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Already broke your New Year’s diet resolution? You may be better off

Editor’s note: Oona Hanson is an educator and parent coach. She specializes in supporting parents to raise kids who have a healthy relationship with food and their body.

If you’re like most people who make dietary New Year’s resolutions, you’re probably already struggling to stick with them. But you don’t have to blame yourself.

Our minds and bodies actively fight against the kinds of restrictive food rules promoted so aggressively in January. Experts in psychology and nutrition have taught me that giving yourself grace — and giving up the diet mentality altogether — may be the best way to make this a good year.

Food restrictions backfire

We’ve known for decades that diets don’t work in the long term. Multiple bodily systems make it nearly impossible to sustain restriction, and for good reason. Reducing food intake is “maladaptive from an evolutionary perspective,” noted Dr. Charlotte Markey, a professor of psychology at Rutgers University and author of “The Body Image Book for Girls: Love Yourself and Grow Up Fearless” and coauthor of “Being You: The Body Image Book for Boys.

Diet companies or wellness influencers might suggest individuals should feel bad for falling off the wagon, but nutrition science is clear: “It’s not your fault,” said registered dietitian Shana Minei Spence, who writes The Nutrition Tea newsletter. Many people are unlikely to stick with a diet not because of some personal failing but simply “because we are human,” she added.

When we put a lot of focus and effort into not eating something, Markey said, our brains spend a lot of time thinking about that off-limits food, making us even more likely to be drawn to that very thing. The phenomenon, known in psychology as “ironic processing,” explains why the more control we try to place over food, the more it can end up controlling us.

The pressure around January resolutions leads many people to set unrealistic goals from the start, something Spence has observed: “Instead of making small little changes, we want to completely revamp how we eat, and this has what’s called a forbidden fruit effect.”

Diets make false promises

Just as no one should feel guilty for quitting a diet, no one should feel foolish for attempting one. The allure of the January fresh start only adds to seductive messages about reinvention and self-improvement. The belief in transformation — and that burst of confidence and optimism we feel when we embark on a resolution — can lead us to “magical thinking,” Markey noted.

“We as a society tend to have an all or nothing approach. New Year’s is the time of goals or resolutions, so we want to change for what we think is ‘for the better’ and we want to do it right away,” Spence said via email.

Offering ourselves compassion can help us see how freeing it is to accept that “the diet was never going to work,” Markey said.

Eating more fruits and vegetables can help boost your nutrition, but it's recommended to make changes in your diet that are enjoyable and that increase variety. - miniseries/E+/Getty Images
Eating more fruits and vegetables can help boost your nutrition, but it's recommended to make changes in your diet that are enjoyable and that increase variety. - miniseries/E+/Getty Images

Improving nutrition without dieting

Knowing that diets are ineffective doesn’t mean you can never improve your nutrition, but it requires being realistic. “There’s absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to eat more fruits and vegetables. But how you approach it does matter,” Markey noted. “You have to appreciate just how habitual our behavior is; we need to make very small, very gradual changes.”

Spence recommended thinking about addition rather than subtraction when it comes to improving your nutrition. And she emphasized it’s essential to make those changes enjoyable and to do so in ways that increase rather than decrease variety.

“If your goal was to get in more vegetables, it doesn’t mean you have to just eat salads and not enjoy other foods,” she said. “It means you can think about how to add vegetables throughout the day such as smoothies or in eggs in the morning. In sandwiches for lunch. On top of pizza or maybe in sauces.”

Behavioral science also supports joyful tweaks to your habits: “Make it something fun, something that you’re approaching with a sense of interest or curiosity, or even adventure,” Markey advised. She suggested trying one new fruit or vegetable every time you shop for produce.

Rejecting diets has benefits

Dieting is a form of disordered eating and can increase the risk of eating disorders, serious mental illnesses that are on the rise. So tuning out all-or-nothing diet mindsets can improve our nutrition and benefit us in deeper ways.

“Not only is it ineffective to diet — it’s in fact really negative in terms of both mental and physical health,” Markey said. “When we approach food as something to be avoided or even feared, we stop enjoying it, and that can have some really devastating consequences, for not just our eating habits, but our mental health.”

So if we’re going to point the finger of blame this time of year, it should be aimed squarely at diet culture, which has insinuated delicious food is something to be avoided or eaten only as a so-called cheat meal or guilty pleasure.

That narrow approach to nutrition is flawed and counterproductive: “We should never feel guilty about liking certain foods. Food is meant to be enjoyable and taste good along with providing nutrients. The only foods you have to avoid are the ones you’re allergic to, the ones for any medical reasons, and the ones that you don’t enjoy,” Spence said.

Rejecting the messages of guilt and restriction can also benefit our relationships and our community. The way we talk and act around food affects not only our own well-being but also that of those around us, such as our children, friends or colleagues. “By pushing back against all these diet culture messages, we can help to change the norms,” Markey added.

If you or someone you know may be struggling with an eating disorder, the National Alliance for Eating Disorders provides resources and referrals.

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