Updated: Oct 20, 2022
It might seem a bit strange but an increasing number of dietitians and other health professionals are interested in using the non-diet approach when working with clients. You may well ask, “What do dietitians do, if not diets?”
Well, to start with, the word ‘diet’ here is specifically referring to weight-loss diets. These are any diet or ‘lifestyle change’ that restrict foods and change eating behaviours to promote weight loss, and are typically only intended to be used for a short period of time. Many people “start a diet” when they want to lose weight for a holiday, wedding or other special event, knowing that after this event they will go back to their old behaviours. We are not talking about other special diets that dietitians may prescribe for medical reasons (think low potassium diets for advanced kidney disease).
So, what’s wrong with weight-loss diets? Whilst for most people, a change in eating habits may be healthy, we know that diets simply don’t work. The evidence says that nearly everyone that goes on a diet will regain the weight within 5 years. In fact, up to two-thirds will actually end up heavier than when they started! Dieting behaviour, particularly ‘yo-yo’ dieting, can result in disordered eating and in poorer mental and physical health. Our bodies are amazing and will fight back against changes that it perceives as starvation. Hormones will make you feel hungry, your brain becomes preoccupied with thoughts about food, and your metabolic rate will slow to conserve energy. These changes have been shown to persist for at least a year (after stopping a diet?) and that is a long time to be at war with your body. So if diets are more likely to result in weight gain and may in fact harm our health, what is the alternative?
This is where the non-diet approach comes in. The non-diet approach shifts the focus from the pursuit of weight-loss to the pursuit of health. It acknowledges that a person’s weight tells you very little about how healthy they are. As a dietitian, the focus shifts from numbers on a scale to more reliable measures of health such as blood pressure, blood sugars, cholesterol, and bowel symptoms. Research has shown a number of positive behaviours which will promote health and wellbeing whether or not they result in any changes to weight. These habits include adequate fruit and vegetable intake, dietary variety, physical activity, not smoking, moderate alcohol intake, adequate sleep, and managing stress.
The non-diet approach uses 5 key concepts to ‘normalise’ eating behaviours and is suitable for anyone that is worried about their weight, except for those with anorexia nervosa.
1. Accepting and Embracing Body Cues
Our bodies are actually smarter than we generally give them credit for. If we are hydrated and not tired or stressed, our bodies can reliably tell us when, what, and how much to eat. The non-diet approach encourages us to trust internal cues, such as feeling hungry or full, rather than following strict rules (external cues set by our society or culture) to guide our eating behaviour.
2. Accepting and Embracing All Foods
Diet culture tells us that there are ‘good’ foods and ‘bad’ foods. The arrival of the latest fad diet brings with it a new set of rules that tells us what we are allowed or not allowed to eat. Diets assign food with morality and can lead to feelings of guilt and shame when we inevitably ‘break the rules’, for example “I ate (bad food), therefore I am a bad person”. Diets set us up for failure and can reinforce any negative feelings that we have about ourselves. The Dieting Cycle describes the trap people can get into with repeated attempts to lose weight.
The Dieting Cycle
In the non-diet approach, all foods have a place. Intuitive eating principles are used with the aim of repairing the relationship with food and being able to make food choices without fear or guilt.
3. Accepting and Embracing Body Shape
Why is it that we accept diversity in the size and shape of other animals but not in humans? Take the following picture for example, imagine if the pug was dieting and exercising because it wanted to look like the German shepherd. At best, it would be considered a waste of time and energy. Like dogs, our genes play a role in our body shape. By accepting and embracing this, we are then free to care for the body we have rather than punishing ourselves for not looking like a model.
4. Accepting and Embracing Non-Diet Nutrition
As mentioned earlier, increasing the variety and quality of the diet can have a positive impact on health. Dietitians can help clients achieve a more healthful diet by:
Encouraging the trial of new foods and/or cooking techniques
Reframing meal planning as a means to self-care.
Using mindful eating techniques to explore taste and satisfaction
5. Accepting and Embracing Movement
Exercise, like diet, has become a way to control weight with an ever-increasing number of ways to burn more kilojoules or calories. The promotion of a ‘go hard or go home’ attitude to physical activity often means that only strenuous exercise is valued. The non-diet approach encourages finding enjoyable ways to move and increasing incidental activity. Non-diet exercise goals then become improvements in strength/flexibility/fitness, better sleep, or feeling great as opposed to energy burned and weight lost.
In working through the five key areas, the result should be a healthier, balanced diet that doesn’t involve strict meal plans, calorie counting, or deprivation. The body weight will settle at its natural point and that has nothing to do with your value as a person. Overall, the non-diet approach offers a gentle way to develop a healthy relationship with food and ditch the diets for good.
If you are interested in learning more about the non-diet approach and how this can help you live a healthier life, contact us today. One of our dietitians can guide you to making healthier choices that are suitable for your particular needs and circumstances.