It’s the dirtiest word in the realm of health and wellness. Just hearing it brings up images of supermodels and celebrities taped to the refrigerator for “inspiration” (aka intimidation). It brings up the memory following something so rigidly that you stopped enjoying food at all and sacrificed any semblance of a social life just to fit into that smaller size dress. We’ve all experienced this to one degree or another during our lifetime, whether it was through our own personal experience or through watching someone else’s struggle. Have you guessed the word yet?
Ugh, it’s like nails on a chalkboard.
Interestingly, the definition of the word diet is the sum of the food consumed by an organism or group. It’s not a negative word at all, but in America, we have learned to associate it with deprivation, punishment, strict rules, stress and guilt. Diets are a billion-dollar industry; companies spend millions and millions luring you to try the latest diet (low carb, high protein, low fat, no fat, you name it) with promises that this will (finally!) be the solution—your shortcut to a thinner body. As a dancer, I’ve been on countless diets myself, but I have to say I’ve never really had the patience to do them for very long; they’re just exhausting. As a pre-teen, I was not naturally thin, I was always little on the soft side, so looking at myself in a leotard was not a pleasant experience for me. I read a book that told me everything I needed to know about how I should be eating in order to achieve and maintain a thin dancer’s body. The book proved to be very confusing with all the calorie counting, proper nutrient ratios, lists of specific foods you had to either include or avoid completely; I just got overwhelmed and quit.
As a teenager, I continued to dance, but despite my talent, I still hated the way I looked. I briefly tried Weight Watchers, The South Beach Diet, SlimFast and the Special K diet. Although I did see some results, I found the rules too strict and felt too hungry and deprived to continue for long. In college, feeling more pressured to achieve that “dancer’s body” since I’d soon be entering a professional career, I reached my lowest point. I turned to diet pills, cigarettes, coffee and energy drinks to put my metabolism into overdrive and curb my appetite. I certainly started losing some weight, but also started losing energy and muscle mass and just generally felt awful. During my Junior and Senior years, I began to look a bit more carefully at what I was eating and decided to make some changes. I started adding in more whole foods and reducing the processed; I lessened the amount of caffeine I was drinking and stopped smoking cigarettes; I started cooking my own food or bringing my lunches with me from home so I’d have more control over what I was eating. Overall, I began to understand that extremes didn’t work and if I wanted to see real, lasting changes, I’d have to do a complete overhaul of my lifestyle.
Moving to New York was the best thing for embarking on my new health journey: I was introduced to new foods through the abundant farmer’s markets and began eating only seasonal and local produce; I started paying attention to labels and cut out nearly all processed foods and artificial sweeteners; I started making my own almond milk, peanut butter, smoothies, and soups, all things I would normally buy in the store (which has saved me a bundle, I must say); and I started filtering out almost all animal products and now eat a predominately plant-based diet. Most importantly, I stopped trying to attain that image of what a dancer’s body looked like in my mind; I am a dancer, this is my body, and it’s beautiful. Now, I focus on nourishing myself properly so I have the energy and strength to dance for years to come.
We begin a diet with the highest of hopes, thinking this will be the magic solution to our problems, but it ultimately backfires. I think some diets have great foundations; many of them put emphasis on eating more fruits and vegetables, reducing the amount of processed foods, sugar and animal products we eat, and drinking plenty of water. The ones that drive me bananas, are the ones that swear by one “miracle food” or force you to eliminate so many foods from your diet you’re only allowed to eat brown rice and broccoli for every meal (I don’t recommend this unless you want to live a very gassy, and therefore probably friendless, life). They aren’t meant to be sustaining, the ones that approach it in the smartest way serve to teach you how to bring more balance into your daily diet by crowding out the junk food with whole, fresh foods. That’s it! If it’s that simple, how can there be so many different diets out there and how can they all claim to be the right one for you?
Many approaches to diet and nutrition are masculine; if you look at many of today’s most popular diet books, you will see a ripped, shirtless man staring back at you on the cover. Men are linear, purpose-driven, goal-oriented beings so it makes sense that they would create approaches dependent on systems, numbers and math. Eat this many calories or measure out this many ounces of this food or that, plus, work out for this many hours and in these specific ways and you’ll see results. Women, on the other hand, are much more emotional and unpredictable and seek to feel pleasure in eating rather than punishment. Pleasure is a feminine concept and feeling pleasure results in relaxation, which is optimal for proper digestion and calorie burning. The stress-response that results from strict dieting, and the frustration of it “not working”, desensitizes you from pleasure creating a negative self-fulfilling prophecy (telling yourself “I can’t eat that cake because I won’t be able to stop” can lead to actually eating more in order to find that pleasure you have been denying yourself.) Therefore, a woman trying to follow a masculine diet will have an incredibly difficult time seeing the kind of results they want because their needs are simply not being addressed. That’s not to say this is how it is for every single woman or man out there, each individual is different, but we have picked up these ideals from society and the majority of us tend to respond in some variance of this. There is huge disconnect present within the diet industry which is although men seem to be at the helm of it, it’s women who make up the majority of participants.
What got me thinking about this topic was a recent TED talk, sent to me by a wonderful client of mine, given by archaeological scientist Christina Warinner called “Debunking the Paleo Diet”. I won’t go into too much detail about it because she’s much more informative than I am, so I recommend you check out the link here. This approach is based on the theory that today’s agricultural diets are ruining our health (which I generally agree with) and that in order to regain our health, we should go back to an ancient diet, eating only what we would have found within our immediate environment in its most natural state. This basic idea piqued my interest because it implies that we should choose foods that are local, seasonal and fresh, rather than packaged or processed. The actual Paleo diet, however, doesn’t quite follow this logic and, according to Ms. Warinner, it has “no basis in archaeological reality”. It relies heavily on meat, which depending on where you would have lived during those “ancient” years, may have indeed made up a large portion of the diet. However, foods we get easily, like chicken and steak, would probably not be the most prominent meat source; it’s more likely that we would have eaten more lean game, like deer, and would have eaten the whole animal including the bone marrow and the organs. In fact, if we look at how we are designed, humans have many plant consumption adaptations, such as a longer digestive tract in order to digest roughage and flat teeth used for grinding and mushing our food rather than sharp, pointed teeth used for tearing flesh. Ms. Warinner goes on to explain further why this dietary approach is unrealistic in our modern society and how this particular diet itself is completely inaccurate when compared to how our ancestors would have actually lived.
As with almost all the diets out there, there is a positive take away from the Paleo diet which Ms. Warinner takes some time to point out. One thing she explains, after dissecting this diet approach and looking at all the faults of it, is that diversity is key. Eating a balanced and well-rounded diet, suitable for your energy needs, the constraints or allowances of your physical environment and culture and your personal dietary restrictions. This is the root of why diets don’t work: they aren’t yours. We can learn something from every diet out there, whether it’s helpful tips that will enhance your health, or learning what is not useful and is best to be avoided. The best way to ensure you are nourishing and supporting yourself is to figure out what fits your individual needs and no one else’s. This can be a long and challenging process, especially if you are trying to navigate it on your own. That’s why I use my health coaching practice to counsel clients one on one to help them eliminate the things that are keeping them from achieving their goals and discover their unique path towards total body health and wellness. You don’t have to stand in the middle of the bookstore health and wellness section and feel overwhelmed by the plethora of choices that surround you. No one approach is the right one, everyone’s journey is different and I’m here to help you draw your own map. Contact me today for a free initial consultation to see if health coaching is right for you!
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