Yoga Food, Nutrition, & Recipes

I’m an Eating Psychology Expert. Here’s Why Diets Don’t Work

Yes, you can have your cake—and enjoy it, too.

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It’s resolution time again, and if you’re like most people, eating “better” may be one of your goals for the new year. According to a survey on 2021 resolutions, the most common commitments people made were to exercise more (46 percent), improve their diet (45 percent), or lose weight (44 percent).

In fact, as many as 45 million Americans begin a diet each year. But research shows that weight-loss diets just don’t work. They’re unsustainable and you’re likely to regain the weight.

What if, instead of plotting how you’ll restrict your calories in the new year, you resolved to feel good about the food you eat?

That’s the advice of eating psychology expert Elise Museles, author of Food Story: Rewrite the Way You Eat, Think & Live. Museles encourages readers to consider their personal food stories—how they were raised around food, their ideas and rules about diet, and the emotions they feel when they’re eating—both positive and negative. She says discovering your story about food is key to creating a healthy new narrative about what, why, when, and where to eat.

See also: I’m Learning to Love My Post-Lockdown Body. You Can Love Yours, Too

Why diets don’t work

The problem with new year diet resolutions, according to Museles, is that most people try to make big, sweeping changes all at once. That tactic is not only unsustainable—it’s actually stressful. And stress, she says, is an anti-nutrient. Feeling agitated or worried while you’re eating changes the body’s physiology. Guilt and shame can signal the body to produce stress hormones that negatively affect digestion.

“When we sit down to eat and think ‘I shouldn’t be eating this’… it creates a stress response in the system,” she says. “What that means is your cortisol is raised. Your metabolism doesn’t work as efficiently. You aren’t assimilating all the nutrients. Your body goes into fight or flight.” Yes, you’re eating, but you’re not feeding yourself.

By figuring out your food story, you can get to the root of your eating patterns and decide where–and if—you want to make changes. Like yoga, the process is never perfect, but practice helps you continually grow. Here are some of Museles’ ideas to get you started:

Make one small change a month

There’s a lot of motivation to make big changes at the beginning of the year. But smaller adjustments are easier and more sustainable. Instead of a massive diet overhaul that can feel overwhelming, try picking one habit or mindset each month. Maybe January is your month to eat more vegetables. In February, try replacing store-bought snacks with homemade options. By the end of the year, you will have taken a dozen small steps that add up to a big impact. When you see the benefits and the success of your efforts, you’ll be encouraged to keep going.

Turn off the food noise

We’re not talking about the crackle of potato chip bags. Museles defines “food noise” as all the messages you receive about what you should (or shouldn’t) eat. It might come in the form of the news about the latest diet trend, an ad about the newest superfood, or your aunt insisting you take another slice of pie. Museles says daily food noise can become a loud chorus that confuses and disempowers you. It distracts you from listening to your body’s messages about what it needs to feel nourished. While food noise is hard to avoid, you can become more aware of it. She suggests taking note of where it seeps in throughout your day. Stay connected to how you feel when you see it.

Address your stress before dining

You can load up your plate with kale, quinoa, and all kinds of other nutritious food, but if you’re anxious when you sit down to eat, then your body will not receive all the nourishment from that meal. Take notice, without judgment, when these thoughts arise. Use the breath to calm the body. Museles says, pause and take three deep breaths before your meal. Or repeat a calming mantra or affirmation. For example: “I am nourishing myself.” “I am savoring this moment.” “It feels good to eat slowly.” This initiates a rest-and-digest response in the body, allowing you to receive the full nutritional benefit from your food, not to mention pleasure too!

See also: The New Trend to Quash Stress & Anxiety

Avoid multitasking during meals

We are a culture of distracted eaters; eating on the go has become second nature. But if you’re distracted while eating, you can’t listen to your body’s needs or notice when you’ve had enough or if your food agrees with you. We may think we can be more productive if we eat lunch at our desk or dinner while watching the news, but that’s a myth. According to Museles, you actually lose time because the brain doesn’t switch between tasks easily. You’re more likely to make mistakes or miss information. So turn off your devices and be present at your meals.

Get in the kitchen

Cooking is one of the fastest and easiest ways to connect with your food. When you prepare your own meals, you know exactly what you’re eating and develop a deeper appreciation for your food. Keep it simple to minimize stress. Whip up a smoothie, toss a salad, or toast a sandwich. Museles suggests making meal prep a community-building activity by cooking with family or friends. Turn on some tunes, grab some utensils, and let everyone do their part!

Check your feelings

Before you eat, ask yourself: How do I want to feel? Do I need energy or comfort? Am I craving warmth or do I need something cooling? Are you turning to food out of boredom or stress? Sometimes food is the answer; sometimes you’re craving something else. Asking these questions is a way to connect to the body and feed it what it wants, instead of eating out of habit or routine. By leaning into what you really need, you will make empowered decisions about how to nourish yourself.

Let yourself be human

As you start to rewrite your food story, let go of the notion of perfection where your food choices are concerned. There’s no need to be too strict or hard on yourself. When it’s time to celebrate, eat some cake—and allow yourself to enjoy it. Tuning into what makes you feel good is a more realistic and sustainable way to eat, Museles says. Resolve to take care of yourself and create a healthy lifestyle with food. Just make sure to leave the guilt behind!

See also: Fat Shaming and Toxic Diet Culture Are Rampant in Yoga. It’s Time to Push Back