It’s time to ditch the diet

There are many different dietary trends out there, many of which call for the elimination of certain foods or entire food groups. But how 'healthy' are these diets really?

Find out how to eat well and have a healthy relationship with food

No doubt you have seen the headlines with change-your-life declarations such as: ‘A New Year means a new you’, ‘It’s time to detox’, ‘Eliminate x,y,z and feel fantastic’ and so on. How about instead of jumping on board with the latest trend, we focus on ditching the diet ‘labels’ and not allowing food to define us?

Ditch the strict food rules

During a recent dietary challenge, Heart Foundation nutritionists and dietitians trialled Paleo, Low Carb High Fat and 5:2. Being part of this challenge highlighted the importance of having a healthy relationship with food. Eating out with friends proved to be a little problematic. It was hard not to feel more than a little ‘deprived’… and it wasn’t due to the fantastic company.

Eating out can be a special occasion where we get to enjoy new foods or simply eat whatever takes our fancy. However, when following a restrictive diet which has a strict set of food rules, feelings of deprivation and isolation may set in, especially as you watch your fellow diners gobble up pieces of crusty vegetable-packed pizza and mouth-watering sugar-laden desserts. Dining out has the potential to be fraught with feelings of alienation and disappointment if followers stay true to their strict food rules – hold the dairy, grains and refined sugar, please. It also has the potential to become socially isolating if followers choose to avoid these occasions in future.

While there can be flexibility with many 'diets', especially when adopting an “-ish” approach, those who follow strict food rules obsessively and to the extreme can be at risk of developing orthorexia*. Although orthorexia, which literally means “fixation on righteous eating", is not yet clinically recognised as an eating disorder, it does share many similarities with other more well-known disorders - those with anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa obsess about calories and weight while orthorexics obsess about healthy eating. This obsession with the purity and quality of food can end up becoming so central to everyday life that other aspects are ignored.

Food is more than nutrients.

Food is so much more than the nutrients it provides. Yes, it is there to nourish us and provide our bodies with nutrients it needs to support our health but it also tickles our taste buds and tantalises our senses. It is an integral part of our social gatherings, our memories and one of life's simple pleasures.

We need to remember that someone is not a better person because they do or don’t eat a specific food or food group. Going gluten-free, dairy-free, or avoiding grains or animal products, unless you have a medically diagnosed reason to do so, doesn’t make you any more healthy or virtuous than someone who doesn’t. Neither does eating clean, going paleo, cutting out carbs, or undertaking the latest detox. So let’s stop judging people for what they do or don’t eat. What we put on our plate or choose to eat, doesn't make us either virtuous nor sinful, neither should we let it define us.

Embrace a positive relationship with food.

Let’s move away from restrictive diets and towards a pragmatic approach to healthy eating – where all foods can be included as part of a healthy diet and foods are not labelled as toxic, dirty, bad or unclean.

Remember, it’s your whole dietary pattern that counts, not just individual nutrients or foods. A balanced diet is a nutritious diet. All foods can be a part of a healthy diet; it’s simply that some of us need to eat more of some and less of others. Yes, that means you can have your cake and eat it too – what’s important is how much and how often – and in the case of cake, have a little, less often.

It’s time to ditch the diet and stop letting what we eat, or don’t eat, define us or become the hot topic at your next gathering. Instead, let’s remove the guilt and shame surrounding our food choices and embrace a positive relationship with it. If we focus on the consistent themes of healthy eating, we can each apply them in the way that suits us best, without going to extremes.

*If you are concerned that you may be suffering from disordered eating, please contact your local dietitian for further advice. 

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