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The Diet Ruse

Recently, I learned of a coworker who was participating in a weight-loss challenge. Or rather, this was more of a nutrition restriction challenge: 30 days of “cleansing” the body of the toxic substance that is sugar.

Surely it took some guts for her to share details of the challenge with the scrutinizing minds of the dietitians with whom she works. Even she was skeptical about the legitimacy of the plan but stated that she needed a kick-start to lose weight.

Looking at the guidelines of her “detox” it’s no wonder she was attracted to this strict plan that promises weight loss and to cure her nefarious addiction to sugar. The rules are very clear: eat only these foods, and none of these foods for 30 days. Don’t eat past a certain time in the evening. Exercise is not recommended. In my experience, many people thrive on rules to validate their eating behaviors and ensure they’re being "good."

Read: The rules give people a basis on which they can judge themselves when it comes to eating.

Here’s where things get difficult for me. Judgment should have no place at the table. There are no good or bad foods. Furthermore, someone is neither a good nor a bad person based on what he or she chooses to eat. Naturally, foods promote energy, preserve health and prevent illness. Foods play a role in one’s body composition and weight. But when we start placing labels on foods, it implies that we can’t trust ourselves to make appropriate and balanced choices in our food world.

In the midst of all the fad diets that arise annually, there are several dietary patterns that have merit. Frontrunners standing the test of time include the Mediterranean Diet, the DASH Diet, Flexitarian and Weight Watchers. Each one has various nuances in food choice and emphasis. But there are two overwhelming similarities among them: 1) No food group is eliminated (not even *gasp* grains!) and 2) They all emphasize a plant-based eating style.

History and science tell us diets don’t work. The challenge is that our food world is so confusing that it’s difficult to follow the tried and true recommendations. Hectic schedules, the plethora of meals being eaten outside the home and too many variations of the same food (hello, have you seen how many nut butters and granolas have erupted in the aisles?!) all contribute to the impossible task of navigating our food world confidently.

The conflicting information that floods mainstream media and the internet only serves to feed this insecurity. A prime example is a recent review that suggests coconut oil’s health halo is false at best, and can in fact be detrimental to one’s health. Other victims of scientific ambiguity are dairy, white potatoes and gluten. If we could shift the focus from single-nutrient or single-food evangelism to a more moderate, balanced view, the luster of food rules would slowly die off.

Perhaps many individuals do benefit from some kind of kick-start to get the healthy bandwagon momentum going. And a variety of dietary approaches have been supported in weight management. But what happens when that momentum inevitably wanes? I asked my coworker what her next steps were after the 30-day detox ended, and how she’d modify the rules for the long term- even she admitted she couldn’t follow the prescribed rules forever.

At this point, she invited me to share my perspective on the topic and inquired as to how my approach is different. I told her that my goal is to help people develop the tools necessary to go forth in the confounding food world with confidence, knowing they have the proficiency to eat healthfully for life. I also emphasize a nourishing relationship with food, total wellness and deemphasize weight goals. The focus lies in the process of daily behavior changes that the client can control, all while maintaining a wholesome, intuitive relationship with food. After all, we can’t control the numbers on the scale, no matter how much willpower we have. But we can control what we keep in our cupboards, whether we cook at home, and what we choose on a menu.

It used to be that when helping people sift fickle nutrition information the common recommendation was to “see a nutrition expert." Clearly this advice has gone the way of dodo since just about anyone can be a self-proclaimed nutrition expert these days. I have a colleague who registered her dog online as a “Certified Nutritionist.” Her dog, people.

Of course I will throw out a shameless plug for Registered Dietitian Nutritionists, because I understand the rigorous accreditation process required to earn that credential. In fairness, many other disciplines are well-equipped to dole out sound nutrition recommendations. My issue is with those who haphazardly spew nutrition advice strictly for weight loss without proper

context. It is all well and good to be a self-proclaimed “nutrition expert.” But please refrain from using that title if you have no firm grasp on what it means to have a long-term, healthful relationship with food.

Above: a sampling of my own diet.

Here are a few pointers when exploring nutrition advice, whether from a written resource or in the flesh:

  1. Use common sense. Seek your own answers.

  2. Beware of buzzwords and food evangelism. That is, there is no super food. There are no dangerous foods. All foods are super!

  3. Focus on the total diet, not individual nutrients.

  4. Nourishment is far more than just the combination of nutrients you eat. It is a healthful relationship with yourself and with food in the context of your unique life.

  5. Detoxes are not necessary. Your kidneys and liver do a fine job of this every day. Feed them well and take care of them!

Michael Pollan has said it best: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. To this I will add: Trust yourself and find enjoyment in all you eat.

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