How to eat well without dieting in 2021, because nutritious food doesn’t have to mean restriction.
Much like the rest of the 2020, December was a bizarre time. For many of us, finessing our health and fitness was the last thing on our minds — thanks to, you know, the global pandemic. Much of our efforts went towards simply getting through a difficult year – and that is perfectly OK.
If that has left you wanting to refresh your nutrition now a new year is upon us, good on you. But, as you probably know by now, going on a diet is not the way forward. In fact, dieting is linked to “low self-esteem, anxiety, depression and body preoccupation,” explains Laura Thomas PhD, a registered nutritionist specialising in non-diet nutrition, author of How To Just Eat It and member of the Strong Women Collective.
However, while it used to be easy to tell the difference between a restrictive diet and simply adopting healthier habits, the complex world of nutrition and an increase in wellness information makes it a bit trickier nowadays. So, how can you make choices that will benefit you and your health without following a fad?
“‘Health’ means different things to different people, so it’s hard to answer,” explains Laura, but there are some considerations you can make in order to look after yourself – and it isn’t all about what you eat.
Non-diet nutrition tips
The simplest thing we can do is to think about adding things in, rather than taking things out. “Diet culture teaches us to take things away from our diet, to cut food groups or quantities. Instead, we should think about adding things into our diet,” says Laura. That might be upping your vegetable intake by trying to add in one more serving a day than you are currently eating, or adding some nut butter to your mid-morning banana or apple for more sustained energy.
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Most importantly though, adding things into your diet should be an addition, not a substitution, says Laura. “If you want to improve digestion, you’re often told to increase your fibre by removing all ‘refined’ carbohydrates and replacing them with whole grains. But if you really enjoy white pasta, and you find it comforting, then you shouldn’t be getting rid of it.
“Instead, you can up the fibre by adding a serving of broccoli on the side, or doing a half-and-half situation with white and brown pasta. It shouldn’t be black and white or either-or. We can have both things.”
Creating a good relationship with food
If you are reading a nutrition article, you’re probably clued up on the fact that what you eat has an impact on the inner workings of your body. You probably know the importance of eating five-plus fruits and veggies a day and getting enough fibre in to support gut health. But good nutrition doesn’t just end with what you put on your plate. “What is the intention behind your nutrition?” asks Laura. “Is it coming from a place of self-control, self-criticism and self-judgment, or is it coming from a place of self-care?”.
This is just as, if not more, important than the food itself, according to Laura. “There is nothing wrong with wanting to add some vegetables to your plate, but where it gets dicey for me is when that becomes a rule. When you start being really rigid about it and there’s no flexibility that then becomes something that you feel guilty or stressed out about. It becomes problematic when we have these emotional responses,” she says.
This is about fostering a good relationship with food and learning not just about the foods that make you feel your body feel good, but also how the way you eat makes you feel. Laura talks about the “pendulum swing” she often sees from restriction of food groups or food quantity to a big blowout which “can affect our digestive health. We talk a lot about gut health, but we don’t actually talk about the fact that if our relationship with food is strained, and we feel anxious, guilty or stressed about what we’re eating, that can have a significant impact on our digestive comfort as well.
“There’s the psychological and emotional aspects of our diet and as well as the food aspects of it to consider,” Laura says.
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A negative relationship with what we eat can also impact our mental health too. “Diet culture kind of gives us this false illusion that we have to control and perfect what we eat to the point that it actually becomes unhealthy,” reminds Laura.
“We tend to think a lot, particularly in January, about health as just being about our physical health, and we boil that down to fitness and nutrition. We lose touch with these other parts of health that are really valuable, such as social and spiritual connection or our relationship with ourselves.
“If you want to feel more grounded or more connected to your body, there are fundamental things to consider such as sleep, walking, talking to friends, and nutrition is just one piece of that pie.”
Ultimately, the most nutritious choice you can make is to zoom out a little – particularly if you already have the basics of nutrition nailed. “We are aiming for balance across a long period of time, not in every single meal or food choice,” reminds Laura. “Consider how it is that you actually want to feel, and what the simple things that might lead you towards that are.”
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Chloe Gray is the senior writer for stylist.co.uk's fitness brand Strong Women. When she's not writing or lifting weights, she's most likely found practicing handstands, sipping a gin and tonic or eating peanut butter straight out of the jar (not all at the same time).