When we hear the word “diet,” we think of restrictive food choices, calorie counting, and anxiously stepping onto a scale. But a healthy diet isn’t a diet at all. It’s about making consistently good, attainable choices over time—and even indulging (in moderation, of course!).
Traditional diets don’t work because they foster a fixation with food and are often focused on quick fixes rather than long term, sustainable change. “This can lead to increased stress, which in turn can drive us to poor choices,” says Adam Perlman, MD, meQuilibrium’s Chief Medical Officer. “We need to be careful not to perpetuate negativity around food and eating—because the reality is, we need to eat to survive. These kinds of strict diets just don’t work.”
On the other hand, healthy eating serves as a buffer against stress and offers a natural boost: When we eat well, we feel better and we have more energy, two things that just can’t be measured by a scale.
Here’s how to ditch the diet for good and embrace an empowering lifestyle that’s sustainable in the long run.
1. Do what’s best for you. One friend only eats like a caveman. Another pal is strictly protein. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the dieting options. But while the possible risks of obesity are uniform for all of us—such as increased risks of diabetes, Alzheimer’s, and heart disease—everyone processes food uniquely. Instead of plunging into a restrictive diet, think more broadly about making consistent nutritious choices like avoiding soda and fried foods, swapping salt for spices, and packing each meal with colorful fruits and veggies.
2. Stress less. Weight gain is linked to stress. When we’re overwhelmed, our bodies release cortisol, a hormone that can cause us to overeat. It’s a downward spiral: We then beat ourselves up for overindulging, our confidence takes a nosedive, and we’re even more stressed. On the other hand, when our stress levels are under control, we’re equipped to make smart decisions around food. And when we make smart decisions, we’re healthier—and more resilient. Be sure to spend time on your favorite stress-busting activities: exercise, mindfulness meditation, spending time with friends, journaling, or whatever works for you.
3. Practice mindful eating. Many of us fall into the trap of “unconscious eating,” where we consume food without even thinking about it. Like the bag of chips that accidentally gets polished off while watching your favorite show. Identify your triggers: Is it when you’re channel surfing? Feeling sad or nervous? Trying to multi-task at your desk? If you’re not sure, keep a food diary for a few days to map your habits. Once you’ve determined what kind of unconscious eater you are, you can trap why you’re doing it and zap the root cause.
4. Catch some Zzz’s. How motivated are you to prepare a nutritious meal when you’re exhausted? That’s when staying healthy gets tough. In fact, studies show that being sleep deprived makes our brains crave junk food. Set yourself up for success by prioritizing sleep, so you can stay strong in the face of cravings and will be less likely to call for takeout or blearily hit the drive-thru before heading into work.
5. Repeat after me: BMOC. Certain foods help us fight stress. Weave them into your diet using the “BMOC” acronym for easy recall:
- Choose foods rich in B vitamins, such as spinach, eggs, and salmon, to produce anxiety-easing neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin.
- Eat plenty of Magnesium—found in avocado, dark chocolate, and bananas—which is a natural muscle relaxant.
- Get enough Omega-3s, found in tuna, canola oil, and Brussels sprouts, because a deficiency in these fatty acids are linked to mood swings and depression.
- And load up on vitamin C, which bolsters the immune system and helps prevent brain-cell damage from too much cortisol, by snacking on mango, cauliflower, or oranges.
6. Be realistic! Deprivation backfires eventually, so use it in moderation. At a restaurant, ask for half of that massive slice of cheesecake in a to-go box or split it with a pal. Put milk in your coffee instead of cream, or drizzle olive oil on your pasta instead of a rich sauce. Completely avoiding favorite foods won’t work in the long run. “It’s important to allow yourself a degree of ‘cheating’ and enjoying indulgent food from time to time, because,” says Dr. Perlman, “it’s one of life’s pleasures.”