Food, "Diets", and Normal Eating

Restrictive diets seem to be quite popular these days, staking claims to improve health and well-being. I too have been sucked in at times, so I have no judgment about this. The problem is, I find the concept of "dieting" in general to be not all that healthy. Here's why it concerns me:

1. Calling certain foods "bad" increases their power. When people deprive themselves of certain foods that are natural for them to want (I'll get into that later), they are more likely to binge on the food when they "allow" themselves to eat it. In my experience, when I've had an "I will not or do not eat ___" attitude, I find that it dominates my thoughts in an unhealthy way. The detriment to mental health is tremendous and should not be overlooked. Which brings me to point two:

2. The MENTAL HEALTH repercussions of restrictive dieting are not addressed by people who evangelize these rigid eating rules/patterns. Diets can serve as gateway drugs to eating disorders that cause millions of men and women around the world to suffer. Mental suffering also takes its toll.

3. Mental health affects physical health and vice versa...both positively and negatively. To look at either of these in isolation is very problematic, and this is another huge issue when people approach life with rigidity, rather than flexibility and balance. When people experience a greater sense of purpose, worth, and mental well-being they will be more active, and thus, more healthy/physically fit. The obsessive, rigid, consumed brain will affect the body over time in an equally detrimental way. Mental stress/strain can manifest as chronic physical pain/injury. 

4. The RELATIONAL repercussions of dieting are not addressed by people who evangelize extreme, rigid eating rules/patterns. Eating is a communal experience that brings people together. This has happened across cultures and for centuries. If you can't go out with friends who want to share a pizza, or if you need to bring your own salad to the restaurant while everyone else shares in the experience in order to adhere to a rigid diet, you are missing out on a relational experience and a growth opportunity. We experience joy and contribute to a sense of self through interacting with others. The shared experience is powerful and our relational experiences shape us, support us, provide reflections that create sense of self, and help us keep perspective. Rigid food rules and patterns inhibit this. In addition, being mentally consumed by strict adherence to any diet will affect one's ability to be present and engaged with others.

5. Deprivation of certain foods means inhibiting the fulfillment of other, equally important, hungers. It may be true that we need more/less of certain types of nutrients or foods. Even so, we have other hungers that rigid diets prevent us from satisfying. For example, food is attached to memory. It may be a deeply moving experience for an older, displaced, southern couple to make the "southern style" macaroni and cheese they remember from childhood that they had each year around holiday time and other special occasions. Enjoying this dish may call to mind wonderful memories from childhood/holidays and help them feel closer to family and their roots, which are far away. If a diet deprives someone of satisfying this "Memory/Nostalgia Hunger," this is also a lost opportunity.

So, in an effort to not be problem saturated, here's what I would propose.

Trust your body enough to handle flexible, balanced eating and rely on its cues to tell you when to eat, drink, and move.

I really like this conceptualization of "Normal" eating which I first encountered in a chapter called Developing Body Trust by Deb Burgard:

"Normal eating is being able to eat when you are hungry and continue eating until you are satisfied. It is being able to choose food you like and eat it and truly get enough of it--not just stop eating because you think you should. Normal eating is being able to use some moderate constraint in your food selection to get the right food, but not being so restrictive that you miss out on pleasurable foods. Normal eating is giving yourself permission to eat sometimes because you are happy, sad or bored, or just because it feels good. Normal eating is three meals a day or it can be choosing to munch along. It is leaving some cookies on the plate because you know you can have some again tomorrow, or it is eating more now because they taste so wonderful when they are fresh. Normal eating is overeating at times: feeling stuffed and uncomfortable. It is also undereating at times and wishing you had more. Normal eating is trusting your body to make up for your mistakes in eating. Normal eating takes up some of your time and attention but keeps its place as only one important area in your life. In short, normal eating is flexible. It varies in response to your emotions, your schedule, your hunger, and your proximity to food." (Satter, 1987, pp.69-70).