They say you are what you eat. This idea can be helpful, provided we know what we are eating (which we often don’t). It can be very tempting to rely on an outside source to give us a list of special ingredients that will magically solve all our problems.
The phrase ‘dieting’ provokes a lot of misguided associations. Many of us immediately think of weight loss, detoxing, and beauty standards, framing dieting as something done by a particular subset of people rather than choosing we put into our bodies intentionally while striving to be healthy so we can live well and have the energy to do what we want to do.
Dieting is defined as the restriction of one or multiple types of food in order to improve one's physical condition, especially to reduce weight. Diet, however, is the word used to describe the kinds of food that you eat and your eating routines. Changing your diet is more of a lifestyle choice, while dieting is a short-term solution to something you want to change. Both, if approached properly, can have a positive impact on your overall health.
There are healthy and unhealthy approaches to considering your diet. A few examples:
When choosing a diet for ourselves, it’s important to examine our motives for changing what and how we eat and to construct an informed and easy-to-follow routine. Dieting is usually a short-term change with a certain goal in mind, but adjusting your eating habits to better reflect your body’s needs has a positive, long-lasting effect, but it can take time to establish and grow familiar with a new routine.
You want to make sure your dieting goals are actually achievable via dieting. This may seem like an obvious point, but it isn’t uncommon for desperate people to misuse ‘solutions’ offered by dieting programmes as an expression of unhappiness (as in the third example described above) rather than facing its source.
Some people fall into dieting as a result of stress—exerting control over what you eat to compensate for a lack of control in other areas. In the same way, stress can also lead to over-eating. These are two sides of the same problem. Neither is healthy in the long term.
Unless you are challenging bad habits or undergoing a harsh routine temporarily for a specific purpose, dieting shouldn’t be difficult or unpleasant. It makes more sense to incorporate feeling good into the process of dieting instead of exclusively positioning having a healthy diet as the end goal.
As stated before, a diet that focuses on being healthier is beneficial to you, however it might be worth pinpointing why you want to diet in the first place. It is all too common that our motivations come from a place of insecurity, rather than a place of self-love and care.
There are two groups of nutrients that we all need—macronutrients and micronutrients. Macronutrients are protein, carbohydrates (carbs), and fats, which make up the larger portion of your diet. Micronutrients are vitamins and minerals. These are necessary for many bodily functions, but in small doses. How you consume them is up to you, however, you must make sure you get the needed amount, but this, again, varies according to your lifestyle.
Protein can be found in white meat, fish, and eggs, as well as in plant sources such as beans, soy, nuts, and some grains.
Carbohydrates are best known to be found in white bread or pasta, however these are far from the healthiest choices. Opt for whole grains, beans, and fiber-rich vegetables and fruits instead of choosing refined grains and products with added sugar.
Fat is a source of essential fatty acids, which your body doesn't produce by itself. But not all fats are the same, there are ‘good’ fats and then there are ‘bad’ fats. The ‘bad’ fats include artificial trans fats and saturated fats; these are responsible for weight gain, clogged arteries, and an increased risk of certain diseases. Unsaturated fats and omega-3s are the ‘good’ fats. They are not only harmless, but also necessary for regulating your mental state, energy levels, and even weight. The ‘good’ fats can be found in nuts, seeds, fish, and vegetable oils (olive, avocado, and flaxseed). The ‘bad’ fats are mostly found in saturated animal-based fats such as butter, cheese, red meat, and ice cream. This is not to say that you have to cut these things out completely, but simply limit their intake. Choosing a healthy diet is more about making sure you eat enough nutrient-rich foods than it is about cutting out all unhealthy (and often yummy) foods.
Vitamins are crucial when it comes to your body's health and immune system. Eating a variety of fruits and vegetables should cover the basics, however, depending on a multitude of factors, some combination of vitamins is often missing from our modern, pre-packaged choice of foods. A blood test can give you a snapshot of your overall nutrient intake. Sometimes all it takes is to change things up a bit in your eating habits—eat more of one or another food rich in the vitamins you need to stock up on. In some cases some additional supplements are needed, but be sure to consult your doctor about this, if you think you’re missing something from your diet.
Minerals help support the body and are essential for regulating the metabolism, staying hydrated, and strengthening your bones and teeth. The most common minerals are calcium, iron, and zinc.
Another essential part of a healthy diet is water. We need water more than we need food. Many fruits and vegetables have a high water percentage and can serve as part of your daily water intake. But be sure to drink water daily—we often don’t recognise that we are dehydrated. Symptoms such as headaches, fatigue, constipation, and even trouble concentrating can be caused by too little water.
The foods we eat give us the energy we spend. The less energy you use, the less food you need. The necessary amount isn’t a set number that can be found on the internet—it needs to suit your lifestyle. Like shoe size, there is an average, but it doesn’t fit everyone. To lose weight, you need to use more energy than you consume, and in order to gain weight, you must consume more energy than you use.
Counting calories can help you understand how much you need to eat to gain weight, lose weight, or build muscle. Although there is nothing wrong in counting calories per se, it's a process that can easily be misused. If it morphs into obsession, it will have a negative impact on your psyche and mental health no matter how closely you follow the guidelines. This particular way of keeping track of what you eat is best used to transition into healthier eating habits.
If you decide to undergo an extreme diet without a set plan on how to stay healthy afterwards, the results will most likely only last as long as the diet itself, and returning to previous habits often causes people to gain more weight than before.
The yo-yo effect is defined as the cyclical loss and gain of weight. When we eat more, our metabolism increases, when we eat less, our metabolism decreases. In a typical diet, you reduce your calorie intake, thereby slowing your metabolism—the rate at which you burn calories.
Having successfully completed a diet (or having dropped it part way through) people sometimes don’t make real changes in their overall lifestyle, which results in gaining back the weight initially lost. Seeing the weight you worked so hard to get rid of return can have a negative effect on your mental state and your self-esteem.
There is plenty of marketing out there designed to convince you that you just haven’t found the right diet—so you try another, another, and another, only to experience the same results. There is a psychological condition called chronic dieting syndrome. Beware.
Chronic dieting is described as the restriction of calorie intake regularly and repeatedly for over two years to induce weight loss. While masking itself as a positive influence on your relationship with food, in reality it often becomes a vicious cycle of failing to reach an impossible goal by inefficient means. Chronic dieting can be the start of many physical and psychological problems.
Physical problems include:
Psychological problems include:
Since the problem is mainly psychological, it takes more than some cold medicine to help the situation. In some cases therapy is needed for the dieter to regain a healthy outlook. Chronic dieting is considered a form of chronic stress—getting enough sleep and/or meditating might help. The key is to redefine your relationship both with food and with your body, so that you feel comfortable making dietary decisions for your health that aren't focused solely on weight.
Anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa are two of the most common eating disorders:
Bulimia and anorexia are not only eating disorders, but serious mental health conditions and they should be approached as such.
The people affected often have a distorted body image—usually believing they are overweight even when others see this is clearly not true. Both are disorders that lead to an impaired sense of self and an inability to correctly perceive one’s own experience, meaning that the pain and mistreatment you subject yourself to doesn’t register as your own.
Treatment for anorexia and bulimia must address both physical and psychological components of the disorder. Getting the body back to a healthy state is a challenge, but an even more delicate challenge is restructuring the psychology behind the disorder. Working through self-destructive thoughts and self-shaming is tough and utterly necessary.
Diet and nutrition have a big effect on a woman's reproductive health. A clear sign that something is wrong is amenorrhea (the cessation of your period). While there are many possible causes to rule out (stress, certain medications, thyroid problems, premature ovarian failure, polycystic ovarian syndrome, birth control pills), a closer look at your diet might provide some answers.
A low percentage of body-fat can cause estrogen levels to drop, which can stop you from having your period.
In addition to healthy eating, your body will greatly benefit from some physical activity. Not only does help you get fit, but exercising has many other benefits as well, including increased body-confidence, an improved mood, and a rise in energy levels.
The type of training you choose will depend on what you want to gain from it. For maintaining a baseline of healthy activity, 30 min of exercise several times each week is enough. If you are training for a specific goal, such as a demanding marathon, your routine will have to include more and targeted training, as well as an adequate intake of calories to match the demands you are putting on your body.
The holy trinity of healthy living consists of a healthy diet, regular exercise, and rest. If your aim for dieting is to improve your health, then these are all equally important when approaching any changes you want to make.
The importance of resting is severely underrated, especially in today’s society where everything moves at such a fast pace. It can be hard to justify taking a break and having a day off, but rest is crucial to your well-being. During the times of rest, your body regenerates, repairs itself, and restores energy and strength while allowing the physical information to settle within your nervous system, making each time you approach a difficult task easier. Rest also helps prevent injuries—listening when your body says ‘stop’ and allowing it to regulate itself makes you much less likely to strain a muscle, for example.
Craving a fit body and wanting to improve yourself is no bad thing, just make sure you approach that goal in a healthy way.
The first step is to accept yourself and your body, your needs and wants, your cravings and dislikes. A diet can’t change your view of yourself, only you can do that. This will be the hardest part of the journey to acceptance we all are on. Compared to that, making sure you eat your vegetables, drink plenty of water, and move a few times a week is a piece of cake. Allow yourself to enjoy making meals that taste delicious and are good for you. Once you get started, it becomes easier and easier. A friend or partner to cook with can be very encouraging.
If you feel you are likely to relapse into old habits, find a community that can support you—go to the gym or join a yoga class. Do it together with a friend or family member and help them keep you accountable.
Health and diet isn’t about how you look—those are just the perks—it's about keeping your body healthy, providing it with everything it needs to thrive!
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