Don’t diet, stop counting calories, giving into diet myths and destructive eating patterns that take a toll on your mental health. Everyday, I talk to clients who struggle with unhealthy relationships with their bodies, food and exercise. We can combat diet culture and develop a healthy relationship with food when we get real about how we feel and turn to science, instead of “fads.” In this article I provide some facts and healthy tools to help you feel empowered around eating, diet culture and how food impacts your mood.
Food is Your Friend
Food is fuel, it’s biologically necessary for our bodies to function optimally. So when our minds start to develop disordered thoughts around exercise, food, like obsessing about our meals, counting calories, avoiding foods that taste good and making particular foods “bad” it interferes with our mental state. These thoughts and behaviors aren’t healthy, rather it’s eating disordered behavior. Men and women, young adults, teens and even parents suffer from the urge to control their lives via food and exercise, which creates tremendous stress on the body and ones brain.
What many people get wrong about diets and nutrition is everything. They buy into influencers who get sponsored to hawk products or show viewers their diet tricks, but they’re likely NOT experts in the area. We see this all the time, articles written by people who are likely suffering from their own eating disorders or who don’t have a background in nutrition but who reach millions of people with unfounded claims on health and wellness. It’s dangerous and you don’t have to buy in to it.
When I was working in an eating disorder hospital, clients would tell me how they became almost brainwashed by our culture and the media’s claims on healthy foods and weight. They’d pick up on “celebrity diet fads” or bullsh*t in a magazine where celebs would brag about what they’d allegedly eat in a given day. I have a background in neurochemistry and nutrition and I’m a trained psychotherapist who works with eating disorders. The media is getting better about giving REAL, SCIENTIFIC information or having expert clinicians on staff to review these articles but it’s still a dangerous world to turn to for advice on healthy living and eating. If you don’t believe the information I’m sharing, google it. Look for the science, not the hype about counting calories and other food myths.
Destructive Dieting Habits That Hurt Your Mental and Physical Health
1) Avoid counting calories. This is actually called obsessing, when a majority of your thoughts are focused on one thing, especially if it’s interfering with other areas of your life. Another scary part of counting calories is that this behavior becomes addictive, thus hurting your relationship with food and mood.
First of all, calories are energy, you need energy to function, not just when you exercise. Using apps or watches, false food logs and literally counting what you eat is a recipe (no pun intended) for disaster. You’re trying to control something, I get it, but it’s never an accurate representation of health or wellness. Mindfulness is (I’ll get to that later) and recognizing how you feel physically. But when one counts calories or uses exercise to be a marker for how much they’ve burned it hijacks how you feel, leading to a negative relationship with food. It’s not accurate and not why you need to exercise. Exercise is for mental and physical health. Physical activity increases the flow of oxygen to your brain and increases the amount of endorphins, (feel-good chemicals) in the brain. Not eating enough or using exercise to “burn off” calories is unhealthy.
2) Stop avoiding foods that you crave. A lion doesn’t look at a gazelle and think, I really shouldn’t eat that (I got this analogy from Holistic Nutritionist Kelly Leveque). When we deny our cravings we obsess about them. It’s because our bodies are trying to get us to tune it. Sure a few brownies may not make you feel great and I’d encourage you to think about what you want to feel like after you eat it, but brownies and other foods aren’t bad. They are tasty AF. Okay, don’t deprive yourself.
Science Says: Add some protein to your craving, serotonin is found in amino acids (from proteins) which can calm the dopamine response, making you more in control of carbohydrate and sugar cravings. Have some cheese and apple, peanut butter and crackers or a latte with milk to give you some protein so you feel satisfied and in control of your cravings and support your blood sugar so you don’t crash and burn after the sweet treat.
3) Don’t compare yourself. Stop following and watching things that make you feel bad about your body. If the content is making you feel like crap it’s not motivating you, it’s making you more insecure, turning to food or exercise as a way to feel in control.
Get curious about the content you’re reading and learn about who’s writing it. Ask yourself is this person an expert or professional? Stop believing everything you read. The magazines, blogs or articles that “claim” you should eat a certain way are not accurate because they don’t know YOU. They don’t know your metabolism, your body type or activity level. They are generic and often inaccurate. Just stop the madness okay?
Instead of letting these diet myths and “rules” take over your mind, get the facts on why food is fuel for your mind, body and spirit. A dysfunctional diet, obsessive habit or unrealistic goal will only get you closer to developing a life-threatening eating disorder.
Food Science 101: What Food Does For Your Brain and Body
I LOVE Carbs
Carbs are your friend. Diets and dumb advice claim that carbs are the devil. Um, sorry they are necessary for living.
- The role of Carbohydrates in the body includes providing energy for muscles and fuel for your body to metabolism fat. GET IT, carbs help your metabolism work to the best of it’s ability.
- Carbs fuel the central nervous system so that you can have energy. Without it you’re going to be hungry and tired.
- It helps protein be used to build muscle. Without it, protein is used to as energy which isn’t it’s role.
- Carbs provide your body with sugar (glucose) that feeds your cells energy. Without them, your cells and brain chemistry are tired. Tired doesn’t mean energetic does it? It means your metabolism is slowing down.
Don’t eat a whole bag of chips, binge on a bunch of bread, but adding a carbohydrate your snack and meal is vital for your food to work for you. Veggies and fruit are great but don’t provide you with the long-lasting benefits of a complex carb. Crackers and cheese, the BUN on your burger (I know I said eat the BUN) because you will be fuller and less likely to be hungry later on. Feeling satisfied with your meal is actually healthy. Starving or stuffed isn’t.
The Power of Protein
You know that chicken or Greek yogurt is good for you but eating it alone without a carb or a fat makes it less effective. “I don’t want to bulk up” some say. Don’t worry, your body is likely starving for some amino acids, which are found in proteins.
- Protein is a component of every cell in your body. It builds healthy muscles, cartridge, helps your skin and your metabolism. Without sufficient protein, your metabolism suffers.
- Protein isn’t stored in the body so if your running low, you start craving carbs and sugar.
- These foods are good sources. Nuts, lean meats, dairy products, soy, legumes, whey protein powder, and seafood are all great sources. For kids, a serving size is approximately 2 oz, depending on their weight. For adults, a serving size is 4 to 6 oz.
- Your hair, skin and nails all look healthy with sufficient protein.
- Your metabolism works more effectively with protein.
- Even if you don’t workout, your body needs protein to survive and for cells to communicate; without it, you STORE fat.
- You cannot build muscle without protein.
I eat it with every meal, and snack. I put collagen powder in my coffee to make sure that my mornings start with fuel (and caffeine), add nuts to a snack in the afternoon as well as get lean protein at every meal.
Don’t Fear the Fat
Fat is phenomenal, especially Omega-3’s; they are the superheroes. You will not “get fat” when you eat good, happy fats. That is bullsh*t. Egg white omelettes, unless your doctor says you have high cholesterol, aren’t giving you the most bang for your buck. You don’t get the essential amino acids that make your metabolism work optimally. Your skin, hair and nails also suffer. So eat the damn egg.
- Fat helps your metabolism. If you don’t get enough fat, your body will start to eat up your muscle. That means that you will damage your metabolism and break down the muscles that are needed to keep your body healthy.
- Plus, your brain NEEDS fat to help the cells and neurotransmitters communicate. Without it, you’ll feel unfocused. They taste great and fight disease while keeping your brain running smoothly. They fight inflammation, help control blood clotting, and lower blood pressure and triglycerides.
- Fat makes you pretty. They also make outer appearance, such as skin and hair, glow. Even more, they have been shown to aid in reducing depression and anxiety symptoms, and balance the brain.
Fatty fish like albacore tuna, salmon, mackerel, and sardines are good sources. Vegetable sources include soy, walnuts, and some vegetable oils, such as olive and peanut (prior to heat: heating these oils creates a trans-fat like reaction).
Monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats are known as the “good fats” because they are good for your heart, your cholesterol, and your overall health. Try some of these in your diet:
- Olive oil
- Canola oil
- Sunflower oil
- Peanut oil
- Sesame oil
- Lean poultry
- Nuts (almonds, peanuts, macadamia nuts, hazelnuts, pecans, cashews)
- Nut Butter
- Soybean oil
- Corn oil
- Safflower oil
- Sunflower, sesame, and pumpkin seeds, flaxseed
- Fatty fish (salmon, tuna, mackerel, herring, trout, sardines)
Why I Don’t Count Calories
I’m in a seriously satisfying relationship with avocados. We spend time together every day. They give me essential fatty acids to make my skin radiate and my brain love the healthy fats. Instead of fearing fat, start looking at how important it is to your mind and your appearance.
Look, I know counting calories, fear of particular foods and unhealthy behaviors are hard to break. But try to add in a bit of science FACTS instead of eating disorder-laden hype so that you can be treating your body right. I did. When I realized all the benefits of what foods do for me rather than counting calories or obsessing about weight gain I became empowered and confident. When you don’t fuel your body you don’t serve yourself, the world and your friends. So try this: next time you feel the urge to avoid a fear food, remind yourself of how that food really serves you. You may start to let food be your friend instead of your enemy.
Take Good Care,
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Emily Roberts MA, LPC is The Guidance Girl. Her goal is to help YOU become the most confident person you know! Emily is an award-winning author Express Yourself: A Teen Girls Guide to Speaking Up and Becoming Who You Are, Psychotherapist, TV & Media Contributor, Educational Speaker, and parenting consultant. She travels around the country educating girls, women, and parents. Express Yourself is available at bookstores nationwide and on Amazon. To learn more about Emily click here.