The Important Difference Between Dieting and Eating Healthy

Malcolm Gladwell famously declared the key to mastering any skill is simply practicing it deliberately for 10,000 hours. If that is true, then based on my calculations, I mastered the skill of dieting (i.e., manipulating what I eat to manipulate how I look) sometime around age 17.

I’m not proud of this accomplishment — in fact, it’s an expertise I fervently wish to delete delete delete. Because what Gladwell doesn’t tell you is that untangling something from the recesses of your brain is much more difficult and much more time-consuming than the process of putting it there in the first place.

It’s especially difficult in January, when diet messaging ABOUNDS, because apparently the earth’s successful completion of an orbit around the sun means we’re supposed to pursue the goal of changing our bodies with renewed vigor.

This year, however, I’m trying to tune out that noise and hum a different song. I don’t want to change my body, but I do want to take better care of it. I don’t want to diet, but I do want to eat nutritiously (and joyfully). I don’t want to lose weight, but I do want to be mindful and intentional about the foods I’m choosing to consume. I don’t want to exercise more self-control, but I do want to replace it with more self-compassion.

I’m trying to delineate the differences between dieting and truly healthful eating, which are are all-too-frequently conflated, so I asked an expert to help me parse them out. Below, Heidi Schauster, a nutrition therapist with over 20 years of experience as a registered dietitian who is passionate about intuitive and mindful eating, conscious movement, self-care and Health at Every Size (HAES), shares four tips for navigating the distinction mentally and in practice:

1. Weight-loss dieting is limiting, but healthy eating is FREEING.

“Weight-loss dieting is restrictive and outcome-based,” Schauster told me. “Intuitive, mindful and truly healthful eating is making choices about food because they nourish the mind, body and spirit. Sometimes eating healthfully and intuitively is eating the warm brownie because it tastes so good freshly made when you are sharing it with friends. Sometimes eating healthfully is choosing not to eat it because you are full and you have no interest in it right now. There are options. With a diet mentality, certain foods or ways of eating are out or in; there is no gray area. Healthy, intuitive, mindful eating is all about the gray. It’s more like life that way.”

2. The food choices you make while dieting are shaped by a single overarching goal (to change your body), but the food choices you make while engaging in truly healthful eating are dynamic and can be influenced by hundreds of different things.

“True healthful eating means choosing a food because, in that moment, it feels like a nourishing choice,” said Schauster. “My food choices may take into account pleasure, appetite, nutrition, proximity to food or all of the above. Most importantly, they are my own food choices, formulated from a stance of self-care and not self-control. Overall health and well-being in the eating experience (and beyond) is the objective, not changing my body or losing weight. For this reason, non-diet eating is sustainable, enjoyable and ultimately health-giving.”

3. If you’re trying to develop more nutritious eating habits for physical health but want to avoid falling into a diet-y mindset, the key is to keep listening to your body.

“Your body is amazingly good at telling you how to nourish yourself well,” said Schauster. “If you’ve gotten out of touch with what it’s saying (and we all do at times), get some help from a nutrition therapist/registered dietitian who supports mindful, intuitive eating (not weight loss) or other Health at Every Size professionals. Mindfulness practices like meditation can also help you reconnect with your body in the present moment, which is how we make the best decisions about food and self-care.”

4. When in doubt, ask yourself the following questions:

Do I want to eat this food because it will make my body, mind and spirit feel well right now?


Am I avoiding this food because I don’t think it will feel good in my body now (self-care) or am I avoiding this food because I think I will lose weight if I don’t eat it (self-control)?

There’s a big difference. Like all brain-detangling efforts, this one likely won’t happen overnight, but that’s okay. Identifying the knots and beginning to loosen them feels like a revelation — and a resolution — in its own right.

If you have a favorite warm brownie recipe (or any other pertinent thoughts), I’ll be waiting in the comments with a fork.

You can check out Heidi’s website here and follow her on Instagram here. Keep your eyes peeled for her upcoming book release in February — it’s called called Nourish: How to Heal Your Relationship with Food, Body, and Self. It includes a whole chapter about why letting go of dieting is an essential step in having a healthy relationship with food and your body.

Photos by Louisiana Mei Gelpi.

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  • Sarah

    YES. Yes. I love this article. I struggled with food for years and years, and I wasn’t able to shift my relationship with it until I began Crossfit and started seeing food as something that nourished my body, not something to deprive myself of. Tracking macros for a few weeks helped me to shift my relationship with food from how little can I eat? To how well can I nourish my body? I stopped thinking of sugar as an enemy or as something forbidden and started paying attention to how I felt when I ate it.

    Such a huge shift — I want to say to anyone reading this article who might be struggling with this right now, that it absolutely is possible to get back to this healthy relationship with food! So glad to read this this morning.

  • Adrianna

    Like many women, I’m someone who seemingly “always” struggled with food and my perception of my body. I don’t know what it says about our culture that I first started feeling “fat” when I was seven years old. I grew up in a Polish immigrant community in New Jersey, and my Polish pediatrician spent 20 minutes lecturing me how I was overweight at 128 pounds. I was 14. She didn’t notice that I had mononucleosis. I don’t think I ever weighed 128 pounds since then.

    I tried the “potato diet” when I was 11. I starved myself and lost 25 pounds in two months when I was 16. I bought diet pills that have since been banned from Amazon in college. No one was concerned, because I looked “great” when I lost weight. I went in the opposite direction, heavily binging in the name of “self love” until I reached 185 pounds.

    In 2011, I decided to learn “healthy eating” and nutrition for the sake of my mental health and fitness. I have depression and severe insomnia, and I wanted to learn how to run. I ate green vegetables for the first time, and my bowels freaked out. I felt great, but I’m hesitant to celebrate this because we’re still rewarding weight loss.

    I’ll be 29 in two months. I have enough self awareness to realize that I was projecting my depression and anxiety onto my body the past couple of years. (“I hate my job. I’ll feel better if I eat Chinese take out for lunch.) I get in a weird mind space where I simulatelnously search for and binge on unhealthy food but think I need to lose weight.

    • mariahg

      Wow. I so relate to this, especially the end of your story. Thank you for sharing!

    • ArtsDuMal

      Woof polish immigrant families can be hard. I can relate. There is
      no way I can explain to my super Polish family that I am happier at my current weight than I was when I was skinny, bc I was depressed and anxious and hated myself then. They don’t believe a “fat” person can possibly be happy. It’s been super hard ignoring them and the comments they make when I eat at family gatherings. It’s also freaking hard to overcome all the body shame instilled in me as a kid, and to learn to love my body on my own terms. I’m sorry you are struggling with it, but know that there are others out there too and we are rooting for you.

      • Adrianna

        I hated moving to Pennsylvania when I was 14, but ironically my body image improved when I lived among Americans. It’s no coincidence that I’m in a long term relationship with an American. I had every female family member tell me I was fat, which is absurd because I was actually pretty small. I just wasn’t skinny. My mom was borderline obsessed with pushing sports and the gym on me, because she saw my lack of a flat stomach as a failure of discipline. Now she’s struggling to comprehend her own menopause-related weight gain.

        Happy to hear from another Pole! And to get a sense of support from all these upvotes. I’d like to add that some of this has improved after I moved in with my long term partner. I recognized that I’d spiral into anxiety (and subsequently transferred it to my body) when I lived alone.

    • “I honestly wonder if discussions about macros and consuming “good fats” is just a new form of disordered eating.”

      I think about this often, too. The culture around particular ways of eating to ‘maximise potential’ from a physiological/health perspective can become its own rabbit hole that ends up being similar to dieting solely from a weight-loss perspective. My personal experience has shown that as empowering and necessary as a clean diet is, when it starts to invoke unnecessary trepidation around walking outside of those lines, you’re in trouble.

      I say all of this while trying to maintain gluten-free, low sugar and dairy diet with copious amounts of kale daily. Ha.

      • Elly

        I agree, it’s often just a way to continue devoting an unhealthy amount of headspace to the issue of what to eat, and imbuing foods with moral values (so good and bad, etc.). And honestly, with some diets (I eat low-carb and pretty much paleo for health reasons, sugar and carbs tend to clobber me, but I still eat them in amounts I can handle) you’re dealing with lots of macho chest-thumping and one-upmanship at the heart of the information you can find, which is endless forum threads on, like, bodybuilding dot com where guys beat each other up for putting raisins in their tabouleh or thinking fruit is health or whatever. Really if you’re interested, calculate your macros once in a while or if you feel like something’s not quite right in your diet, as trouble-shooting, but as for sticking to it 100%, that’s pointless busywork and probably finding more ways to beat yourself up. Like, I eat a low-carb diet for medical reasons, and I try to keep dairy down to a minimum, but let’s face it, I live in France, so no way in fuck am I cutting out cheese. I just make it count when I have it. Once in a while I go to a paleo website to find low-carb recipes, invariably there’s like three brownie or dessert-ception recipes (dessert in a dessert in a dessert) on the front page but made with dates instead of sugar, no flour, and it’s just like, eat a fucking brownie, even the paleo recipe isn’t exactly going to be something you have for breakfast every day or replace green veg as a food group.

        One thing that helped me a lot is that I haven’t got weighed in like three years, except at the doctor’s. I measure once in a while, which is actually useful data. The scales were useful while I was overweight, but if you’re not looking to lose or gain it just becomes an arbitrary figure to pursue. And it just got frustrating because it felt like if the number wasn’t going down I wasn’t working hard enough – and I don’t want the number to go down, the point of lifting weights is for my legs and butt and biceps to get bigger, not smaller.

        I’d also hasard a guess that a lot of women aren’t eating enough calories and enough protein, in all likelihood, from the information I’ve got from sources tailored towards women. I usually see “eat 1200 calories a day” and whenever I’ve used calculations from a strength-training coach, even without factoring in 4 strength training sessions a week, I end up with like 1700 calories, probably more like 2000 with the strength training.

        • Adrianna

          Re: protein – there’s so much mixed discussion about protein. Vegetarian or vegan eaters will have a specific perspective (“You don’t need that much protein”), whereas I personally need a lot more protein than what I acquire through vegetables and beans. Eggs changed my life.

          I also browse a variety of blogs, including paleo, keto, and vegan, for inspiration to incorporate into my home cooking. I’m lactose intolerant, and cashew milk/cream was one of my best discoveries the past couple of years. I would agree with you that “dessert-ception recipes” are annoying. There’s a few trendy vegetarian or vegan restaurants in NYC that offer options for popular meat-centric dishes, but I would just rather eat a well-cooked, tasty plate of carrots than carrot-cashew cheese.

          I try not to weigh myself, but it is a useful tool to check if I did in fact gain weight, or if it’s just in my head. Despite my intentions, I do not weightlift often enough to gain muscle weight.

          • Elly

            Yeah I like a lot of vegan food, I love tofu, but if I toss that stuff in my stomach all “mmmm protein” my metabolism is all “ptoooeeee wtf is this shit?!”. At the end of the day, I’m going to need something that came out of a chicken’s butt or off a cow. And I mean I get tofu from the Asian supermarket, can’t help noticing the serving suggestion tends to involve, like, pork or prawns.
            At the end of the day, I’m not a nutritionist – but neither are the various vegan vloggers and so forth online. They’re on the periphery of fashion and lifestyle blogs – in fact with fashion bloggers, I tend to assume they’re vegan or vegetarian unless they mention they ate a big fuckoff steak or something.
            And for a start their diets are predicated on how much they can cut out, not just animal products or meat and fish or whatever. But also gluten, fat, and so on. They’ll say shit like, if you’re eating somewhere and there’s no vegan option, just eat bread or rice or go without. I heard one responding to someone saying “I’m diabetic and can’t eat a bowl of carbs” by saying that actually slow carbs are far better for you if you’re diabetic. She’s not a doctor, I think she’s an animal welfare biologist by training.
            A lot gets hidden behind words like “it’s my choice” and “I’m fine” and “everybody’s different” – I wonder how much disordered eating is going unquestioned or being enabled. And it’s definitely not just vegans, it’s ascribing moral values to foods in general. I was vegan for a while, that search for purity of the grocery basket, outwardly I was pretty overweight and bragging about eating delicious cake but basically, aside from the reasons I cited, the main reason for staying vegan was a kind of search for perfection I can’t even quite articulate.
            It also requires divorcing your eating from your environment and culture, in some ways. A lot of “superfoods” or whatever involved in diets that have names are taken from other cultures and given a moral value in the West. Tofu never did shit to deserve that. And even more locally, eating is a social thing as well, a lot of social gatherings involve eating something, and personally I got kind of sick of having to be a special case when someone busted their ass to cook me a nice dinner.

  • mariahg

    “I don’t want to change my body, but I do want to take better care of it. I don’t want to diet, but I do want to eat nutritiously (and joyfully). I don’t want to lose weight, but I do want to be mindful and intentional about the foods I’m choosing to consume. I don’t want to exercise more self-control, but I do want to replace it with more self-compassion.”

    YES! Thank you, Harling, for putting to words a feeling that I have been trying to communicate to myself.

    • Harling Ross


  • Robin

    This is such a necessary article. I feel like not only mine, but also so many of my female friends relationship with food is completely distorted. There goes way to much thought into ‘can I have this right now?’ and ‘If should skip this because ill have that later’ and it’s sooo tiring.

    Its a goal for me to be able to understand when my body wants food and when my mind wants food because honestly Im kinda lost

    • Harling Ross

      tiring is precisely the right word. i’ve definitely felt physically exhausted from that mental dialogue at times

    • Martha Pietruszewski

      yes, I have the same opinion on some of my friends. And I want to help them understand, but food is such an intensely personal relationship for everyone it makes it hard to help.

    • Abigail Thacher

      It is crazy what a drain on your energy both thinking about nutritional choices and also berating yourself over your nutritional choices is. Energy that would be best spent… literally anywhere else.

    • Yes, so hard to get the mind to stop overthinking everything when it comes to food 🙁

      The mini-doc on wellness that British Vogue kind of explores this idea in this episode and I thought it was interesting to get some different professional opinions

      • Ciccollina

        It is so sad and insane that in a world where I look at Camille Rowe and think of her body as so absolutely and utterly perfect, to the point where I avoid her on IG and online so that I don’t feel bad about my own body….and in that same world, Camille Rowe is feeling deeply guilty about eating a few cookies. How is it that me, a regular person, and Camille Rowe, a spectacularly good looking supermodel person, are feeling the same emotions when we eat? I know the answer to this question, but it’s crazy to think about all the same.

  • Cristina

    Spot on Harling! (sorry, I’ve been watching a lot of BBC and reading Brit Lit)
    This year I decided to un-entwine myself with Diet Culture and quit dieting. I am currently reading HAES actually.
    For me, the biggest difference if you choose to eat healthy without dieting is getting trapped in Health Perfectionism. If you choose an acai bowl for breakfast because that sounds delicious and it’s what you want in that moment, but would choose biscuits and gravy next time if THAT’s what sounds delicious in the moment, that’s pretty much awesome. But not choosing a food because it COULD cause an adverse effect to your mental health obsession is a different story. Tracking food, calories, restricting anything in relation to weight/health (unless you have an actual condition) is a diet. Whether you are in a place to believe that or not.
    I weighed and took measurements on Jan 1st and just this morning while listening to an anti-diet podcast, decided I will not weigh myself once this year. I want to take the whole year to practice mindful eating and see what happens, then I’ll weigh myself again 12/31 (or maybe not!).
    Also, I say all this as someone who has dieted/binged so much for so long that I am currently not in tune with my hunger/fullness cues. Simply having that is such a large step!
    Some other awesome resources in this movement:
    The Fuck It Diet (podcast/website)- also the same on Insta and let me tell you, this girl is HILARIOUS. I love her.
    Fearless Rebelle Radio (podcast)
    Dieticians Unplugged (podcast)
    Health at Every Size by Linda Bacon

    • Came back to say I just spent the better part of an hour scrolling through that IG post you mentioned. It made me so sad to see all these women who have done crazy things to not break a diet- but it was also pretty funny the lengths some people went to. And I’ve been in that camp in the past as well 🙁

      • Cristina

        Exactly. It’s bananas!

  • Alice

    It’s hard though. I feel like I need to have some sort of limitations to eat healthy or my brain will always make the comforting, unhealthy choice. After a while the healthy becomes comforting and the cravings are reduced, but never eliminated. I’ll still have a good brownie instead of a shitty chocolate cake though.
    I wish I was ok with my body, but I’m not. The shape it is now reminds me of bad moments in my life and makes me feel like I’m trapped. So yeah.

  • Lisa

    How should we contend with cravings caused by bad habits? In other words, how do I start eating healthily when I have the tastes of a 6 year old child and enjoy eating processed trash? Like, sugary cereal is my go-to vice, and I will eat as a snack several times a day or for breakfast, even though I know it’s utter garbage. And I’m not necessarily doing it because I’m stressed out, I just… love how sugar tastes. Eating healthy things (veggies, leafy greens, etc.) is just unpleasant to me. Want to be healthy in a more organic, less restrictive, and less self-punishing way, but need help!

    • Kristen J

      Current social trends have labelled food as either “healthy” or “unhealthy”, but honestly, most foods are somewhat of a gray area. Sugary cereal certainly has sugar, but it can also provide a lot of vitamins and minerals (including iron which women can struggle to get with many other foods) as well as some fiber and whole grains depending on the kind. Are other foods possibly better? Maybe? Depends on your lifestyle and nutritional needs.

      Also, age plays a part in tastes. In my late twenties, my previously overwhelming sweet tooth revolted and sweet stuff started tasting gross most of the time and making my teeth hurt.

      • Lisa

        Wow, thanks for the suggestions everyone! Love all the different attitudes toward food!

    • Cristina

      I have to agree. Eat the cereal if you want the cereal. The bad habits cause you to label things as “cravings”. I don’t eat a lot of veggies, I eat what I grew up on. Other than my mental food issues, I’m perfectly fine health wise. If you want to be healthy because you feel like you “should” from pressures around you, that’s the wrong reason. I wouldn’t even calling it being healthy. If you simply want to eat more veggies cause you feel like you’re body is telling you to eat more veggies, then try some different recipes one by one til you find something you actually enjoy eating!

    • Catherine Schepp

      Hi Lisa! One of my personal favorite helpers on an mission to eat in a more “normal” way is a nutritionist who goes by The Fat Nutritionist. She has a great article about combining foods you classify as “good” and “bad” to learn how food makes you feel and to realize the false categories you create for food. Check it out (and her whole blog) here:

    • Madeline C

      Ohhhhh sugar is something I struggle with as well because I have such an intense sweet tooth. I’ve gone around in circles in my relationship with it. I will say I agree with everyone saying not to label all ‘sugar’ as bad. I think our health-obsessed culture can go a little crazy with ‘bad’ foods and ‘good’ foods and it’s really about finding the right balance for you. Having said all that, I find I feel better if I have less sugar in my diet. I have a more even energy level. I’m not an expert, but from what I have pieced together it has to do with the fact that we train our body to need the blood sugar spike to maintain our energy levels. And refined sugar metabolizes so quickly that we seek the energy spike again in no time. If we have less of it in our diet or have sugars that metabolize more slowly our body becomes less dependent on it to maintain energy. (once again, not an expert, haha, very open to other info if others have it!) As far as wanting less in your diet, I understand that. When I have less my energy level starts to feel more even and stop feeling like I am depriving myself. It’s easiest if you start small. If cutting back on sugar seems right for you I would start with small goals and go from there. Maybe have one replacement for one bowl of cereal a day. See how that feels, go from there.

      • Cristina

        I really think everyone’s body is so different and sugar is no exception. Not only our bodies, but the way our brains fires off signals to our bodies. I was kinda of like you at one point, but now, If I want the damn brownie I just eat it. Or if I want ice cream, I eat it. I don’t want more sweets in an hour and literally as I type this I realize I haven’t had any sort of baked sweet treat in a few days without even realizing it OMG I LITERALLY JUST REMEMBERED I HAVE ICE CREAM COOKIE SANDWICHES IN MY FREEZER. Holy shit. Sorry. But that’s a huge step for me. I totally forgot they were there. Wow. Usually I have to practice “willpower” not to eat the whole box. And I am NOT saying this like you are wrong I am right. Just to encourage people to find what works for you!

        • Madeline C

          Oh sorry! And thank you! I thought I was trying to be very clear that it was only if that was a decision they wanted to make that I would give them some info on what happened to me. I definitely don’t want to come across like the person should give up sugar. I was trying to reiterate that it was only if they thought it was a good decision for them. I also said that I think completely labeling sugar as bad is not a great idea. I also still eat sugar, quite a bit of it actually. If I want the brownie, I also eat it. But I do notice that if I have one before and after every meal, I start to not feel as great, but that is just me. Thank you for bringing this up because I should clarify, its not one sweet thing and all the sudden you are addicted. But I have personally found the more I inject it into my diet the more dependent I feel I am on it. It’s not about having a brownie when you want it its about having them 6 times a day that it can start to feel like a habit. And I have been there and it sounded like the OP has been too so I was mostly just trying to commiserate.

          • Cristina

            And I didn’t mean anything to come across as attacking so I am sorry too if my response seemed that way! Probably also just where I am in my diet recovery so to speak. I did see all your points and I do think you were clear, I guess I was just adding another view if someone was just casually reading comments!! 😊❤️

          • Madeline C

            Totally! I feel like as I am reading all these comments I am brought back to exactly when I was feeling a certain way about food and I really appreciate you pointing out that its all about the individual and that in general it’s better to be more relaxed and open to what you want when you want it. Because I definitely have struggled with what I “should” do and whats “good” for me and blah blah blah. Sometimes I feel like “health” food culture is just as bad as any diet where guilt can overwhelm you and that just isn’t a good thing to impose on yourself. I agree with you that we should all have brownies if thats what feels right at the time and it’s important to remind ourselves of that. And important to connect with why we would feel guilt and try and understand that and shift our perspectives. Harling talks about it in the article, it’s about living life more comfortably in the “grey” area.

    • Adrianna

      I used to add three tablespoons of sugar to a cup of tea. I drank 2-5 cans of non-diet soda a day.

      I had to just quit cold turkey, and my palette adjusted. Now I could never drink those things. The good thing is, green vegetables taste better too. I found things like kale inedible when I consumed a lot of sugar.

    • Alexia

      My advice is going to be a bit different: I used to lovveeee sugary foods and now I can barely stand them. I would rather drink a green smoothie than a bottle of Coke. The thing to do is find healthy recipes that are delicious. I don’t find it pleasant to eat boiled Brussels sprouts but roasted Brussels sprouts with a lemony tahini sauce and a side of salmon? Now that sounds nice. I love the blog Cookie and Kate—maybe you could start there?

    • raerae

      Lisa in my experience, replacing your craving with something similar but slightly healthier is the way to go. For instance I love drinking soda… Diet Coke was my drink of choice for a long time. But I stopped buying it and replaced it with sparkling water. I still get the bubbles and the refreshment without the aspartame. I also love Cinnamon Toast Crunch but I found that I can get similar satisfaction from Rice Krispies or Multi Grain Cheerios which are much lower sugar.

      Also don’t be afraid to use sauce as a crutch to make things taste good! You still get veggie nutrients even if the veggies are covered in cheese or ranch dressing or spicy stir fry sauce.

  • January is always such a triggering month for me. There are messages everywhere telling me that I’m not enough – my body, my hair, my appearance, my eyelashes, etc.

    I got upset in therapy a few weeks ago because I thought I would be “cured” by now. And my therapist lovingly explained to me that I’d spend roughly 40 hours in therapy, but that I’d been bulimic for longer than that and have had shitty food views since I was a kid. Recovery for me has been about listening to my body better – #3 all the way. Be that in eating, exercise, redoing who/what I follow on social media, etc. And knowing that the media will not – at least for the foreseeable future – ever make me feel like I am enough. My therapist suggested that when I get ready for my day – every day – to put on my armor to protect me mentally from a world that will never accept me for me.

    All of this is to say thank you Harling for this piece. Every January I start to entertain those questions again, “Am I enough?” “Should I diet?” “Quit drinking totally?” This was a lovely reminder that I’m not the only one struggling. xoxox

  • Julia Park

    Best brownie recipe I know, not a lot of sugar BUT that let’s the chocolate SHINE:

  • Harling Ross

    Just want to congratulate the Man Repeller visuals team for somehow finding the largest croissant in the history of croissants to shoot for this feature image

    • Fabiana Copelli

      I can smell the butter from here

    • pdbraide

      I was confused. I at first felt everything else was really small.

      • Harling Ross


    • Thamsa

      the inner banquet server in me is kind of screaming at the way the knife is facing lol!! I just remember getting yelled at by my former managers for facing it away from the plate 😛

  • I really appreciate this post, and I also really appreciate how good that salad looks.

  • Is that a ~breakfast~ salad, Harling?

    In all seriousness, this is something I needed to read today. Like you, like everyone in the comments, I’ve had a life-long struggle with dieting and I’m SO sick of feeling like I have to restrict myself or feeling guilty if I indulge in an extra glass of wine or two during the week. I wish I didn’t have to think about it at all, and maybe with practice some day it’ll be that way.

  • PregnantinPortland

    Harling, this is one of your best yet, and so relevant right now. Merci!

    • Harling Ross

      ah thank you! i’m so glad

  • gracesface

    Is there a way of living that does not expect us to ask ourselves questions about our food and consumption? Can we live happily kind of being mindless about what we eat? I’m not being silly, I’m genuinely curious.

    • Cristina

      I know skinny people that eat whatever they want and bigger people that eat whatever they want, both with no relation to health obsession or weight. And they are both confident and happy. So I genuinely think yes, but shit if it isn’t hard. Thank God society is shifting, even if it’s small, to embrace more body types and sizes!

  • Abigail Thacher

    You! Can! Change! How you view and engage with your body!!!

    I was also a master weight loss methods by the time I was 15, and then started “unlearning” diet culture in my 20s. Even when I had read a lot about intuitive eating, had taken meditation, and was trusting myself around food much more, I found that I would still have anxiety spirals centered around feeling fat. I had uncontrollable anxiety around disliking my body.

    My therapist suggested coming up with a mantra to repeat to myself to try and prevent these panic-y episodes. I thought it was a total bullshit idea (and put up a huge fight), but my anxiety was fever pitch so I decided that I had to try something. Honestly, I was EXHAUSTED by the amount of energy that it took to hate on myself all day, every day.

    So, every time I noticed myself making a comment about my body, I would just repeat “my body is deserving of love and respect” three times over. At first I was repeating it 50+ times per day. On the subway, in the shower, at work, when I was out, etc.

    But slowly…I found that I needed to repeat my mantra a lot less. Gradually, the number of times per day that I commented on how I looked, or felt in my clothes, decreased. And when I did notice that my jeans felt tight, I could stop that internal dialogue from turning into a multi-hour death spiral.

    I think that part of the reason that I thought that adopting a mantra was a stupid idea was because I had a false belief that it was a good thing for me to always hate myself a little bit. Like, if there was emotional distress caused by eating a bagel, that would be a good thing because eating bagels is bad for you anyway. The reality is that this type of thinking is a HUGE drain on energy that could be best spent anywhere else.

    I am still so surprised that I came out on the other side of a DECADE of antagonizing myself; this long and ranting comment is to say that it is possible to change your modality and re-claim your energy, time and respect for your body :).

    • Summer

      I love this long, ranting comment! It made me realize just how deep my self-loathing of my body goes… Just said “my body is deserving of love and respect” to myself and immediately started crying because of how little I believe that… Needless to say, I have lots of work to do in the realm of self-compassion! Thank you to your therapist for the mantra idea, even if it felt like bullshit 🙂

      • Abigail Thacher

        I literally laughed at her when she suggested it and now I am so glad I gave it a try! Whatever mantra feels most relevant to you will really help (even if you feel a little silly at first).

    • Harling Ross

      this rules so much.

    • Eliza

      Oh wow – the part about thinking that self-hate is maybe a teensy bit a good thing is too real. I use this kind of rationalization all the time. I need a damn mantra….maybe… “within the totality of life, bagels mean nothing!”. If you a girl screaming this on the 1 train, its me.

  • Julia

    Two thoughts:

    1) This makes me think of a beautifully simple piece I read years ago on Zen Habits:

    2) As I’ve moved into my late twenties, I am working towards a deeper and healthier understanding of the relationship between my health and my happiness. It’s a wonderful journey! That said, I have many, many friends who are deep into ideas of restrictive eating… focusing on all the things they can’t eat, i.e. gluten, dairy, nightshades, oils, meat, any sugar, soy, etc etc. It’s almost like they try to one-up each other on diet restrictions! It’s all in the name of “inflammation” or allergies that have not been professionally tested. The conversations often connect the current diet, like paleo or keto or whatever, with amount of weight lost. I worry deeply that a few close friends use these trendy diets to mask unhealthy body-image issues. How do I address this with them? Our relationships with food are sooo personal, especially when the claim is a medical necessity. But as a friend I fear for their mental health too! Any advice, fellow MR readers?

    • Cristina

      I admittedly haven’t done this. I dunno. I’ve thought the same thing. I have friends who do diets to lose 20lbs in 6 weeks and it’s a literal starvation diet. You can’t even have salt! I have another friend to claims to have a healthy body image but it’s forever on diets and currently starting a whole 30. But, so far, I’ve just been open about my journey and don’t approach it like I’m trying to give advice. But maybe planting seeds that they can come to me when the light bulb goes off in their head one day. I truly believe someone has to be ready to accept that what they’ve believed to be true this whole time might not be. That’s why diets are referred to as cults! Lol!

    • I struggle with this too. I personally cannot eat nightshades for health reasons and lost some weight due to this (it’s amazing what cutting out fries and pizza does with little other effort), so a lot of friends come to me with their trendy “non-diet diets.” For example, a friend of mine said her stomach has been bothering her lately so she’s going to try being vegan. I know for a fact this is a ploy to get skinny fast (which never works), but it’s painful to a) watch my friend do this to herself and b) hold my tongue. As someone who is on a restrictive diet, I always struggle with how to respond without sounding accusatory or like a hypocrite.

    • fluffinella

      I just try to lead by example. I told my best friend the other day that I was never going to cut another food out of my diet or begin another exercise routine or whatever unless it genuinely felt like self-love and not self-hate or judgment.

      And like you, now in my late twenties, I’m just done with restriction (which does not work and just stresses me out in the end). I eat whatever I want, just in moderation and with kindness to myself in mind (so like, dessert often makes me just feel kind of crummy. so I just naturally don’t want it as much, but I’d never say NO MORE SUGAR UNTIL I DIIEEEEE, y’know?). and I do yoga every day, but because it feels good, genuinely and from the inside, to move and stretch my body.

      • Julia

        This is an awesome approach! It’s just so reasonable and NORMAL. Truly refreshing haha. I’m definitely working towards a similar philosophy.

        • fluffinella

          It’s so hard! The conversation with my friend was all about how she was going on a keto diet. And her whole motivation is just how much she hates herself and her body. And instead of trying to give her advice I just said, I try not to make food choices based on self worth anymore. Because someday, if I’m lucky, I’m gonna be old and saggy and gray and wishing I was a better friend to myself when I was younger.

  • kknapp

    Healthily! Eating healthily! Healthy is an adjective not an adverb. Just sayin.

  • Mike D

    This is a great article because so much advice about losing weight is centered around specifics of what kind of food to eat or what kind of exercise to do. The most important aspect of being fit is the mental part and once that’s developed the nutrition and exercise can become long term habits. Just diving in by adopting some drastic, extreme diet or exercise regime will most likely fail if you haven’t learned to think like a fit person. It’s not that complicated and you can balance eating “healthy” and enjoying yourself. Over the years I’ve found there’s some overlap in those two things…. I’ve come to enjoy some of the foods I used to consider just utility eating to maintain my fitness.

  • Lisa Jones Dobbs

    Spot on. Once your body feels the effects of clean eating, the rest takes care of itself. No going back!

  • Lucy

    PSA!!!: I heard about an account – The Rooted Project, – on a fave podcast of mine (The High Low). It is run by dieticians, and aims to dispute faddy claims about food and diets and bring us all back down to earth. They profile different foods and concisely break down the facts, benefits, hype and whether we should give a damn. i urge you to check their insta – if only to prevent you from feeling guilty about not really enjoying turmeric lattes…

    I really love the article Harling, feel as though these pieces are increasingly necessary to ground us in suffocating diet culture xx

  • Beautifully written article, Harling, and you are such a joy to work with! I enjoy the lively discussion here and I am excited to have the non-diet movement out of the fringe!

    • Harling Ross

      hi heidi! thank YOU so much for all your sage advice

  • Jay

    Now… I actually really really struggle with intuitive eating. And that is so crazy sad.
    We were brought up with diets and stuff. I remember my mom eating spinach hand poached eggs (which is actually not that bad, compared to what is suggested today). We learned that women need to be skinny. And the younger we are, the skinnier we need to be – cause the supermodels of the nineties were not as crazy skinny, as the later years to follow…
    And not only that.
    We learned how that we have to „fit in“. Whatever that means.

    Personally I struggled with that big big time.

    To the extent that I needed and still need to see my therapist.

    And I am not the only one…

    But this intuitive thing…

    How about if it is not intuitive?! How about you are so messed up that it just doenst come naturally?

    Well… what I learned is that you might just need to do it.

    No car runs on empty fuel.

    And certainly no crazy busy girl runs on no carbs.

    So, rather than eating totally intuitively or following a diet, I have come to roughly map out what I need in a day. And then just pursue that. Like when I workout, I need carbs. So I will have pasta. When it is cold, I know I need fat. So I will have that. And protein we need all the time. So that chicken is fine anyways.


    I know I can have everything I want all the time.

    So if I would want chocolate for chicken, well, ok.

    And if I want to celebrate with too much champagne, ok.

    I‘m fine.


    And dieting is certainly not the mindset I want to be in.

    Especially when there is this amazing Italian Cremant…

  • Ann P

    Harling this really speaks to me. Thank you for writing it.

    I’ve spent the last six months changing the way I eat to be more intuitive. I didn’t realise that was what it was called at the time, but my focus was on ‘just eat things that you know make you feel good’. Sometimes that’s salmon and salad. Sometimes it’s chocolate. And both are ok. I was just so sick of the endless rhetoric and conflicting opinions telling us what’s good and bad. After years of this my mental health was suffering, my relationship with food was at best disordered, and my body was completely out of whack, problematic when I’ve got health issues (lupus). In the end I just threw my hands in the air and decided fuck it!

    My body has changed in the last few months, but that wasn’t the intent. I just wanted to be healthier. My symptoms are more under control, I have more energy, I’m off some medication and I feel better than I’ve been in years. And my mental health has really improved – all because I look at food differently. It really is all about self care now. I choose not to eat the pizza (most times!) because I know it won’t make me feel good, not because it’s on some arbitrary list of bad foods. There’s no guilt. There’s no shame. It realy is freeing.

    • Ann P

      PS. Now if only I could get Instagram to stop showing me sponsored posts for diets, miracle foods, bikini body workouts and other diet culture BS. I loathe their algorithm. Loathe it.

      • Harling Ross

        i report ads like that all the time

  • I will never get tired of hearing and reading articles that tell us it is okay to eat. I don’t have bathroom scales at home anymore and I honestly think it’s the healthiest thing I’ve ever done for myself. There is literally so much more to life than your body weight, it’s such a shame that a human being can be reduced to thinking that the number they see on the scales should be their main priority in life. If you take away the pressure of a “diet” and just tune into your needs, it turns out that most people will naturally eat a healthy, varied diet anyway. Our bodies tell us what it needs.

    • Harling Ross

      agreed! haven’t weighed myself in 4 years

  • Serena

    I justtttt listened to this podcast on Oprah’s SSS and it couldn’t have come at a better time. Harling, you and Oprah: same same.

  • Gigi

    I wish I could cut the tumor of disordered eating out of the lives of women. Even my life. I struggled with Anorexia since I was a adolescent girl, & it’s been my priority to enlist dietary help, since every meal is a choice between life or death. The effects of any kind of disordered eating are so insidious and subtle when you’re young, that once you turn 20 and start facing health consequences, it really puts into perspective the dangerous things you did to disappear.

    I’ve been writing on the obsession & addiction to dieting for so long I often feel like there might not be a day where us as women are free to be without it. As long as women exist there will be men who stand to profit off of our self-harm, that’s for sure

  • Jolie

    Thank you for this, Harling!! So necessary. I too grew up with a stilted sense of body image, where the fact that I had boobs and curves as a teenager made me “fat” to others who would ridicule my body—a body I hadn’t even had time to understand or process before it developed.

    I’ve been on both sides of the spectrum (hardcore dieting and mindful eating) and find that mindful eating works SO MUCH better for me because I’m not constantly berating myself for every little thing. Dieting isn’t a sustainable practice—once you lose the weight, you’re so much more likely to gain it back. Mindful eating allows me to press pause on harmful habits and really take care of myself.

    It’s so insane how we are always comparing ourselves to other women. I’ve been guilty many times of seeing someone online (this has happened seeing pics of you, Harling, actually!) and thinking, “Wow, she looks amazing! Her skin/hair/figure/style/whatever is gorgeous. Wish I could have that.” Now I think those things with the same admiration but without the desperate wishing to be someone else. I’ve had friends tell me they look at ME and wish they had my body/face/whatever and it’s always been so depressing because I’m like “But wait, I was just thinking the same about you…”

    Mindful eating 2k18, mindful body image 2k18. Sounds like a good plan.

  • Thamsa

    I’d a negative relationship with food from the age of 17 until fairly recently (I’m 29 now). I remember spending the summer of 11th grade away from home and had put on weight, nothing significant, but noticeable since some clothes fit tight. I’d never thought anything about it until my mother told me my thighs looked chubby. It wasn’t just one comment that she made, she was quite consistent throughout the years. It wasn’t until I got older and wiser that I realized this was less about me, and more about her, and her obsession with her own body and self image. It didn’t change the fact that I became super obsessed with dieting and had fluctuating weight for several years from strict dieting and fasting and then crashing.
    It took a while for me to shake that negativity off. And for me to feel comfortable with eating a chocolate bar or a piece of cake without feeling like I’ve committed an offence against my body. In truth, I have always been physically active ( out of pure joy more than anything)and I’ve actually remained relatively the same size since I was in high school (so lots of my worries were mostly in my head) definitely still conscious of what I eat, but moreso so that I listen to my body and avoid or limit what upsets my stomach ( like too much dairy for instance)
    I’m really happy to be enjoying food again. And happy with my body. I saw cellulite on my thighs during yoga yesterday, but I was more concerned with how badly I needed a tan. 🙂

  • Alison McAfee

    yes! this is exactly what my resolution was this year. after doing a few whole30s, I’ve come to realize what my body responds well to, as well as what I do (or don’t!) need to make myself feel ‘good’. sometimes I beat myself up if I’m not eating ‘clean’ enough or eating foods that some diets agree with while others don’t (hello cheese, my beautiful love). basically, mindful eating. thank you for putting this in more eloquent words than me!

  • Elle Shoel

    Ruby Tandoh does AMAZING work on this!!

  • Katie Lucchesi

    This is a hard place to really settle on. I have struggled on an off with disordered eating (binging and purging) since the age of 20. It initially spurred a weight loss in me that I loved. Then it controlled my life and I started gaining weight, etc. fast forward to 4 months ago, I completely stopped binging and purging cold turkey and haven’t looked back since. My body is thinner (not that that was my goal but turns out my ED was making me heavier) my mind is clearer, and my health problems are becoming clear. Some things have disappeared, some have surfaced. In the grey area, there are a lot of people who don’t feel sick, but struggle. Intuitive eating doesn’t exist for me. I am working on training it into myself, and so far I am happy with what I am seeing, but it was a struggle for me to accept that I did need some semblance of structure to overcome my disordered habits. I guess my takeaway is that, even inside the world of self love, everyone is a little different.