Lifestyle Choices: Dieting vs Healthful Eating

Both dieting and eating healthy provide us with the opportunity to be healthier, feel great, and help us toward our weight loss goals. So, which one is right for you?  First, let’s take a look at the definition of each:

Diet: a systematized, temporary change in eating habits.

Healthful Eating: a change in lifestyle in which continued effort is made to keep up good eating habits.

There are three useful ways of drawing the distinction between dieting and healthful eating, both mentally and in practice:

1. Limitation vs. Freedom

Taking a moment to analyze the mental mechanics at work when one diets, versus when one eats healthfully, can be of help here. Dieting to lose weight narrowly focuses all of one’s effort on the outcome, and is therefore, by definition, restrictive. That can be a set-up for failure. If goals aren’t reached by an expected time, the dieter can experience feelings of helplessness and defeat which can then lead them back to practicing bad habits, such as using food for comfort.

However, healthful eating is about making intuitive choices about food because such choices nourish the mind, body and spirit. For instance, eating healthfully might mean sharing a freshly baked cookie with a friend because the feeling it gives you is warm and nourishing to the spirit. At other times, eating healthfully might mean choosing not to eat it because you’re already full and satiated. The point is, there are options; a welcomed and liberating gray area in a landscape that constantly bombards us with messages in high-stakes black and white.

2. Self-Control vs. Self-Care

The number one goal of dieting is to change one’s body. With that, the success of one’s diet depends heavily on how good we are at self-control, which often makes self-deprivation necessary in order to meet that goal.

However, when making food choices via healthful eating practices, other aspects of health are taken into account, such as pleasure, appetite, nutrition, proximity to food, or all of the above. The objective here is not to change one’s body, but rather, to make choices that consider overall health and well-being. It becomes a question of nourishing choices and self-care, rather than of self-control.

When in doubt, remember to ask yourself the following: “Am I avoiding this food because I don’t think it will feel good in my body now?” OR “Am I avoiding this food because I think I will lose weight if I don’t eat it?”  Note that the former is a question of self-care, while the latter is one of self-control.

3. Listen to Your Body

When trying to develop healthful eating habits for physical health without falling into the diet trap, the key is to listen to your body. If you’re out of touch with what your body is saying, a good idea is to get help from a weight loss doctor who supports mindful, intuitive eating as opposed to weight loss. Practicing mindfulness, such as meditation, can also help you to connect with your body. After all, connecting with your body’s needs in a given moment is what we all need to do in order to make our best decisions… and not only about food, but also about any and all types of self-care.

Still not sure whether dieting or healthful eating is right for you? Consider that, according to the American Council of Exercise, only 5% of dieters are able to successfully keep the weight off after dieting. Much of this grim statistic is due to the appeal of “fad diets,” which promise big results in a short period of time. Sure, such diets can lead to temporary weight loss, but they can also lead to malnutrition. If a diet is low calorie, your hormones and metabolism could get out of balance because your body needs calories in order to run properly.

If dieting is the path you choose, keep in mind that it’s important to eat the recommended amount of calories based on your age and level of exercise. And make sure that whatever diet you’re considering also includes reasonable amounts of carbohydrates, protein and fat. Consulting a weight loss doctor to help you understand what your body’s daily intake requirements are will give you the best chance of successfully losing weight and maintaining it after dieting.

As an alternative, however, making healthful lifestyle changes takes into account more than just losing weight. Other considerations include what you eat, how you manage stress, how much you exercise, and more.  And while healthful eating does require that you maintain a certain level of restriction (i.e. it’s not recommended that you eat fast food and candy bars all day, of course!), the inherent understanding is that moderation is the key to maintaining a healthy lifestyle without depraving yourself of things you want to have every once in a while. If you succumb to temptation here and there, a self-care mindset will remind you that it’s not the end of the world. With such a perspective, you can get back on-track without feeling defeated.

So, as you can see, there’s a lot to sink your teeth into (pun-intended!) when deciding which path to take in your personal health journey. Ultimately though, when deciding between traditional dieting and making healthful lifestyle changes, it’s important to take personal factors into consideration (such as personality, work life, personal life, etc.) and make the choice that will give you the best chance of sticking to your goals.