I hear people say all the time, “I’m not on a diet, I’m just watching what I eat.” Whether they call it “watching what I eat” or “eating healthy”, it’s all part of the same “wellness diet”.

If this is you, I’m calling you out.

Let me explain what you’re really doing.

By calling what you’re doing “healthy eating”, you THINK that you really aren’t dieting. You somehow think this “healthy eating” is somehow better than other ways of eating.

Am I right so far?

But the truth about this way of eating is that it indeed is still a diet. Diet, for this purpose, is a way of eating that restricts you to eating certain types and amounts of foods (and maybe even restricts the times that you are allowed to eat too). Eating healthy or watching what you eat both fall into this category because there are always foods you cannot eat because they are not considered healthy (or you watch out for certain things to make sure you avoid). Maybe you restrict sugar, or gluten, or dairy,  or all of the above. And it doesn’t really matter why you restrict these foods. Restricting them is restricting them. And THAT my friend is a diet. 

I probably should clarify that I feel qualified to talk about dieting like this because I lived and preached it for many years. I am formerly known as “The Clean Eating Dietitian”. Hah! Clean eating is just another disguise for diet. It maybe even takes it a step further because by promoting “clean” food, it implies there are “dirty” foods.  

I myself stumbled onto the concept of intuitive eating and this idea of non-dieting (and the concept of taking an anti-diet stance) accidentally. Although I don’t really believe anything is truly an accident. At first I was in denial; I thought the dietitian I was listening to had lost her marbles and wondered what snake oil she was selling.

I’m a science girl, so anytime I come across someone who seems to be promoting concepts contrary to my training, I take notice. And I want to know what they’re thinking. I look at it as a challenge. 

So naturally I decided I needed to dig into this intuitive eating thing. 

I wasn’t ready to have my world turned upside down.

But that wasn’t a bad thing. It was in fact one of the best things to happen to me.

Basically I learned how to question the mainstream scientific. I learned how to tell the difference between popular media decision making and actual valid science. I learned that the science doesn’t support the popular beliefs of an obesity epidemic or weight related disease risks. I learned that worry over what we eat and stressing over our size causes more harm to our health than the actual so called harmful foods or “extra” weight we might be carrying. I learned these things from fellow dietitians and some incredibly smart and unbelievably adept at objectively scrutinizing the science scientists.

As a part of my education in intuitive eating, I had the veil lifted on the culture of dieting, aka diet culture, in my life. I learned that diet culture promotes restrictive and prescriptive eating with the goal of convincing us we need to change our size or shape (and usually results in someone profiting from it). 

It’s important to understand that healthy eating and the wellness diet are still diets, requiring you to restrict certain foods. People most often look at their “eating healthy” plan as a good thing (they’ve been taught to do this by diet culture). They will talk about the veggies and protein and low carb foods they eat. But the more we chat, I usually learn they ALSO don’t let themselves have things like sugar or dairy or refined flours (as an example, the specifics vary by person and plan and they will typically defend those restrictions with some popular media report on the food causing harm, like inflammation or cancer). 

This, my friend, is a diet. It’s restrictive eating.

Two things to know:

  1. All food is a source of nourishment. Food is not moral (it’s not good or bad, it just is). Some foods have more nutrients. Some have less variety of nutrients. But in the end, if it has any sort of nutrition, then it’s a food and it’s morally equivalent to all other foods. Food or specific ingredient restrictions should be reserved for medically diagnosed situations like allergies (Celiac disease for example). 
  2. Restrictions lead to biological and psychological dysfunction. Restriction sets off hormones in the body that can lead to increased hunger and drive to eat; Restriction also creates a psychological drive to think more about the thing being restricted. Think about it like a two year old begging for a toy you don’t want them to have…that two year old will keep begging and will seemingly never wear out. You, on the other hand, will wear down eventually, give in, and give them the off limits toy. The foods you restrict are like the two year old.

I get it. Diet culture effectively fear mongers is into believing we will rapidly die of some disease if we eat the wrong food or don’t eat enough of the right food. It sells us on the idea that thin bodies are ideal and “healthier” than larger bodies.  This all leads to us frantically trying to find the perfect diet to stave off harm and shrink ourselves silly. The ramifications of this lead to wasted time and money and a lot of lost happiness.

Still in doubt? Take a look at the effect diet culture has had on the occurrence of disease and increases in our body sizes. There has never been more effort to control our eating. The sheer numbers of people on “diets” (including the wellness diet) hasn’t had any of its supposed advertised effect of shrinking us or reducing disease. In fact, the more we collectively try to control our intake, the less control we actually seem to have. 

So you can maybe understand why then, when I hear someone say they are simply watching what they eat, inside I’m secretly cringing. Yep. I’m THAT over diet culture. I actually feel myself getting mad inside. Mind you I’m not mad at the person I’m talking to. Nope. I actually feel for them and want nothing more than to rescue them from these influences that are covering up the restrictive side of the equation and misleading them to believe they aren’t really following a diet.

Intuitive eating on the other hand promotes a life of satisfaction. It’s focus on honoring hunger and satiety to keep your body feeling comfortable. It encourages enjoying the food you’re eating and removing the rules allowing for food decisions that help you live within your budget, with no memorization of food lists necessary.

My goal here was to teach you how to sift through some of the diet culture rhetoric to help you make a more conscious judgement. So the next time someone tries to tell you “it’s not a diet”, and that they are just “watching what they eat”, use your intuitive eating filter to sort through the facts.

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