Stop agonizing over the perfect diet – it doesn’t exist

So far this month I’ve focused mainly on the fitness side of what “healthy” means, when probably a much more controversial (and frankly, stress-inducing) topic is the food you put in your mouth. Truthfully, I don’t like the word “diet”; it connotes deprivation and a temporary vigilance. Not to mention, to my favorite cautionary adage:

"The first three letters in the word ‘diet’ spell ‘DIE."

Extreme, perhaps, but it certainly relates to the feelings of desperation so often experienced while on said diet.

For the purposes of us being on the same page, note that when I say “diet,” I’m referring more to a typical style or strategy of how you eat more of the time, as well as specific foods or categories of foods one chooses to highlight or exclude from his or her plate. On a more complex level, it also includes how the food is prepared (at home or at a restaurant), how it’s eaten (on the go or in a dedicated setting), and any special considerations one has (allergies, aversions, moral obligations, budget, time, and so on).

Salads don’t need to be “diet” food, if you choose ingredients wisely. Here’s one of my favorite combos: kale, cranberries, shredded carrot, celery, walnuts + lemon vinaigrette (plus protein of choice).

I’m also working under the assumption that when health-conscious people talk about diet, they are at least partially considering weight loss or maintenance, muscle mass and metabolism, energy levels, athletic performance, digestion, mood + emotions.

Certainly diets + food choices can be very controversial. And despite what popular media might lead you to believe, there is no one magic diet that will work for everyone

Sunny runny eggs, greens, protein + smart carbs are my breakfast (and lunch, and dinner) jam.

The truth of the matter is that practically any diet can work, but what “work” means depends on your goals and what you’re willing to do to reach them. When trying to figure out what type of diet will work best for you, I encourage you to start by considering the following:

  • What foods work for me physically + emotionally? This is perhaps the most complicated but important question. Everyone and their mother has an opinion about what you put in your mouth, when in reality, it’s only of concern to you. If you are dealing with a particular concern or have a specific goal, it would be in your best interest to educate yourself on your options and the theories behind them. But only experimentation, observation + time can show you what style of eating will work for you.

  • Am I an abstainer or moderator? In Better Than Before, habits + happiness expert Gretchen Rubin makes the distinction between these two personality types. Probably more relevant to diet than any other aspect of our lives, it’s essential that you acknowledge whether you function better under a rule of complete abstinence, or with some purposeful moderation. Believe it or not, when Rubin realized her emotional relationship with french fries was not a healthy one, she decides to completely cut them out of her diet. For Rubin, making that decision was actually freeing instead of restricting. For you, it will depend on your personality tendency AND the particular food you are considering.

  • What am I actually willing to commit to? What about a certain way of eating might make it too difficult to do consistently? Time, energy, ingredients/tools, whether or not you function better abstaining from certain foods or allowing them in your diet moderately all contribute to a diet’s success or failure for an individual. Cooking for yourself 7 nights a week is a lofty goal, but if you have no idea what a colander is, you might want to set your sights on something more manageable.

Perhaps the most important and anxiety-quelling realization you must make is that eating a certain way most of the time doesn’t mean you have to eat like that all of the time. Moderation can work – if you’re actually moderate.

Moderation means reaching for the carrots more often than the cocktails.

Personally (and not very uniquely), the concept of diets has been an interest (and perhaps at time, an obsession) of mine since probably before high school. While everyone else was running to the cafeteria to get their famous giant chocolate chip cookies, I had packed myself an apple and bag of almonds. In college, I shopped at Whole Foods (yes, on a college budget!) and prepped many of my meals in advance while most others were subsisting on hastily grabbed convenience foods.

That’s not to say I didn’t want or didn’t indulge in the cookies or convenience foods. But I enjoy the process of experimenting in the kitchen. But if that’s NOT something you enjoy, my style of eating is not going to work for you (and vice versa). I also really love trying new restaurants and cuisines, particularly with good company. But, I know if I eat that way all the time, I’ll likely not feel or function that well (and my wallet will be conversely lighter). So, I leave room in my diet for these unique experiences, and mindfully enjoy myself when I do partake. (I call this strategy anticipating when working with clients, and it works very well with moderators.)

I’ve never met an oyster I didn’t like; always paired with a Manhattan. #balance

With experimentation + time, I’ve found a mostly-Paleo style of eating works best for me. I use the word “Paleo” because by now, if you’re at all interested in the topic of diet, you probably know it generally means the following: lots of fresh seasonal produce, sustainably sourced animal protein, ample healthy fats, no grains, gluten, dairy or legumes and very limited processed foods.

I say “mostly-Paleo” because I’ve found I feel my best, both physically + emotionally, with some amendments to the usual repertoire. I’m good with a bit of quality cheese in my rotation, but not cream, ice cream or other higher lactose dairy products. And while I’ve realized that grains in general (gluten-free or otherwise) don’t seem to work well for me (I get bloated + tired), this Jersey girl could NOT abstain from good quality pizza for the rest of her life.

I share my story not to insinuate that you should do what I do. But how you should follow my lead is by taking the time to assess what’s working for you and what’s not, by using common sense and experimenting with adjustments you think will support your goals + efforts, and by being kind to yourself and realizing this is a process.

There is no one perfect diet; in fact, the diet that may have worked for you 5 years ago could be not working very well for you at all right now. The most important productive thing you can do is ignore the noise around you and try what you think will work for you. Comment below and let me know what’s working for you (and maybe what’s not) when it comes to your strategy or style of eating.

Give me tortilla-wrapped meats or give me death.

Like most of my other blog posts this month, I’m sharing a small introduction to a much larger topic. In fact, the concept that healthy doesn’t have to be so hard is the focus of a program I’m currently building which I can’t wait share. If anything I’ve said on the topic has resonated with you and you want to learn more, be sure to sign up for my newsletter for advanced notice. Other information you can expect is the exact kitchen tools, shopping lists, recipes + meal plans I follow to make my life easier AND more delicious; basic pre- and post-workout nutrition strategies to help boost your energy + results; and the mistakes you might be unknowingly making that derail your best efforts.

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Liz Barnet Fitness + Food Coaching 

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