As a registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN), I am constantly hearing about people’s diets and previous dieting attempts. And I’m not just talking about my clients—people I’ve just met will tell me without any prompting (literally, zero prompting) about what they do and do not eat. (I’ve found it comes with the territory of telling people you’re in this profession.) And the one question I am almost always asked by clients, family members, friends, (and new acquaintances) is “what shouldn’t I be eating?” People always want to know what foods to cut out of their diet in order to be “healthier.”
The diet industry has led us to believe we need to restrict certain foods and food groups in order to be healthier, happier, have more energy—you name it. And there always seems to be some new list of “foods you should never eat.”
But depriving ourselves is not the way to achieve a healthier lifestyle. We may think we need diets and food rules to keep ourselves in check, but this scarcity mindset where certain foods or food groups are off limits actually makes us more likely to overeat those foods (or any food within arms reach) in the future.
Depriving ourselves is not the way to achieve a healthier lifestyle.
This isn’t because we “lack willpower” or “failed at dieting,” it’s because the act of making a food forbidden actually increases the allure of it until there is permission to eat it. We can think of it as a “forbidden fruit” effect. It’s part of the vicious dieting cycle where we cut out foods, feel guilty if we eat them, swear to never eat them again, then crave and overeat them over and over again.
Why changing the narrative around what foods we shouldn’t be eating is so important
Once we let go of our food rules and give ourselves permission to eat any food we want, we take the power away that those forbidden foods held over us. We’re no longer unable to keep those foods in the house or find ourselves at the bottom of the pint, bag, or box of them after a bad day. This unconditional permission to eat whatever we want, whenever we want (not just when we’ve “been good all week” or “when the diet is over”) is considered an abundance mindset.
Instead of looking for ways to cut things out of our diets, we should be looking for ways to enrich them.
While this unrestricted view of eating can sound a little scary at first (you may think, won’t I just eat ice cream all of the time?!), it is actually what prevents us from obsessing over and losing “control” around foods and helps us move toward a more positive relationship with food and our bodies.
This is one of the reasons why I believe in taking a different approach to health and wellness. Instead of looking for ways to cut things out of our diets, we should be looking for ways to enrich them. Instead of “what shouldn’t I be eating?” we should really be asking ourselves: “What can I add?”
Here are 3 things you can add to our diets to enrich your health and well-being
When looking at a client’s daily intake, I will first check if there are any nutrients or food groups that are low or missing. For example, are they getting enough quality proteins? What about fiber, healthy fats, and carbohydrates? Are they eating any fruits and vegetables? More often than not, these are some of the areas lacking in our diets whether it’s due to personal preference, reduced time to prepare or think about food, or diet mentality.
For example, we tend to fear carbs because of the bad rep they’ve received so we limit or avoid them in our diets. But one major detail the diet industry has left out of its fear-mongering carb campaign is that our bodies need carbohydrates to survive. Carbs are the brain’s preferred energy source and provide energy to every single cell in the body. Even the ones that are particularly demonized like bread, pasta, and other grains have benefits like providing us with fortified nutrients such as B vitamins and iron.
I also commonly find that people are not eating enough throughout the day, whether that is due to busy schedules or again, diet mentality to choose the lowest calorie food choice or eat as little as possible. This often results in overeating at some point, typically in the evening when we get home from work and our low energy and blood sugar levels hit.
If we had more balanced meals in the day, for example, yogurt and fruit on the side of toast with peanut butter for breakfast, and a snack within those hours between lunch to when we got home from work, we’d feel a lot more energized and less irritable and starving at the end of the day.
Eating enough food from all food groups is not only necessary for proper physical and mental functioning, but also to provide satisfaction and avoid feelings of deprivation. Once we get a balance of food groups in our diets, we can start to switch up those food choices for more dietary diversity.
It’s super easy to get into the habit of buying the same foods each week, but there are some major benefits to switching up your grocery list. This may seem obvious, but by eating a variety of foods from all food groups, you’re receiving a variety of nutrients. For example, if you always pack carrot sticks and hummus for your workday snack, you’re getting some great nutrients like vitamin A (beta carotene) and K, but if you switch it up and add red bell pepper slices in there now and then, you’re getting a boost of some other nutrients like vitamin C and B6, too.
Switching things up also helps you reap a variety of health benefits from food. For example, phytonutrients give plants their color and provide health benefits like antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects. There are over 25,000 phytonutrients in plant foods, so the more colors we have in our diets, the more of these helpful little phytonutrients we’re receiving.
Plus, when certain foods are eaten together they can have synergistic effects where specific nutrients are better absorbed or become more bioavailable (more so than if the foods were eaten separately), which can help increase their positive effects like their ability to fight diseases. Pairs that are better together include guacamole and salsa, green tea and lemon, broccoli and tomatoes, and turmeric and black pepper.
Variety not only helps to provide a boost of nutrients, it prevents the monotony of mealtime. When we have the same breakfast, lunch, and dinner over and over again we can easily become bored and less satisfied with our meals. This makes it more likely for us to eat mindlessly, not noticing our hunger and fullness cues and potentially overeating or eating more out of boredom. Running on autopilot in this way also makes us less in tune with our personal preferences because we aren’t pausing to ask ourselves, “What am I in the mood for?” This brings us to my third must-have at mealtime.
There are two benefits to finding satisfaction with meals: satiety and enjoyment. Having a balance of food groups at meals—starches/grains, protein, fat, fruit/vegetables will provide more satisfaction than if just one or two food groups were present. For example, eggs and plain toast at breakfast may hold us for a little while, but if we were to add avocado to our toast and a side of fruit, it would be more filling and satisfying. (The fiber in the fruit and fat in the avocado are to thank for that).
Fats especially boost satisfaction because they are energy dense, so they are more satiating, keeping us fuller longer, and their creamy texture and savory taste make meals more pleasurable—picture the taste of dry toast versus toast with butter or avocado).
Balanced, satisfying meals can help us avoid overeating, too, as can eating foods we enjoy or desire. For example, have you ever ordered a salad when you really wanted the pasta dish? You may have found that you then ate more bread or snacked when getting home from the restaurant because the meal you chose didn’t satisfy your tastebuds. Avoiding cravings or depriving ourselves of foods we enjoy can eventually result in overeating and keep the whole guilt-restrict-overeat cycle going.
We often get so caught up in choosing the “best” food choices that we forget that eating is not just about fueling our bodies, it’s supposed to be a pleasurable experience, too. This is why it’s helpful to ask ourselves how we can feel more satisfied with or find more enjoyment in our meals.
I believe that adding to our diets so that we are eating enough, getting a balance and variety of foods, and incorporating foods we enjoy are ways we can not only avoid the pitfalls of dieting but practice self-care and show ourselves self-love. This doesn’t mean you have to do a complete overhaul of your day-to-day eating. You can simply take a look at one meal or snack and see what you can add for more balance.
So say you always have the same salad with chicken for lunch, try adding a grain like cooked barley, quinoa, or farro for some extra nutrients and added textures. Or if you have toast with peanut butter for breakfast, maybe try adding some blueberries, a sprinkle of cinnamon and drizzle of honey to switch things up and add a boost of fiber, antioxidants, and satisfaction.
Or maybe you have been craving something sweet after dinner but only allow yourself a piece of fruit. Give yourself permission to enjoy the dessert you love instead or add something delicious like chocolate peanut butter cups with your fruit to take baby steps toward an abundance mindset.
Whether it’s big or small changes, incorporating more balance, variety, and satisfaction will make the eating experience more positive, exciting, and nourishing for your body and soul.