I’m not yet 30, but I can identify entire periods of my life by what diet I was on. Middle school was characterized by The Zone, where I learned to balance fats, carbs, and protein in order to (so I was told) reach my ideal metabolism. My freshman year at college I did Weight Watchers and learned exactly how many food points I had to save during the day in order to have enough to “spend” on alcohol at campus parties.
When I studied abroad in London during my senior year, I was worried about not having a diet plan. I wondered if I’d gain weight without structure dictating my eating habits. However, I wasn’t going to let that get in the way of enjoying my experience. For the first time ever I was buying and cooking my own food. My boyfriend and I enjoyed fish and chips and ciders at the pub. Other times, we made small dishes that fit our frugal travel budget. I didn’t have a gym membership, but we walked everywhere—so much that my boyfriend wore a hole in his shoe during the first week. When I returned to the U.S. and stepped on a scale for the first time in four months, I was surprised to see that I was the lightest I had even been. That is when I swore off diets, opting for a more holistic approach to diet and exercise. I began making intuitive decisions, without obsessing over my choices or seeing them as moral judgments. After dieting my entire life, I felt free. “A holistic approach to nutrition and diet focuses on empowering the individual to identify the patterns of thought and behavior related to eating and to understand that how we eat, with whom we eat, what we are eating, etc., are all important factors in sustaining energy, concentration, brain function, mood stability, and weight maintenance,” said Dr. Amanda Baten, a clinical and nutritional psychologist in New York.
Nutritional psychology is a new field, which aims to understand how the foods we eat affect not only our bodies but also our minds. The field is rooted in patients having a deep understanding of their own bodies, and making food decisions based on what they know will help them feel the best, physically, mentally, and emotionally. Baten often has new patients start by keeping a detailed food diary. However, instead of merely tracking what they eat and when, Baten tells clients to focus on how they are feeling before and after eating. Are you upset? Very hungry? After a meal do you feel energized? Lethargic? Are you craving something else? Because of the attention to the self, nutritional psychology, with its holistic approach to diet, is a great fit for people who have an established mindfulness practice, Baten said. “Mindfulness is a mental state that is achieved by focusing one's awareness on the present moment, without judgment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one's feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations,” she said. “So, learning to observe thoughts and feelings allows the individual to collect the ‘data’ to strategize and problem solve and work toward optimal mental and physical health.” Baten does not prescribe specific diets to her patients. Instead, she focuses on teaching them to listen to their bodies and to work toward achievable goals.
“We start with small goals that are achievable with the understanding that nothing is going to be perfect and that if a mistake or slip up happens, that is not an assessment of one’s worth or ability to make real changes,” Baten said. In that way, she works around the rigid perfection that many diets call for and that often leads people to abandon their efforts when they fall off track. “The more people understand that setting reasonable goals and then meeting them, and then setting the next goal is a true set up for success, the easier it is to develop new patterns for change,” Baten said. “Typical demands include, ‘I need perfection,’ ‘I need immediate results,’ ‘I need 100 percent certainty and 100 percent guarantees.’ These are obstacles to developing new and better lifestyle habits and are not in line with reality.” Making mistakes along the way is part of the process. “Developing an understanding of how food fuels one, both mentally and physically, and then putting that into practice takes time and acceptance of flaws and slip-ups,” she said. In my experience, this approach to diet also gives more control to the individual, since it’s all about making informed choices for yourself, rather than following rigid guidelines because they are what a specific diet prescribes. "It's a choice," Baten says. "Do I want to eat that bagel and be tired, or have a smoothie and avocado on whole wheat toast, which will give me a much different experience?” Of course, sometimes you want the bagel. That is a perfectly valid choice, Baten emphasized. “You want that bagel with cream cheese once in awhile? Have it. And get right back to the steps that help with goals right after.” That is a diet plan I can get on board with.