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Are you eating for health or eating for weight loss?

Are you eating for health or eating for weight loss?

“I want to eat healthy and lose weight” are two outcomes many people want out of nutrition consultations. But eating for health and eating for weight loss are actually two different things that can have different outcomes in terms of overall wellbeing. What’s the difference? Here are my thoughts.

Eating for health:

  • isn’t focused on a weight target;
  • nourishes your body with a variety of foods from the different food groups;
  • is flexible;
  • is sustainable in the long term;
  • allows you to enjoy food without feeling guilty;
  • is based on your needs and preferences; and
  • pays attention to your hunger, fullness and satiety cues.

Sometimes eating for health results in weight loss, but not always. We can view this as a side effect rather than an aim. Like all side effects, some people experience them, but not everybody does.
When the concepts of healthy eating and weight loss are tangled together they can lead to a diet mentality.

A dieting mentality can include:

  • cutting out foods or food groups;
  • counting calories, points, macros, etc.;
  • following rules around what you can and can’t eat;
  • following rules around portions and how much to eat instead of relying on internal cues to guide eating; and
  • using meal replacements.

You may start thinking things like: ‘I can’t eat any birthday cake’ or ‘It’s after 8pm, I’m not allowed to eat even though I’m hungry.’ You might avoid social situations in case you break your diet. A diet mentality doesn’t take into account your hunger and fullness cues, what you feel like eating, your social life or your food preferences. It takes up a lot of thought room in your head.

Eating for weight loss is still likely to include nourishing foods, but there is the underlying assumption that this will lead to weight loss. If it doesn’t, you doubt your food choices and try to figure out what you’ve done ‘wrong’. You may also ignore your hunger cues as well as restrict foods you enjoy in order to lose weight. While we can rely on external rules to guide our eating for a while, eventually what we are ‘supposed’ to do and what we feel like doing collide and this is what leads us to ‘break’ our diet.

We cannot outsmart our bodies. Trying to diet often leads to both physiological and psychological changes that affect our eating behaviours. Ignoring hunger eventually leads hunger hormones to increase to a point where it’s very hard to avoid eating and at this stage it’s common to eat past the point of comfort. Some view this as a failure of willpower, but it’s biology’s way of making sure you don’t starve. Not something that’s likely today, but in the past it was a way of ensuring survival.

Most of us can avoid eating foods we love for a while, but willpower is a limited resource, and eventually we’ll eat them. Believe it or not, trying to avoid thinking about something actually makes us more likely to think about it. And when it comes to a behaviour like eating, more likely to do it. So, when you’re trying to avoid thinking about the chocolate biscuits in the cupboard, you will be more likely to eat them! It’s a well-known psychological phenomenon known as the ironic process theory.

It’s also very common for a weight loss focus to lead to an ‘all or nothing’ mindset. If you eat something you believe you shouldn’t, you then feel you’ve ‘ruined it’ and eat all the foods you believe you shouldn’t with the view to start again ‘tomorrow’. These thought and behavioural patterns often result in stress and anxiety around food choices, which don’t improve overall health.

Because eating for health is flexible and sustainable, without the pressure to change weight, the negative psychological effects that can be seen with a dieting mentality have not been found to occur. If you’re wanting to be healthy both in mind and body, focus on health, not diets. An intuitive eating approach can help you to do this.

First published: Apr 2018

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