comfortable, just let your body do its thing and digest. You’ll feel fine again soon, and chances are you’ll feel less hungry later on.

Yes, there’s nuance here. Food still fuels movement, and there’s nothing wrong with adjusting your intake accordingly when you’re training. The important thing is to not be too rigid or punish yourself for eating too much. A strict calories-in, calories-out approach to fueling isn’t very effective anyway. There’s strong evidence refuting the popular idea that eating 3,500 calories leads to one pound of weight gain, and equally strong evidence that fitness trackers are notoriously terrible at measuring the actual number of calories burned during a workout.

Be Mindful and Flexible

“Ditching food rules opens the door for nutritious foods, not so nutritious foods, and everything in between to be enjoyed,” Chan says. The goal isn’t to give up on good nutrition but to make it less stressful and more sustainable. If your intention is to feel your best, be mindful of how different foods affect your mood and energy levels. Use that to guide what you choose to eat, instead of sticking to black-and-white rules that set you up for failure.

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Lead Photo: Kristen Curette & Daemaine Hines/Stocksy

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