I’m all for flexibility when it comes to what people eat. Labels like ‘vegan’, ‘paleo’, ‘keto’ for a lot of people aren’t particularly useful (even when self-imposed) if that means the structure of their food intake is tied up into the ‘rules’ of that particular diet. People panic when they are out of their own food environment and unable to eat according to the rules of their dietary ethos. While there are those who intuitively know they don’t need to rigidly eat the same foods or meals to be able to progress towards their health goals, this isn’t a widely appreciated concept. For some, diet ‘rules’ can create a certain degree of neuroticism around food; people argue it is a form of orthorexia at its worse – I’m not sure I agree with that, given the complexities associated with diagnosed eating disorders. Regardless, if the anxiety around food exists, it can lead the person to turn down invitations where their dietary rules will not be able to be adhered to, thus becoming socially isolated from their normal circle of friends. Or they may still attend with the intention not to eat, only to ‘cave in’; one small snack becomes a bit of a binge-fest because they have ‘blown it all.’ Both of these situations can make a person feel pretty terrible, and do nothing for their self-esteem. You can see why, then, there are people who are adamantly against ‘rules’ around food.
However, I don’t agree that there shouldn’t be any structure around what, how, and when a person eats. I think you’ll know I’m not suggesting this structure should equate specifically to a dogmatic dietary regime, such as only eating ‘paleo’ or ‘raw vegan’. I’m talking about rules that take the decision making out of some pretty common every day food experiences. Let’s face it, most people have a lot going on in their lives – we make 35,000 decisions per day (apparently!), 200 of them are food-related, though we are conscious of about 12-15 of them. Many people don’t have the bandwidth to be directly making decisions about what to eat day-in, day-out (hence food plans like mine are awesome, btw). That’s what makes it so easy to ‘succumb’ to takeaways at the end of the day (I say ‘succumb’ as I know many people think it’s lack of willpower. Well, no, it’s more decision fatigue than anything else). Dogma around diet is, after all, the appeal of following it – someone else has deemed what you can eat and what you can’t. This takes the thinking out of it and works perfectly fine… until it doesn’t. And it doesn’t take long for it to start causing more headaches than not. The type of rules, then, that I’m thinking about are those which are akin to brushing your teeth. You just do them, they are non-negotiable. Once you get into the habit of them, you don’t even have the think about it.
The types of rules I’m thinking about include:
- Never eat standing up (therefore omitting mindless snacking).
- Brush your teeth after dinner (to avoid snacking later in the evening).
- Have at least one serve of vegetables at breakfast, and 2-3 at lunch and dinner.*
- Put all junk food in the house in an opaque container and keep high up in the pantry, so they aren’t having to see it every time they open the cupboard to prepare meals (out of sight, out of mind).
- Choose a protein choice (meat, eggs, fish) and vegetables first when eating a meal out, and then (if still hungry), choose something else. This will fill you up, so there is less room for other foods that are easy to overeat.
- Order dressings and sauces on the side (so you can control how much you use).
Instead of feeling anxious about having to decide what to eat, then constantly second-guessing what to do, simple guidelines like these can help you make better decisions in any context. They take the thinking out of it, therefore less energy is wasted and they aren’t constantly ruminating about what to eat. This creates less anxiety and neuroticism, and people can feel empowered and confident in their food decisions. It’s less about the availability of specific food choices and more about way food is eaten, the environment it is eaten in, and the type of food. You don’t need to be perfect to be awesome, you just need to be consistent, and consistently approaching food in the same way (not deciding that you’ve ‘blown it all, so you’ll binge’ whenever you make a choice not deemed ‘suitable’ as part of your dietary regime).
From clinical experience, I find most people respond well to strategies such as those mentioned above.