I thought I was over diets. That is, until I spoke to Dr Laura Thomas, a registered nutritionist who specialises in non-diet nutrition. “One of the first things I ask clients to do is to write out a list of their food rules. Even if people aren’t on an ‘official’ diet, they have all these contradictory rules they’ve built up, from being on diets.” You may be counting calories, syns, points, macros or cutting out food groups. Dieting doesn’t have to be detoxing or a juice cleanse, a crash diet or a diet club, she tells me. If you have rules, if you feel emotional about food or eating, you may unwittingly be in a diet mentality.
The first diet I did, aged 15 and perhaps a size 12, is now as dated as a Jane Fonda video – an unappetising two weeks of cottage cheese, cardboard crispbread and half grapefruits. I remember a leggy, worldly, slim friend of Mum’s telling me, in a tone of resignation, “You’ll be on a diet for the rest of your life. All women are.” Oh, no, I thought.
Then came Atkins and the South Beach Diet (no carbs or sugar) and the Perricone skin diet (salmon and berries three times a day). Even when eating “normally”, my “treats” would be Diet Coke and pots of artificially sweetened zero-fat yogurt.
Then, in my thirties, I learnt about nutrition and gave up dieting, low fat and sugar substitutes. Now, 10 years later, I pride myself on balanced eating: yes, I eat a shedload of vegetables and I love a green juice, but I also eat carbs and cake and, in restaurants, I’ll order chips.
If you have rules, if you feel emotional about food or eating, you may unwittingly be in a diet mentality
But am I fooling myself? One of my rules is that I don’t keep sugary foods in the house, because I know I’ll eat them (my then-six-year-old never forgave me for Easter-egg-gate). The fact I don’t keep sugar in the house is a rule, says Thomas, and may be a sign that my relationship with food is disordered.
Thomas teaches a technique called Intuitive Eating. It’s not as simple as it sounds – eating what you feel like – but a scientifically proven methodology that guides you into a good and flexible relationship with food. “The goal for my clients would be the point of comfortably having food in the house but not having to compulsively eat it.” If you, like me, would like to learn that, here’s how to start.
1 Listen to your hunger cues
“One thing you’ll see, particularly at this time of year, are strategies to suppress your hunger. This creates a lot of fear around the sensation of hunger. In fact, regular hunger signals are a sign everything is working as normal.” Signs of hunger aren’t just in the stomach, but could be shifts in mood, energy, not being able to concentrate, salivating. “Respond to these earlier signs and it will help prevent you getting over-hungry so you’ll eat the first food you come into contact with!” says Thomas.
2 All foods are neutral
This doesn’t mean all foods have the same nutritional value – a carrot and a chocolate bar patently do not. What it does mean is give them the same moral value. Don’t label any food as bad or good, healthy or unhealthy, clean or dirty, even real, fake, processed or junk. “Use neutral language around food. You can enjoy the cookie and the carrot. Desserts nourish your soul!”
3 Balance isn’t perfection
“When nutritionists talk about balance or moderation, we are talking about over time. We don’t mean every food has to be perfect.” One single food or meal or even day isn’t going to be your undoing.
4 Clean up your social media
“Be very critical and discerning about who you follow. Does this person make you feel good about yourself? Are they adding value or are they just pretty pictures?”
5 Emotional eating is OK!
“If diet culture didn’t exist, emotional eating wouldn’t be seen as a problem,” she says. “It’s just another way of taking care of yourself. The problem comes if it’s the only way of doing that.” Build other coping skills for when you’ve had a shitty day at work besides Ben & Jerry: maybe a hug, call a friend, meditation, see your therapist, go for a walk.