How can we achieve balance in our diet and end the diet restriction?
Diets are devised either to restrict calories or certain foods or food groups to achieve weight loss or other health objectives. The logic of restricting calories is that the less energy we consume the more our body will have to use body fat stores as energy. Thus resulting in weight loss.
Most diets vary not only in the total number of calories but also the portion of macronutrients, that is fat, protein and carbohydrates that they permit. To achieve this prescribed portion of macronutrients a diet may require the restriction of food and food groups or diligent consideration for each meal you consume to ensure you get the proportions right.
Get real, stop focusing on macronutrient intake
For much of the 80s and 90s a great majority of diets focused on reducing fat, as per gram, fat provides twice as much energy to the body as protein and carbohydrates. This logic makes sense when we are comparing macronutrients, as protein and carbohydrates provide half the energy as fat.
However, an issue that arose was to make the low-fat food taste better, food technologists added more refined simple sugars and artificial flavours to these low-fat foods. The result? People started eating these foods with abandon due to the perception they are good for us, as they are no- or low-fat.
Get real, stop thinking of food as ‘good’ or ‘bad’
Eating anything with abandon because it is perceived as ‘good’ is unhealthy and may result in excess calorie consumption. In the case of fat, low-fat products and demonisation of fats led to insufficient intake of good fats, which are essential for our cell membranes, hormones and other vital functions.
On the other hand, excessive sugar intake due to the increased sugar in these products promotes a rise in insulin, thus increasing fat deposition in the body.
In rebellion to our low-fat days, we are now seeing a rise of ‘health gurus’ that apply the logic that if fat wasn’t as bad as we thought it must, therefore, be good for us. This thinking has initiated a wave of high fat, low sugar or low carbohydrate diets. Some of these diets are excessively high in fat and deficient in other nutrients we require for good health that occur in abundance in complex carbohydrates.
This black and white thinking serves to add more confusion as to how to eat to achieve and maintain a healthy weight. Yet, it has never really been that complicated. We have strong scientific evidence as to what fats we should eat predominantly, what fats we should eat less of, and the portion of our diet they should constitute. Pitching foods against one another only serves to fuel confusion, overwhelm, unhealthy and disordered eating.
Let’s not demonise any foods in pursuit of weight loss. Let’s not restrict calories or foods so that we desire the very foods that are off-limits. Let’s not obsessively control our portions of macronutrient that cause each meal to become a stress.
Rather let’s focus on getting real, by consuming a balance of mostly whole foods.
Get real, embrace eating wholefoods
A far easier approach than restricting foods and controlling portions of macronutrients consumed, in an effort to maintain good health and a healthy weight, is to reduce energy-dense foods such as ‘junk foods’ that contain high trans fat, saturated fat, refined sugars and carbohydrates, artificial flavours and colouring that provide very little nutritional value in terms of micronutrients. Micronutrients being the vitamins and minerals within foods such as iron, calcium, magnesium, Vitamin C, B Vitamins and so on. Instead, choose nutritionally dense, minimally-processed foods, aka wholefoods, such as whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, oils, legumes, dairy, seafood and meats (if desired).
Get real, forget about portions of fat, protein and carbohydrates
When we eat mostly wholefoods, so long as our minimum requirements of fat, protein and carbohydrates are met, further adjustment of the portions has little bearing on our weight and health. What is crucial is that our body is obtaining all the vitamins and minerals it requires, within a sufficient energy range.
A recent study found that when individuals switched from a processed to wholefoods diet the portions of macronutrients had little bearing on the weight loss achieved (Veum et al., 2016). Therefore, keeping it real is more important than measuring portions of macronutrients.
Get real, eat nutrient-dense foods to satiate
Further when we eat mostly wholefoods is it far easier to tune into our bodies signals of hunger and know what to feed it. This has been a long-held belief of mine and is a valid theory in the scientific community.
A recent study looked at comparing the hunger signals of people when on a standard American diet that is calorie-dense and nutrient-poor, to a diet of wholefoods that are nutrient-dense (Fuhrman et al., 2010). What they found is that the frequency and intensity of hunger reduced when people switched to nutrient-dense foods.
Further, mood fluctuations associated with hunger were less extreme, with participants experiencing less irritability with hunger. With less intense feelings of hunger, people find that they can eat what their body requires, without the same tendency for overeating.
Get real, learn to listen to your body
Although I do not wish to impose the rule of eating wholefoods always, it can be useful to explore how your body responds to eating more wholefoods. Switching to a higher consumption of wholefoods, rather than processed foods, can help you to learn to trust our body, as it is getting all the nutrition it requires and sends your brain clearer messages.
I don’t encourage focusing on total calories or macronutrient portions, but rather look at wholefood alternatives you can substitute in your current diet. And notice how that feels, without restricting yourself of foods you love.
I believe that through learning to listen to your hunger and fullness signals with time it is possible to achieve a balance that is right for you.
If you’d like to ensure your diet is balanced but eat in an intuitive and joyful way, grab yourself a copy of Joyful Eating: How to Break Free of Diets and Make Peace with Your Body. You may also enjoy the blog, Swallowing nutritional science in pursuit of good health.