Many people who try to lose weight focus on the foods they decide must be “off-limits” instead of focusing on healthy whole foods to add. This often results in foods being labeled “good” and “bad” and spending too much time thinking about the latter category, which leads to over restricting followed by binging and ensuing feelings of guilt and yo-yo dieting.
Instead, reminding yourself about the benefits of eating nutrient-dense whole foods and changing the way you talk to yourself about food can actually make it easier to lose weight. “We have to start challenging our beliefs related to foods and their worth,” says Emily Tills, MS, RDN. “Take the emotion and feeling out of something that has no emotion or feeling, and we may be able to feel more confident in our choices.”
As a child, you may have been taught broccoli was “good” and donuts were “bad” by well-meaning adults who wanted to ensure you got enough nutrients at mealtimes. Unfortunately, many people internalize those messages and, as adults, still apply these labels.
“For decades, we’ve been trained to think about food as a treat, an indulgence, a slip-up or a temptation,” says Melanie Douglass, RD, a registered dietitian and AFAA-certified group fitness instructor based in Salt Lake City.
Labeling foods “bad” often backfires: When you think you aren’t supposed to have something, it may make you want it even more. “If you tell [a] 2-year-old, ‘No, you cannot touch that button,’ all they can think about is how much they want to push that button,” says Leslie Urbas, MS, RDN. “Excluding foods is that button. The more you say, ‘I cannot eat [something],’ the more you will want to eat those foods.”
Try these ideas to reframe your thinking and feel good about eating healthily:
Pay attention to how often you think of foods as “good” or “bad,” and train yourself to place all foods on a neutral playing field. “Every time you trigger yourself to think a food is ‘good’ or ‘bad,’” Urbas says, “grab a pen and paper and actually write down, ‘Candy is just food. Cake is just food. Fruit is just food. Meat is just food. Food nourishes my body.”
If you need to differentiate foods, so you focus on eating more whole foods and fewer processed ones, consider describing foods by nutrient content.
“We can start to look at food as either nutrient-dense, high in protein, fiber and heart-healthy fats or energy-dense, higher in overall calories but [less] nutrient-dense,” says Tills. “This way you can look at things with less emotion behind them.”
Don’t try guilting yourself into eating fruit by telling yourself how terrible chips are. Instead, focus on the benefits of eating fresh produce. Research shows people are more likely to eat fruits and vegetables when they hear positive messages about their health benefits. For example, when faced with an apple or chips, remind yourself how an apple contains important antioxidants, fiber and complex carbs that support your health and nutrition goals.
“As we become more positive and less obsessive about food, it makes eating healthier foods easier and more natural,” says Douglass. “When you stop glamorizing certain foods, you start eating what makes you feel good in the long run, versus eating what makes you feel good for five minutes.”
People often restrict what they eat to lose weight, but you can still eat foods you love. Just add more nutrient-dense foods to the mix.
“Change the focus to, ‘I will have a fruit and a vegetable at every meal or snack,’” Urbas says. “You can still have that candy bar as a snack, but you’re also adding a piece of fruit and a vegetable.” You’ll likely feel better (and more satiated) with a piece of fruit or some veggies and eat less of the candy bar, says Urbas. Over time, these small changes add up.
You’ll set yourself up for failure if you forbid yourself from eating your favorite treats. Allow yourself anything you want, but consume a reasonable portion, and don’t have it every day. It may help to differentiate foods as “fuel,” which are essential to keep your body running, and “fun,” which you should only eat sometimes, says Douglass.
By giving yourself permission to include anything you like into your diet, you’ll likely have greater success in losing weight. “What you really can expect is feeling less tied to thoughts of food all the time, less struggle when mealtimes arrive, and less self-guilt when something may be more energy-dense than it is nutrient-dense,” says Tills.
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