Want to hit ‘restart’ on your eating habits for 2022? Here’s some food for thought
The arrival of a new year always feels like a fresh start, but that feels truer than ever this year as the pandemic continues. While it’s a great idea to take stock of how we handled 2021 and what we might want to do differently going forward, it’s not necessary to go to extremes. In fact, a rigid, rules-based approach may backfire. Let’s look at three popular ways of hitting “restart” and alternative approaches that may be both kinder and more sustainable.
If stress drove you to double down on sweets even before the holiday season, it can be tempting to go cold turkey on sugar come January. Here are two reasons to rethink that idea. One, it’s true that consuming excessive amounts of added sugars is objectively not good for health, but moderating your sugar intake doesn’t mean eliminating sugar. Two, sleuthing out every trace of added sugars is tedious and can become obsessive. This obsession, combined with the restrictiveness of such a maneuver could set you up for rebound bingeing, or even an eating disorder, if you’re genetically susceptible to eating disorders.
If you really feel like you’re eating too much sugar, getting back into balance doesn’t require an all-or-nothing approach. Instead, start by identifying the biggest sources of added sugar in your life. Are you turning to ice cream or cookies for comfort? Are you mindlessly grazing from the snack cupboard or the office candy dish? Learning to be more mindful is beneficial no matter what you’re eating, because when you pay attention to the sensory qualities of your food, you get more satisfaction from that food. You may even discover that you’re satisfied with less. And if comfort is what you’re seeking, ripping away your security blanket without finding other effective coping tools isn’t good for your emotional health.
When you think “carbs,” are you thinking sugar and white flour? Keep in mind that many higher-carbohydrate foods are also rich in fiber and important nutrients. For example, whole grains, fruits, starchy vegetables, beans, and lentils. And carbs are the preferred fuel for our big brains. Yes, some people find that eating fewer carbohydrate-rich foods suits them, but that doesn’t make it the best choice for everyone, as recent research studies have demonstrated.
The 2018 DIETFITS study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found no difference between a low-carb diet and a low-fat diet when it came to weight loss and improvements in health markers—specifically, some people thrived on their randomly assigned diet while others did not. A 2021 National Institutes of Health-funded randomized controlled trial published in Nature Medicine found that people ate more on an animal-based ketogenic diet than they did on a low-fat, plant-based diet.
Adopting the latest diet
If you experienced some pandemic weight gain, it can be tempting to ring in the new year with a new diet. But trying to exert rigid control over your body size or shape won’t help you understand what’s really going on. That’s true even for “non-diet” diet plans that claim to use psychology.
If you’ve found yourself at home far more than usual in 2021, you may notice that your eating patterns are “off,” for lack of a better term. Maybe your meals are less balanced because you’re grocery shopping less, or maybe you’re forgetting to eat in the middle of the day and then feel ravenous at dinner. If you found that you were doing a lot more mindless or even emotional eating during the pandemic, trying to address those issues by clamping down on calories or macros — or added sugar — can have a rebound effect, because our bodies and minds don’t like deprivation.
If you’ve dieted or tried to stick to a strict list of food rules before, think about what happened when you stopped, whether willingly or because you just couldn’t stand it for one more minute. You probably ate all the things you wouldn’t let yourself have. That’s biology and psychology for you, and it’s a protective mechanism, not a failure of willpower. It’s easy to believe that the next diet will be “different,” but it never is. Instead, look for ways to nourish, not punish, yourself. Do you need to add grocery delivery or curbside pickup to your routine so you can get more fresh foods? Do you need to plan some easy lunches—then set a reminder so you stop what you’re doing to actually eat? Be curious, make a plan, follow through, then notice how you feel.
Keep in mind that if you were dieting when the pandemic started but relaxed your food rules because you were staying home in comfy clothes all the time, you may have found that your eating felt more natural without being out of control. If how you’re eating is reasonably balanced, enjoyable, and leaves you feeling good between meals, then you may have simply stumbled into a more intuitive way of eating. This is a win — even if you did experience some weight gain. A meta-analysis of 97 studies on intuitive eating published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders found that intuitive eating actively fosters health and well-being. That’s a great way to welcome a new year.
(Environmental Nutrition is the award-winning independent newsletter written by nutrition experts dedicated to providing readers up-to-date, accurate information about health and nutrition in clear, concise English. For more information, visit www.environmentalnutrition.com.)