Registered dietitian Lisa Hayim of @thewellnecessities shares her take on where most people tend to go wrong, and how to make changes for the better.
Many New Year's resolutions revolve around diet and nutrition. And as a dietitian, I see people make the same mistakes over and over again, year after year.
But, it's not your fault.
There's so much fear-mongering and restriction-based thinking about how people should eat. That's why I want to share what I see going wrong most often with people who want to work on their eating habits, and what you can do instead.
The Biggest Diet and Nutrition Mistakes
1. Clinging too hard to diet recommendations.
I tend to think about nutrition in terms of what I call outer wisdom and inner wisdom. Outer wisdom is nutrition information that you get from the outside world: dietitians, blogs, social media, etc. This information can be valuable, and I like to empower my clients with it, but it shouldn't come at the cost of sacrificing your inner wisdom.
Inner wisdom is getting to know your body and what works specifically for you, with the understanding that you're an individual. Developing your inner wisdom involves doing research on your own to evaluate what works for you and what doesn't. Every body is different, so the goal is to truly become an expert in yours.
And once you start to understand the ways your body communicates and act on what it asks for, you begin to trust it. And there is nothing more powerful that self-trust when it comes to making any decision, including food choices.
2. Being afraid to make mistakes.
As you develop that inner wisdom, your goal is to research your own experience in a non-biased way. That means you're going to have to try out some new ways of eating, and that can be scary.
But don't be afraid to mess up. Eat too little or too much. Try something new. Recognize that there are no rules about when and how much you should eat. (Related: The Biggest Sports Nutrition Mistakes You're Probably Making)
Making "mistakes" allows you to grow your inner and outer wisdom and become more aware of what works for your body and what doesn't. That way, you can make better-informed decisions next time.
3. Waiting until you're on "empty" to eat.
If you're interested in mindful eating or intuitive eating, you've probably heard about the idea of eating based on hunger cues. This is an awesome approach, but I notice that people often wait until they're ravenous to eat. Unfortunately, this approach puts you in a feast or famine mindset, going into a meal so, so hungry and leaving so, so full.
Instead, try to find that balance, noticing when you experience gentle feelings of hunger. Then honor them, feed your body, and end the experience feeling comfortable. And I don't just mean comfortable from a mental and guilt-free perspective, but also without the physical symptoms such as bloating, tiredness, and everything else that can come along with overeating.
As for what "gentle hunger" feels like, it can vary from person to person and (even within each person). Some people feel weak or have a slight headache. Some people feel a kind of emptiness in their stomachs. The goal is to catch it long before you feel like you could eat your shoe because you're ravenous.
And I don't want you to feel like using outer wisdom (reading this article; working with a dietitian) isn't helpful--there's no shame in looking outside yourself for help on when you should eat. Sometimes, what's happening in your life—i.e. stress, distraction, or emotions—can throw off your internal signals, making them less reliable. Think: You had breakfast as you were running out the door, but then you had a very busy day at work with no snacks and took a workout class afterward—even if you're body isn't telling you that you're hungry, it's probably time to eat. These are times when you want to go to your trusted sources of outer wisdom to figure out what to do or be prepared in those situations.
4. Focusing on subtraction rather than addition.
When people want to feel good about how they're eating, the first thing they do is start subtracting things from their diet. They give up dairy, gluten, sugar, or whatever else. (Related: A Healthy Diet Doesn't Have to Mean Giving Up the Food You Love)
While that might make you feel good for the first few days, ultimately it's not creating real change since it's usually temporary. So instead of getting rid of things, consider what you could add to your diet. That could be new foods, like fruits and vegetables, or it could be playing with the quantities of what you're eating. It could mean adding more plant-based fats or adding more gluten-free grains like quinoa and oats.
Because real health isn't about restriction. It's about abundance, feeling empowered eating a variety of foods, eating a full range of colors, and nourishing yourself.
5. Assuming that because something worked for you in the past, it will still work for you now.
During a woman's life cycle, there are so many changes to your body and hormones. That's why periodically reevaluating the things that you hold true about nutrition is key. You've got to make sure that they still work for you in your current phase of life.
To do this, come up with a list of things about diet, nutrition, and your personal eating habits that you believe to be true. These could be "rules" such as: always eat breakfast, always wait three hours to eat again between snacks and meals, intermittent fasting is the only way for you to lose weight, etc.
Write them all out on paper and begin to question them, tackling each one at a time. So if you believe, for example, that you should be fasting every single night because intermittent fasting worked for you in the past, find out what would it feel like to break through that rule if your body was telling you it was hungry. Maybe you'll find out that intermittent fasting really does work well for you still. But maybe you'll discover it's not working for you the way it once did or creating other problems. (Related: Why You Have to Stop Comparing Your Eating Habits to Your Friends')
One note: Make sure to evaluate one rule at a time. Trying to tackle them all at once can be very overwhelming, and they each deserve your attention.
6. Only using the scale to track your progress.
I'm not anti-scale, but I do think we put too much emphasis on it. As a result, we allow the scale to dictate if we feel like we are making progress or not. For a lot of people, it can be more self-defeating than positive reinforcement. And most importantly, it doesn't necessarily show the personal growth or the healthy behaviors that you're actually adopting. (Related: Real Women Share Their Favorite Non-Scale Victories)
Plus, most people who are trying to lose weight are working out. Most of them are gaining muscle, especially if they're doing any strength-based workouts. When we're building muscle, we are going to see a higher number on the scale or that number stay stagnant, which could be discouraging for some. (BTW, here's why body composition is the new weight loss.)
I'm not saying you should never weigh yourself, but I would recommend paying attention to another marker of progress that's less emotionally fraught, as well. For example, you could notice how a pair of pants fit over time, or how much energy you have to gauge how things are going.
7. Not giving yourself permission to eat what you want.
Hunger isn't the only reason to eat. I truly believe in giving yourself permission to eat in all scenarios so that you can be the expert of your own body.
For instance, let's say you "don't eat cookies". But you're at this party, and the cookies smell really good, everybody else is eating them, and you want to have a cookie. What would happen if you gave yourself endless permission to eat a cookie today, tomorrow, and the next day? Suddenly, the cookie stops being a "treat" or a "cheat". It's just a cookie, and you're able to really evaluate how good it tastes and how much of it you want to eat—without worrying that you won't be able to have another cookie ever again, so you might as well eat as many as you can.
When you think about food this way, you can really stay true to the process rather than getting caught up in the story that you're telling yourself.