Diet, Lifestyle, or Disordered Eating?

Do you know the difference?


Merriam-Webster defines the word diet as

1a: food and drink regularly provided or consumed (ex. a diet of fruits and vegetables, a vegetarian diet)

b: habitual nourishment 

c: the kind and amount of food prescribed for a person or animal for a special reason (ex. she was put on a low-sodium diet)

d: a regimen of eating and drinking sparingly so as to reduce one's weight (going on a diet)

So everyone has a diet. Like “the typical American diet” whatever that is. Maybe you’re a vegetarian or vegan. You get the idea. But when we think about the word “diet” I’m certain the first thing we think of is option “d”: going on a diet - restricting calories or food groups in the hope of losing weight.

The diet-industry is booming. Everywhere we look we’re confronted with advertisements for new workout plans, weight loss tips, drugs and pills to help us achieve the magical life of a skinny/fit person. We’re sold the idea that we should always be trying to achieve smaller waists, bigger muscles, tighter glutes, that our interior struggles will disappear once we’ve achieved exterior perfection.

But there’s a lot of science out there that says diets DO NOT WORK.

This is product is not going to make you look like that model.

This is product is not going to make you look like that model.

In her Ted Talk (and in her new book, Why Diets Make Us Fat), neuroscientist Sandra Aamodt explains that diet-culture isn’t helping the majority of us lose weight in the long-term. Simply put: If diets worked, we’d all be thin already. In fact, she states, “Five years after starting a diet most people will have regained the weight, with 40% having gained more weight.” That’s because most of us are “yo-yo” dieters, OR stuck in the diet & binge cycle. The way I like to think about it, we see diets as short-term, quick fixes. Diets are meant to be temporary. We make a change temporarily, see a temporary result, and then most likely gain back any weight we’ve lost and then some.

As Sandra says, “‘The brain's weight-regulation system will maintain a stable, healthy weight for most people…if it's allowed to do its job without interference from dieting and other short-sighted slimming strategies.’ Her best recommendation: Stop focusing on weight and start concentrating on regular exercise, good food choices and stress reduction instead.”

But Emma, I DID go on a diet and I DID lose weight so…you’re wrong.

Hey, good for you! I’m genuinely happy for you. But what I’m asking you to consider is that what works for your body may not work for every body because we are all different. So while a diet may have changed your life for the better, it could have a negative lasting impacting on the life of your friends, family, and children. And I’d also like to ask you this. Did you go on a diet or did you make a lifestyle change?

If fad-diets are temporary and only yield temporary results, a lifestyle change should be life-long and yield life-long results, right? That’s the idea, and it makes sense. However, a lot of “lifestyle changes” are really just diets being repackaged and sold to us with words like “clean” or “whole eating.” I like to think of it this way:

When I was in middle school, I would drink a diet Pepsi and eat a bag of popcorn for my after-school snack, every day. One day, I heard that drinking soda every day could lessen a person’s lifespan, so I immediately stopped drinking soda altogether. Whether the information I heard was accurate or not, it inspired me to make a change that was easy for me to make. I didn’t feel like I was restricting myself from soda. One I stopped drinking it, I didn’t want it anymore. I came to realize I didn’t even really like it all that much. This was a healthy lifestyle change, for me.

On the flip side, as much as I have tried over the last five or six years to convince myself that I prefer to eat only meats, veggies, fruits and nuts, I cannot make eating paleo a lifestyle change. I have spent years yo-yoing between paleo restricting and non-paleo binging. Eating paleo is not a sustainable change for me. And sustainability is the key, because if it’s temporary it’s a diet and diets don’t work for everyone.

This is a stock image from Pexels. Yes, it looks delicious, and yes I would totally eat this, but this image was made to SELL the IDEA of a lifestyle to us. Eating it doesn’t make us “cleaner” than others. It also doesn’t mean that you’re a failure if your breakfast doesn’t look like this.

This is a stock image from Pexels. Yes, it looks delicious, and yes I would totally eat this, but this image was made to SELL the IDEA of a lifestyle to us. Eating it doesn’t make us “cleaner” than others. It also doesn’t mean that you’re a failure if your breakfast doesn’t look like this.

It can be very easy to convince ourselves and those around us that our diets are lifestyle changes (especially when, again, the diet industry is full of material telling us this is so), but the truth is, the only real, healthy lifestyle changes are the ones we can sustain without harming ourselves. These are often small changes that over time yield moderate results. Cutting out soda. Adding a 30 minute walk around the neighborhood to your daily routine. Making an effort to put more veggies on your plate or switch from sour cream to greek yogurt on your baked potato. These should be changes that are easy to stick with and that don’t leave us feeling deprived, but rather, make us genuinely feel better, even though they may not be as sexy as the smoothie bowls and Unicorn toast we see on Instagram.

But when we try to implement harmful eating habits long-term, that my friends is what we can refer to as disordered eating. Restricting your calories and food options for 30-days of “clean” eating only to let yourself binge on all the chocolates and fried foods you missed during that time is disordered eating. Restricting your food groups, like cutting out dairy or gluten not because you have to but because you hope it’ll help you lose weight, only to binge on all the “healthy” GF, DF snacks and foods you can eat is not a healthy lifestyle. Just because you’re binging on “clean” food doesn’t make it less of a binge.

It took me a long time to realize this. And now that I have, I don’t want to go back. As tempting as it is (and believe me, that sense of control IS temping for me), I don’t want to be stuck in a cycle of restricting and binging. And I doubt my body wants that either.

As always, I want to make it clear that I respect each and every person’s right to do what they want with their body. If you are someone who swears that a Whole 30 compliant lifestyle works for you, power to you. If Weight Watchers really helped you keep off that extra weight and you want to share the power of Weight Watchers with the world, I understand.

Just know that if dieting HASN’T worked for you, if you feel like a failure because you can’t seem to achieve what others have, consider this: you aren’t failing your diet, your diet is failing you.

And you don’t have to keep dieting. You can stop right now. It may feel weird. It may feel counterintuitive because you’ve been conditioned all your life to believe that your body isn’t acceptable as is…but you don’t have to drink the diet Kool-Aid. You can get out. You can re-teach your body how to exist without a diet. There are therapists who want to help you, and other people out there who are going through the same thing you are, so you won’t be alone.

I don’t have all the answers. I’m only two months in, but one thing that has made a distinct impact on my journey so far is cleaning up my social media feeds.

I went through Instagram and unfollowed every “inspirational” clean-eating, weight-loss focused ‘grammer, replacing them with anti-diet, body positive influencers. My favorites Include…

jameelajamilofficial & i_weigh

So if you’re thinking you may be someone who struggles with disordered eating, or at the very least you’re tired of feeling like a failure all the time with the pressure to lose or gain weight, I recommend you check out some of these Instagrammers. You are what you eat, and in this sense I mean we are what media we choose to consume. So try changing what ideas you choose to ingest and accept as normal. Remember, the only ones who benefit from you hating yourself and feeling ashamed of your body are the ones who want to sell you a solution.

Big or small, the diet industry just wants you to hate yourself so you’ll give them your money.

Big or small, the diet industry just wants you to hate yourself so you’ll give them your money.