Eat Well to Feel Well: Your Relationship with Food is Just as Important as What You Eat

A new year doesn’t mean you need to be a “new you.” Instead, learn how to put yourself first and nourish yourself in a way that works for you.

DIET has become a four-letter word—one that both wellness companies and nutrition experts are erasing from their vocabulary. And for good reason: strict diets just don't work for most people over the long haul.

But quitting dieting doesn't mean giving up on good health. In fact, the non-diet approach to nutrition is all about eating healthfully in a way that works for you, without restriction, food rules or micromanaging what you eat.

The approach is resonating. Intuitive Eating, published in 1995 and one of the first mainstream non-diet books, is now in its fourth edition and has sold over half a million copies. Non-diet dietitians are amassing huge followings on social media. More and more celebrities and influencers are speaking out against the harms of restrictive diets and the (unrealistic and unsustainable) thin ideal. And most importantly, many longtime dieters have improved their relationship with food and their bodies by stressing less about food and learning to enjoy eating again. Part of what makes the non-diet approach sustainable is that it's about feeling your best, not about changing your body in order to look a certain way. If you want to make your health a priority this year, here's more about how this approach can help—physically and mentally—and some tips for getting started.

Dieting isn't making you healthier.

Many people view diets as a sort of necessary evil for getting healthier, but plenty of experts beg to differ. "Diets really aren't helpful or health- promoting in the long run," says Kimmie Singh, M.S., RD, owner of Body Honor Nutrition in New York City.

Research also shows that dieting isn't a good choice for long-term well-being either. A 2020 meta-analysis published in The BMJ looked at data from 121 existing clinical trials (with nearly 22,000 combined participants) that studied different diets. The researchers found that, although most of the diets studied led to weight loss in the first six months, participants had already started to regain weight at the one-year mark. And while health benefits like lowered blood pressure and (in some cases) lowered LDL cholesterol were common after six months on a diet, those benefits basically disappeared at the one-year mark.

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Plus, diets have mental and emotional impacts that often go unmeasured. In a 2020 review published in Cureus, the authors looked at existing evidence and found that diets rarely lead to long-term weight loss. They also highlighted that diets increase a person's risk of an eating disorder and disordered eating behaviors, and concluded that "dieting may carry more risks than benefits." 

"In general, diets totally ignore the fact that everyone's relationship with food is complex," Singh says. Diets treat humans like simple math equations—eat these foods in these amounts and you'll get these results—and ignore the fact that what you eat impacts so much more than your body size and physical health. Although they promise better health and lasting behavior change, diets often lead to disordered eating symptoms like ongoing weight fluctuations, rigid eating and exercise routines, unhealthy compensatory behaviors (like exercising or purging to make up for what you've eaten) and an overall preoccupation with food and weight that negatively impacts your quality of life. 

These behaviors have mental health consequences like ongoing anxiety, guilt and shame around food. And, although there's some debate about the physical consequences of these behaviors, experimental research reviewed in a 2017 paper published in the Journal of Obesity & Metabolic Syndrome linked weight cycling (repeatedly losing and regaining weight, typically as a result of dieting) to an increased risk of type 2 diabetes and poor cardiovascular health.  

Your relationship with food should bring you joy.

Although not everyone who diets will develop an eating disorder, pretty much everyone who's tried dieting can relate to the stress, guilt and shame that come with "falling off the wagon," so to speak. The beauty of a non-diet approach, on the other hand, is that there's no wagon to fall off.

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Another key element of the non-diet approach is viewing food as more than just nourishment. Yes, what you eat impacts your health, but it should enrich your life in other ways, too. Food can have cultural significance, provide comfort and be a way to connect with others. And unlike what restrictive diets might tell you, it's possible to lean into all these aspects of your relationship with food while also nourishing yourself well. 

"When I'm working with clients, we talk about nutrition in a way that's flexible and integrates foods they enjoy, and we never talk about foods as being good or bad," says Mia Donley, M.P.H., RD, a Denver-based dietitian who takes a non-diet approach. Instead of prescribing strict meal plans, Donley says, you should pay attention to how different foods make you feel, and listen to your hunger and fullness cues instead of obsessing about calories and portion sizes.

For example, instead of avoiding all starchy carbs in the name of a New Year's resolution, give yourself permission to make them a part of each meal alongside other foods that have delicious tastes as well as needed nutrients, like vitamins, minerals, fiber, protein and fat. Instead of vowing to weigh and measure your portions, try tuning into your fullness cues to work out when you've had enough food at each meal. 

The non-diet approach is about respecting your body and eating to feel good.

Another reason to give the non-diet approach a try is that it really does help you feel your best. A 2021 meta-analysis published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders looked at 97 existing studies and found that intuitive eating (a popular non-diet approach) was associated with positive body image and body acceptance, self-esteem and overall well-being.

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Of course, if you're used to hopping from diet to diet, avoiding certain foods or micromanaging your portion sizes, shifting to a non-diet mindset can be tough.

4 tips for how to eat to feel your best

1. Give yourself permission to eat the foods you like without guilt

"Diet culture tells us that certain foods are good and others are bad, and unlearning that is really important," Donley says. As you move toward a gentler approach to food, give yourself permission to eat what you want without guilt.

If at first your cravings are screaming "doughnuts!" all the time, give yourself some grace. Eat the doughnuts, and remind yourself that food doesn't have moral value. Trust that those cravings will start to dull when you realize that eating several doughnuts a day doesn't make you feel so great, and that they'll still be there the next time you really want one. 

2. Eat based on your hunger cues and cravings

"If you've been dieting for years, it might be hard to feel body cues like hunger and fullness," Singh says. "It's important to approach this with curiosity." If you leave a meal feeling stuffed, don't beat yourself up or consider the meal a failure. Think of it as a learning experience and, at your next meal, consider slowing down a bit or checking in every couple of minutes with how your stomach feels. Also, note that it can take some time for your brain to recognize that your stomach feels full, so be sure to enjoy each bite mindfully rather than eating for speed. 

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3. Appreciate your body for what it can do.

In order to fully lean into a non-diet approach and allow yourself to eat what feels good, it's important to accept and appreciate your body instead of constantly trying to change it. 

If body acceptance feels like a huge ask—and it might, given our culture's obsession with thinness and the discrimination and oppression that fat people face, Singh says—you can start by cultivating appreciation for what your body can do. Notice the little things it does for you throughout the day: how your legs are able to walk you from place to place, how your digestive system turns food into energy, how your arms allow you to cuddle a pet or loved one. Our body does myriad impressive things every single day, many of which we don't even have to think about! That's pretty amazing, and supporting your body should make you feel amazing rather than ashamed. 

4. Pay attention to how food makes you feel

Once you've cultivated some appreciation for your body, remind yourself that it deserves nourishment. Notice how much better you feel, and how much more energy you have, when you're properly fed and not stressing about food. This means meeting your nutritional needs while respecting your preferences and emotional needs, and acknowledging that the things that make you feel the best might change from day to day. We are humans, not robots, after all. 

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When you've gotten the hang of eating without guilt, listening to your hunger cues, and appreciating your body as it is, start paying attention to how different foods make you feel. "Unlike diets, which tell everyone to follow the same set of rules, a good relationship with food looks different for everyone," says Amee Severson, RD, owner of Prosper Nutrition and Wellness in Bellingham, Washington. Do certain meals leave you feeling energized, while others make you a little sluggish? Do some foods sit better in your stomach than others? Are certain recipes really satisfying, while others leave you wanting something more? All of this information will help you make informed decisions about what eating well looks like for you.

Ultimately, eating well is about learning what feels best for you and your body.

Without specific or tangible goals—lose "X" number of pounds, eat "Y" calories per day, stop eating sugar/carbs/processed foods—it can be hard to quantify whether you're making progress. But eating well isn't about checking certain boxes or following arbitrary rules. It's about casting those rules aside and figuring out what works best for you. "The goal is to have a different, more free relationship with food and your body," Severson says. Over time, you might start to notice benefits like more positive body image, better and more stable mood, and possibly an improvement in health markers like blood pressure and cholesterol levels. And the best way to do that is to eat in a way that nourishes and energizes you, without feelings of stress, guilt or shame.

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Credits

Coordinating Staff Editors: Jessica Ball, M.S., RD, Maria Laura Haddad-Garcia

Visuals & Design: Maria Emmighausen, Cassie Basford and Sabrina Tan

Special Thanks: Penelope Wall, Victoria Seaver, Sophie Johnson, Alysia Bebel, Addie Knight, Allison Little, Anne Treadwell, Jim Sheetz and the entire staff of EatingWell