Can You Change Your Diet Without Dieting?

Yesterday my friend and commenter, Wendi, left a comment on the post Dieting Makes You Fatter that’s brings up a good question and raises some other issues, so I want to give it my full attention here.

Part of her comment is the basic question:

Is there any difference in any of the studies or reports for people who start a new “diet” just to be generally healthier? … I’m wondering that since the goal of this dietary change isn’t weight loss…does that count as “dieting”?… Have any of the studies addressed that issue, and is there any information you’ve found on it?

There are a few studies that address this idea. There aren’t very many, but I think more research is going to be headed this direction. This link gives an overview of some of the available research.

My understanding is that practices that involve size acceptance and intuitive eating (Health At Every Size, HAES, is one such practice) result in improved physiological health (like blood pressure), improved emotional health (like self-esteem), and improved healthy behaviors (like increased physical activity). These results are independent of weight loss. Additionally, evidence suggests that participants are more likely to continue with their improved habits, which is not the case for dieting.

The rest of Wendi’s comment goes into some of the things she’s doing to aim for more healthy eating.

I’ve started serving portioned out meals at home, to an amount of about 2000 calories a day, just because no one in my house knows what a healthy portion of ANYTHING even looks like…Of the four of us, two tend to overestimate portion sizes, and two underestimate, so it’s definitely a problem for everyone – mostly because none of us really know what we’re eating in that respect.

If you are wanting to pursue a goal of healthy eating, it’s going to be crucial that you ask yourself at every step of the way whether you are actually veering into dieting 0r disordered eating. Our culture is beyond fucked up when it comes to food, and so it can be really hard to figure out a path that makes sense.

Now, I’m not your doctor, your chef, or your mama (not that I think you should listen to any of them, either!) so take my opinion as just that! But I would say that if you’re focused on the number of calories in the food, the size of the portions, and judging the portions as over- or under-estimated, you are not on the right track.

Intuitive eating is a process of getting away from mathematical, moralistic, or checklist judgement of food. There’s no need to count calories; there is only the need to listen to yourself and find what you want or need. There’s no such thing as a portion size; there’s what you want to eat and what you don’t.

Wendi also mentioned her family’s full/hunger signals being out of whack and that’s a common problem with people who’ve struggled with food and weight issues. It can be a really long process to get back to a way of eating that’s in tune with your body.

Outlining an entire plan for a healthier relationship with food is way beyond the scope of this post. There are plenty of resources online for learning more about intuitive or mindful eating, although make sure to steer clear on any that are aiming for weight loss. Health At Every Size is a well-supported, Googlable practice.

My favorite resource is Michelle at The Fat Nutritionist. You could browse her site all day. A few posts I recommend off the top of my head:

And most importantly, keep in mind that for many adults it’s taken years – decades even – to get as fucked up about food as we are. Getting back to a peaceful relationship with eating is also going to take some time. Be gentle with yourself, and the other people around you who are struggling!