- I used to think foods were “good” or “bad” and tried to cut out gluten, dairy, refined carbs, and sugar.
- I gained weight while eating plenty of “health” foods that are calorie-dense. That diet led me to overeat, too.
- I didn’t lose weight until I realized overall energy balance is what matters for weight management.
Since I was a teenager, I’ve been interested in nutrition. I always tried to eat “healthily” and followed various fad diets, from cabbage soup to 5:2.
In my early 20s, the “clean eating” movement hit its peak and I was sucked in. Slender, glowy, white women told me I should cut out gluten, dairy, sugar and refined carbs, and anything “unnatural” from my diet to be healthy, worthy, and lose weight. So I did, despite not having any food allergies.
I didn’t stick to this strict regimen for more than a few months, but it left me seeing foods as “good” and “bad,” which is a common misconception, as dietitians previously told Insider.
When I broke this mindset down nearly four years ago, stopped demonizing foods, and started eating all kinds of foods while in a calorie deficit, I lost 35 pounds and have maintained it since.
I used to glorify expensive ‘health foods’
For years, I thought if I ate foods I was told were healthy — such “zoodles” (spiralized zucchini) instead of spaghetti and medjool dates stuffed with almond butter — I was making good, healthy choices.
I paid for expensive quinoa instead of cheap rice. I cooked with coconut oil instead of butter, not knowing the former is higher in saturated fat. I didn’t eat granola for years because I thought it was too sugary, and made my own version with nuts, seeds, and agave syrup — which was more calorific and less delicious.
My weight fluctuated over my mid-20s, but I thought if I could only stick to “good” foods, I’d lose weight and look like the glowy women on Instagram.
But what I see now as a restrictive diet was impossible to stick to and left me feeling deprived. When I went out I would overindulge on energy-dense foods like fries, pizza, and burgers.
Then the next day, it was back to avocado and hummus salads, sugar-free sweet potato brownies, and raw vegan energy balls — with a side of guilt.
I didn’t realise, however, that these “healthy” foods were often incredibly calorific, meaning that, combined with my indulgent social life, my weight gradually increased.
A better approach to calorie-counting improved my relationship with food
At the end of 2018, I had a wake-up call when I was shocked by the number I saw on the scale. It was time to take action and try something different: calorie counting.
Counting calories can be problematic for some. When I first tried it as a teenager I became obsessive, so I was hesitant to try again. But a decade on, I was wiser and more self-aware.
I found it improved my relationship with food. I learned that there’s nothing inherently fattening about any food, and that helped me feel more comfortable eating foods I previously avoided, like bread. Over time, I also lost fat.
I realized I had been regularly overeating, and I knew this was because I still partly saw foods as “good” and “bad.”
Loosely counting calories (and tracking protein), while incorporating all foods into my diet in moderation, helped me learn that you can eat anything and still lose weight.
Whole foods, protein, and fiber generally keep you feeling fuller than refined, sugary, processed foods, and are more nutritious. For example, 300 calories of chicken, brown rice, and broccoli will be more satiating than a 300-calorie donut. But we gain fat when we consume more energy than we need.
I now know that often-demonized carbs are excellent workout fuel, dairy is a great source of protein and, more importantly, pasta, pizza, and cheese are too delicious not to enjoy.
My mindset didn’t change overnight
Spending six months at home with my parents and sister during the start of the coronavirus pandemic helped a lot to change my mindset. For instance, I thought carbs were fattening but my family ate higher carb meals than I’d been cooking for myself, and I still lost weight.
In the early years of my career, I remember seeing a health editor eating a cookie and thinking: “What sort of health expert eats cookies?”
I now know that she was indeed the expert, and I had a lot to learn.
I still eat quinoa, dates, and salads sometimes, but not because I think they’re “better” than anything else. Because I want to.