I have often heard clients, fitness center members, and friends share their weight loss journey through improved nutritional habits over my fifteen years as a fitness and behavioral change professional. Most of these examples and stories are positive and rewarding to witness because these transformational moments become the glue that binds together a long-lasting lifestyle of fitness and wellness behaviors.
On the other hand, I can also recall examples where a person’s journey to becoming healthier leads them down the path to being unwell - mentally, physically, and emotionally. I have witnessed individuals placing extreme rules and restrictions on their dietary choices and demonstrating a limited view of what it truly means to be well across all dimensions of wellness.
According to the USDA, our diet must be rich in nutrient-dense foods like fruits and vegetables, complex carbohydrates, lean protein, and healthy fats. Similarly, eating the right types of food can help with pre-workout fuel and post-workout recovery.
The concept of this blog is a big component of the Behavior Change Specialization Course from NASM - as well as the Nutrition Coach Course. If you are interested in learning more about the general science of behavior change, check out this blog.
8 Tips for Healthy Eating Without Restricting Foods
If this subject resonates with you, here are some important reminders and tips to help you remember that eating healthy does not mean food restriction.
1. Avoid Labeling Foods Good & Bad– What we know about most foods is that there are no good and bad foods, but there are good and bad diets as a whole. When we start to think about food choices in this way, we realize that treating ourselves occasionally to a pizza or enjoying a piece of cake to celebrate a birthday does not mean that all our goals related to a healthier living go out the window.
2. Moderation and Variety– The USDA recommends consuming a wide variety of foods to eat well. It is recommended that one focus on eating more plants and vegetables than other types of food and balancing it out with whole grains, lean proteins, healthy fats, and low-fat dairy. Meal prepping is a great way to focus on variety.
Also, it is highly recommended that one should limit sugar intake and eat a variety of foods in moderation.
When food restriction and limitations on certain types of food start to become a norm, it can often lead to not getting all of the nourishment needed, possibly leading to malnutrition in more severe cases.
3. Social Life & Traditions– Various moments in life (for example, birthdays, graduations, Sunday night family dinner traditions, going out to the movies, a dinner party with friends, etc.) are celebrated with specific foods, and sharing those foods with others is a vital part of the bonding experience. Certain food choices are even part of broader cultural backgrounds and traditions such as Diwali, Thanksgiving, or Rosh Hashanah. It is important to note that when the goal of eating healthy starts to negatively impact or limit these special moments in one’s life, it might be time to reevaluate and seek support.
4. Choose the right balance of moderation– As you start to turn this education into action, it is important to choose the right amount of moderation that best fits your performance goals and helps sustain your healthy lifestyle. I believe that the 80/20 rule can help with success. The 80-20 rule states that 20% of what you do will result in 80% of the outcomes. In this case, focus on eating well as part of a healthy lifestyle 80 to 90 percent of the time, and give yourself permission to enjoy and indulge 10 to 20 percent of the time. Embodying this approach can help reduce stress on eating that piece of birthday cake or enjoying a special Sunday meal with family.
7. Stay Mindful to Your Thoughts – What you tell yourself is important here. Continue to keep your thought processes aligned with the points described above. Remind yourself and use affirmations and thought to restructure as needed. See intuitive eating for another option.
8. Seek Additional Support if Needed – As the information above reinforces, do not be afraid to reach out for help if needed. Reaching out for help should be reserved for more severe situations and for less serious ones that require working with a Dietician and/or gaining additional education on this behavior for overall wellbeing. Seeking support is a sign of strength and resilience and is often an underutilized self-care tool.
As a whole, it is important that we consume a wide variety of nutritious foods in our diet and cultivate a healthy diet with room for moderation and indulgences. This approach can not only minimize stress but also help us enjoy certain foods as part of a shared experience with others.
Eating wholesome, nutritionally rich foods is essential in obtaining good fitness results, fueling optimal performance, and improving key health metrics such as blood pressure, cholesterol, and glucose levels.
However, it is also important to note that being healthy and fit does not mean excessive food restriction. Focusing too much on food restriction can become a detrimental issue both mentally and physically in some situations.
This article does not aim to recommend eating unhealthy foods regularly or promoting them to be in your diet if not already. Instead, the purpose of this article is to promote variety and moderation in food choices, to know that it is okay to indulge in moderation as part of an overall healthy diet and to raise awareness that extreme food restriction for some can become "too much of a good thing" and can start to impact their wellbeing and health negatively.
For example, if focusing on food choices and eating healthy starts to become an obsessive worry that starts to impact daily life, quality of thoughts, and social interactions, it is time to seek help. Although Orthorexia is not a clinical disorder (according to the American Psychology Association and the DSM-5), its warning signs (according to WebMD and the National Eating Disorder Association - NEDA) include experiencing symptoms of anxiety when healthy food choices are unavailable, limiting social interactions out of fear of not being able to eat healthy, spending a lot of time fixating on upcoming meals and food preparation, putting restrictions on eating a broad range of food out of fear that they are not healthy, etc.
If you find that you are experiencing symptoms like these and they are hurting your life, or are experiencing other eating .disorder-related behaviors or concerns, please reach out for support to your employee assistance program (EAP), therapist, or the National Eating Disorder Association contact hotline by texting “NEDA” to 741741.
WebMD. (2020, September 9). What is Orthorexia. https://www.webmd.com/mental-health/eating-disorders/what-is-orthorexia
National Eating Disorder Association. (2018). Orthorexia https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/learn/by-eating-disorder/other/orthorexia