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.

Harling Ross

Harling is a writer and was most recently the Brand Director at Man Repeller.

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