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The New Rules of Eating Healthy Are…No Rules

But these loose guidelines will help point you in the right direction.

Image of three different meals: a colorful salad, chicken salad and a bowl of oatmeal demonstrating rules for eating healthy

Every January, legions of well-intentioned resolution makers set out to improve their relationship with food or adopt an eating plan they hope punches their ticket to better health. And every February most of those resolution makers abandon their goals. While certainly, not all New Year’s resolutions revolve around diet, many people who bail on their plans had initially hoped to make improvements to their nutrition

There are a myriad of reasons why resolutions—and food-centered ones specifically—don’t stick. But one major factor could be the fact that most popular fad diets are just restrictive and ineffective in the long run. We’re done with the hard and fast rules around nutrition. So we took a look at rewriting the rulebook for healthy eating because the truth is, the rules are subjective and evolving all the time anyway.  

A study published in The BMJ compared 14 popular diets promising weight and cardiovascular risk factor reduction and found long-term success just isn’t in the cards for most dieters. While people often see encouraging results in the first six months of a diet program, researchers conclude that “at 12 months, the effects on weight reduction and improvements in cardiovascular risk factors largely disappear.” 

This doesn’t mean healthy eating is a worthless pursuit, but it does make you wonder what “healthy eating” actually looks like if over a dozen of the most popular diets proved fruitless. Maybe we can consider that the “healthy eating” rules we’ve subscribed to for so long are actually part of the problem. So let’s set some guidelines and toss the rulebook. 

table full of plant-based protein options as an example of vegetarian diet for athletes

The mythology around healthy eating

When I ask registered dietitian and sports nutrition specialist, Lauren Antonucci, MS, RD, which old-school diet “rule” irks her the most and which she’d like to debunk once and for all, she sighs. 

“How long do you have?” she asks. “Seriously though, the first one I would abolish if I were given a magic wand would be the misconception that we need to count calories and ignore our hunger and satiety cues in an effort to lose or then maintain our weight. This ‘trap’ gets so many intelligent and well-meaning people into trouble by feeling like they are ‘being good’ all day… only to end up rebounding and feeling like they overdo it in the evening or the weekend. If and when we can start to understand that we can trust our bodies, especially when we are feeding ourselves a well-rounded mix of all macros and food groups, we will break free.”

Tonal coach, Allison Tibbs says the very notion of relying on “food rules” as a foolproof strategy to better health is faulty because rules are constrictive—and they’re meant to be broken. 

“When we break a ‘rule,’ we feel shameful and guilty, which only reinforces a negative relationship with food,” she says. “When I hear people say, ‘oh, I was bad this weekend, I ate too many carbs,’ I will simply respond, ‘eating carbs doesn’t make you a bad person, kicking puppies does.’ It makes people laugh or puzzles them, but it helps them to realize that eating food is not something that makes you a good or bad person. You made a choice at the moment, and you chose something that doesn’t quite nourish your body and that’s okay.”

Detaching eating from morality can go a long way in making permanent improvements to your relationship with food. “Once we know the nutrition basics—include protein three to four times a day, focus on whole grains/beans and legumes for at least 50 percent of the carbs we eat, include two to three fruits and three to five veggies daily—the rest can fall into place,” Antonucci says. 

It’s time we do away with those old, played-out “rules.” Here are eight strategies from the pros much more likely to heal your relationship with food and nourish your mind, body, and soul. 

Text Graphis: 1. Abide by principles not rules.

While the language choice may seem subtle, Tibbs says eating in a way that’s based on “principles” rather than “rules” allows you the freedom and creates the intention to base your food choices around your own values and not some arbitrary, one-size-fits-all standard (that doesn’t actually fit all). 

“You feel more inclined to honor your principles rather than ‘not break a food rule,’” she says. “One of my favorite food principles is: ‘eat your colors.’ I post this often on Instagram to remind people that by prioritizing colorful plates, you are nourishing your body with the nutrients, vitamins, minerals, and micronutrients that your body needs to thrive and feel nourished. When your body is nourished, it begins to change, it begins to function better, and you feel better.”  

Text Graphic: 2. Throw out the calorie-counting mentality.

Vanessa Rissetto MS, RD, certified dietitian, nutritionist, and co-founder of Culina Health, says the “calories in/calories out” mentality that many people apply to weight loss and health is an outdated concept that could use a revamp.

“The thing with this one is not all calories are created equal,” Rissetto says. “What you eat matters just as much as how much. One hundred calories of beer are processed differently than 100 calories of chicken, so you want to remember that if you think this is the way to go.”

Rather than focusing on calories, try setting your sights on filling your plate with as many diverse, nourishing items as you can throughout the day. That might mean loading up on more leafy greens or even experimenting with different whole grains, despite what so many carb-cutting diets recommend (more on that in a second). Everyone’s needs are different, but experimenting with abundance might actually help sustain your energy and curb your cravings.

“When we prioritize whole foods, fill our plates with colorful veggies, prioritize proteins and complex carbs for energy and support, and drink water and get some rest, the body will be so happy and grateful,” Tibbs says. 

Text Graphic: 3. Make slow, gradual changes over time. 

Crash diets don’t just leave you feeling deprived and hangry, they simply don’t work. Drastically chopping calories or cutting out entire food groups can leave you feeling hopeless and at worst, they may be a precursor to disordered eating. Rather than making a ton of major changes to your eating in one fell swoop, consider making small, sustainable shifts over time that actually support your goals. 

“Just try one thing at a time,” Rissetto says. “Pick one thing you can do and once you master that, move on. There’s enough to feel bad about in life—don’t let your eating and health habits be on that list.” 

Text Graphic: Fuel yourself and your activities.

One common mistake Antonucci sees people make often is slashing calories while increasing the intensity and duration of workouts. Whether you’re adding in more cardio or spending more time resistance training, Antonucci says this “one-two punch” is a bad idea that can ultimately backfire. 

“When you fuel well before and after workouts, you will not only have the energy to get the workout done and to recover for your next session, but you will also be much more likely to make good decisions later in the day because you fed your body what it needed when it needed it most,” she says. “So please do yourself a favor and always fuel pre and post-workout—even if you think you don’t really need to or are not hungry for it. I guarantee you that you’ll perform better and recover better over time and you will be able to listen to your body better later and might realize you only want one slice of pizza or don’t want more of the cookies left out after the office meeting. That is where the real magic is.”

Text Graphic: Appreciate all macros.

Fat got a bad rap in the 1980s and then carbs were famously vilified across the diet spectrum. Experts say it’s time to stop making one macro or another the bad guy and to start appreciating what each unique macronutrient actually does for the body. 

“My skin literally crawls when I hear someone say that they are cutting out carbs because they want to lean out and lose weight,” Tibbs says. “This mentality is so dangerous because our bodies use carbs—along with fats and proteins—to fuel and support us to perform at optimal levels. When people begin cutting out carbs, a macronutrient that is used for fuel, it puts the body in a very vulnerable position. The issue isn’t carbs; it’s the type of carbs and the overconsumption of carbs that create real problems for us. All carbs are not created equal and every single person responds differently to different types of carbs, so to cut them completely out, doesn’t really give your body a chance to really thrive.”

If you notice your carb intake is mostly in the form of high-sugar foods, and you want to start making some changes, try adding in more nutrient-dense options like whole-grain bread or pasta, starchy veggies like sweet potato, and fruits like bananas and dates.

Text Graphic: 6. Actively opt-out of detoxes.

Whether they’re purported to help you lose weight, boost your energy, or jumpstart your fitness routine, do not fall for the “detox” plans. 

“Don’t even get me started!” Antonucci says. “We do not need to detox our bodies and anyone telling you otherwise is trying to sell you something. Please skip all detoxes and spend your money on a new piece of gym equipment or new workout shirt instead.” 

Tibbs agrees and adds that our bodies do a fine job detoxifying themselves, thank you very much. “Most people use detoxes as a ‘make up’ after overindulging and then take extreme measures and restrict calories and the body is like, ‘hey, hey, I can actually do this on my own if you let me,’” she says. “Detoxes offer a false sense of promise because they work as long as you stay on them—the second you go back to eating normally, you are back to where you started. Just be patient, focus on giving yourself a little bit of grace, and instead of doing a detox, just take a few days to dial in your nutrition and really focus on eating to nourish the body.”

Text Graphic: 7. Focus on abundance over restriction 

Tibbs says that one major change she made to her coaching style was to stop focusing on “nutrition” and to turn the attention to “nourishment.” 

“When I changed the language, it immediately shifted the lens to a healthier relationship and understanding of foods’ impact on our bodies,” she says. “There are foods that nourish us. To nourish means to provide sustenance that is necessary for growth, health, and good condition. When you start to look at what you eat as a way to support growth, health, and good condition. It helps to put things in perspective. I often say, ‘what is one thing you want to add to your diet this week that will nourish you and help you reach your goals?

That’s part of why we chose to focus on adding—not restricting—this month by increasing your protein intake and hydration in the Four-Week Fast Track challenge.

“Don’t worry about cutting anything else out, just focus on adding that to your day. What tends to happen is that as they make space for the new foods or food habits/principles, the foods or habits/principles that don’t support them slowly begin to fade away. And now they have more space to add something else and so on and so on until they have single-handedly transformed their diet without restrictions, guilt, shame. It is a beautiful thing to witness.” 

Text Graphic: 8. Trust your gut — and all other parts of your body too

In the end, there is no magic recipe for long-term healthy eating success. If there’s one thing experts can agree on, it’s that everybody is unique and requires its own set of principles for sustained health, energy, resilience, and peace. Figuring out what your own unique needs are might take time, effort, and patience, but the results are so worth it, according to the pros. 

“We need to realize that we can trust our bodies,” Antonucci says. “ There should be no guilt about eating white bread at the French restaurant or cookies when you want them. They can and should be included in our healthy and balanced diet. Perfection is never a goal—and that goes for nutrition too. Athletes tend to have the ‘more is more, no pain no gain, sacrifice for the goal’ attitude, but these ideas can get us into trouble with both training and nutrition. Just like a great fitness/training plan, know the basics, fit in all the necessary pieces, and then be flexible. No one workout missed and no one food eaten or skipped will ruin your workout, performance, or health.”