3 Common Healthy Eating Approaches That Actually Keep You Stuck

photo by Bethany Michaela Photography.

photo by Bethany Michaela Photography.

Eat clean. Stay on track. Make the right choice.

The diet industry is full of popular catchphrases designed to keep us “in line” in regards to food. 

These narratives dominate how most people -- possibly you included -- approach nutrition and body transformation. 

Unfortunately, these approaches set you up for failure. They prevent you from reaching your goals. And they (potentially) leave you worse off than where you started. Psychologically, physiologically, spiritually.

For this reason, it’s worth exploring why conventional diet dogma fails, and more importantly, what to do instead. That way, you can implement your healthy eating and weight loss strategy long term.

At a fundamental level, mainstream diet talk promotes a black-or-white eating philosophy. To use three popular catchphrases as examples:

  1. “Eat clean” = some foods are good (“black”), while others are contaminated and will make you fat (“white”). Keep your body purified by eating the non-offensive stuff. 
  2. “Stay on track” = there’s one path you want to be on (“black”), and it’s mutually exclusive with everything else (“white”). Don’t veer off track, because you’ll lose control.
  3. “Make the right choice” = in every food choice, there’s an objectively “correct” one. Be a good little dieter and use your willpower to select it.

Black or white. All or nothing. All in or all out. Yes/no, good/bad, clean/dirty.

The problem with black-or-white dieting -- besides the fact that it inevitably becomes miserable -- is that it makes no sense.

Think of it this way. 

We all know that eating is something we have to do until the day we die. So if we want to eat healthy long term, we need a healthy eating strategy that matches the longevity.

But here’s the rub: no one, not one person, is capable of “eating clean” or “staying on track” forever.

LIFE HAPPENS. Carbs happen, birthday cake happens, 4am pizza on your girls trip to Vegas happens. It just does.

If you’ve developed a healthy eating philosophy that accounts for these inevitable occurrences, you can navigate them with ease and grace.

If you haven’t yet integrated these realities, the transgressions can feel haunting. When you “mess up,” you probably devolve into guilt mode. You’re rife with shame. You might even feel horrible about yourself. Gluttonous and perhaps obsessive. (See how dieting can actually set you back from where you began?)

Some women end up binge eating. Others get anxious. Some pound out extra cardio to repent.

And then to “undo the damage,” we start restricting again -- back to the black-or-white. 

Repeat cycle.

I don’t know about you, but that’s not how I want to live! So, the question becomes: what should one do instead? 

In a phrase, devote to gray. The middle ground. The unsexy-seeming, “imperfect,” no-instantaneous-results gray.

Gray is where sustainability lives, because it accounts for us being human. It accounts for life happening.

To be clear, embracing the gray is not to discredit the importance of eating healthfully and taking care of your body. It's definitely not a license to eat mindlessly. It is to say that our commitment to eating well must be tempered with realism.

Here are 3 tips for overcoming black-or-white thinking and living in the gray:

  1. Let go of the idea that weekdays are a time for discipline (“black”) and weekends one for indulgence (“white”). The “gray” option is to eat as similarly as possible each day of the week. Sometimes, this will mean eating a brownie on a Tuesday. Others, it’ll mean ordering chicken and a green salad when everyone else at Saturday night dinner is getting pasta and cheesecake. The day of the week should not define what you put on your plate.
  2. Use empowering language. Your body hears everything your mind says. Words like “cheat,” “bad,” and “clean” (the flip side of “dirty”), reinforce the good/bad food binary. Neutralize food and describe it for what it is, not by a value judgment you’ve ascribed to it. 
  3. Make food choices on a moment-to-moment basis instead of based on past ones. Just because you were "bad" this morning ("black") doesn't mean the day is ruined, giving you free reign to keep eating poorly all day or week. (This thought pattern is common, and often results in bouts of unhealthy eating followed by severe restriction, or the "white" zone.) The "gray" option is to be present, check in, and remember that every moment offers a new choice. Otherwise, you'll lock yourself into an oppressive cycle that ends up feeling like food prison. Ain't no one got time for that.

Living in the gray takes guts. No doubt about it. It requires digging in, facing your fears, and being a perfectly imperfect eater. Go there anyway. The freedom that awaits is so worth the work.