Every day, it seems like a new diet springs up, promising to help you drop pounds and improve your health. But if history tells us anything, it’s that restrictive eating plans and fad diets don’t ultimately aid us on the way to living a healthier lifestyle. We spoke to Whitney Linsenmeyer, PhD, RD, LD, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and assistant professor of nutrition at Saint Louis University, to find out how we can drown out the “lose weight” noise and start listening to our bodies instead. Read our interview below.
Why do we flock to fad diets?
Strict, restrictive regimens provide a degree of temporary comfort. It can feel like we have a path, a direction, a goal — perhaps even a sense that we’re part of something larger than ourselves, following a plan that many others are, too. The problem is, when we “break the rules,” we’re left on the outs.
The reason? They set us up for an all-or-nothing approach. When we eat the forbidden food (the cookie, the bread, the pasta), all bets are off. We often wind up devouring way more of the forbidden food (the whole sleeve of cookies, the loaf of bread, the box of pasta) when we fall off the wagon.
What is the all-or-nothing approach?
Dietitians love to talk about moderation. But that’s actually quite difficult to learn if we’re used to an all-or-nothing approach. If we often “go off bread,” it can be enormously challenging to learn to eat just one slice of bread. Eating in moderation sounds so simple, but it’s actually more difficult to learn than cutting out a food or food group completely. It’s a complete paradigm shift.
Diet culture says that in order to lose weight, you have to restrict yourself. Why do you think that’s failed again and again? So many plans focus on labeling foods: Some are “good” and “healthy,” others are “bad” and “unhealthy.” One meal is “fattening” versus “light” or “clean.” Oftentimes, those labels translate to how we describe ourselves when trying to eat well. “I was good” versus “I cheated.” “I’m on a diet” versus “I’m off my diet.” “I’m sticking to it this time” versus “I let myself go.” It’s an impossible standard to live up to when the line in the sand is drawn so deeply. Plus, those labels make us crave the “bad” foods all the more, and when we do indulge, we experience guilt and shame when we internalize the “bad” label.
Is there a difference between hunger and appetite?
Absolutely. What we eat each day, how much, and when, is impacted by both physiological and psychological factors. Hunger is the physiological drive to eat, whereas appetite is the psychological drive to eat. Hunger is driven by signals throughout the body such as the level of stomach fullness, the sight or smell of food, levels of nutrients circulating in our blood, and storage levels of nutrients in peripheral tissues.
Appetite is driven by emotional influences such as stress and mood, social influences such as religion and culture, environmental factors such as food availability and advertising, and learned preferences and aversions for specific flavors or textures.
So how do we respond to each of them?
There are several different types of hunger, ranging from “nose hunger” — responding to the aroma of food, such as freshly baked bread or garlic roasting in the oven — to “heart hunger,” which refers to eating in response to emotions. None is inherently good or bad. The point is to bring awareness to where in our bodies we are experiencing hunger. If we’re craving freshly baked bread, we might identify this as nose hunger because it simply smells amazing. And, it’s fine to enjoy a piece of the bread to satisfy that hunger, but most likely we don’t need to eat the whole loaf of the bread to satisfy the nose hunger. Or, perhaps we’re content to simply enjoy the delicious smell and then carry on with our day.
Where do cravings fit in?
Cravings can be both physiological and psychological. If our blood sugar is low, we may have a hankering for carbohydrate-rich foods. Or, if we are in the routine of having a mid-afternoon snack, we may want something to eat at 2 p.m. simply because it’s a habit. The key is to bring awareness to the urges and understand where they’re coming from.
How do you listen to your body’s needs?
We are bombarded by environmental cues to eat. On my drive to work, I pass billboards for cheeseburgers and pizza slices that are larger than my car! The key is to look inward and relearn to trust our internal hunger and satiety cues. Research supports the notion that we are driven to crave salty, sweet, and fatty foods. Given the abundance of those foods in our world, it’s easy to override our body’s internal signals.
All hope is not lost. But it does require practice and oftentimes hard work to not overdo it on those foods, especially if we are just learning to pay attention to our hunger and satiety cues.
How do we tune into our bodies?
I recommend trying a food diary — with an addition. In a traditional food diary, you would document all the items you ate or drank in a given day, the quantity and the time. Try adding an additional column with a hunger scale of 1 to 10 where 10 is uncomfortably full and 1 is famished. This simple act can bring awareness to our hunger and appetite cues. Perhaps
you may be able to identify patterns over time, such as a tendency to wait until you’re extremely hungry and then overeat to compensate. Or, maybe you eat when you’re not really hungry. After you reflect and then identify patterns, you can then set relevant goals for yourself. The goals may look different; instead of “lose 15 pounds by summer” you might set a goal of “check in with my hunger level before, during, and after a meal.” Patience, persistence, and kindness toward ourselves is key to learning new habits in the long game. And you can do it.
A version of this article appeared in our partner magazine Mindfulness for Women.