Food is Not Just Fuel, and That Matters for Your Diet

Why blindly restrictive dieting never works

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Some 12,000 years ago, on the banks of a small river in the western Galilee region of northern Israel, the Natufian people were burying one of their elders. She was a shaman—a medicine woman—and they buried along with her the wing tip of a golden eagle, the pelvis of a leopard, the front leg of a boar, the horns of a male gazelle and a severed human foot.

And while the true meanings of these burial accoutrements were unclear to the archaeologists who found her in 2008, the meaning the 70 charred tortoise shells and the gnawed and marrow-stripped bones of three aurochs— giant extinct cattle—was obvious. They were evidence of a great feast. As well, they were proof of the fact that food isn't simply fuel for our species—food is used for comfort, food is used for celebration and, in all likelihood, food has been used that way since we took our first figurative steps in the savannahs.

Yet, for many modern-day dieters, the use of food for comfort or celebration is expressly forbidden. Those who worry about weight may deny themselves of their lives' most comforting or celebratory indulgences for fear of their—almost by necessity—larger numbers of calories (green leafy vegetables don't tend to be much of a comfort) and their "bet-you-can't-eat-just-one" allure. Those who worry about health may deny themselves entire food groups—food groups that they may in fact enjoy a great deal but avoid out of fear of a potential health risk or as a result of following a theoretical but as yet unproven eating philosophy.

[See Debunking Common Nutrition Myths.]

So what's the problem? Doesn't it make sense to forbid the danger foods, the treats that simply can't be resisted or those groups of foods whose consumption may be unhealthy? Would cutting them out not further a dieter's aims, or is there a downside a person might want to consider?

The past 60 years of dieting, both for health and for weight management, have certainly seen a great many different approaches and options. But the one shared commonality is that, for the vast majority of dieters, diets are short-lived, white-knuckled affairs that, regardless of their actual dietary edicts, can be fairly described as planned suffering. And therein lies the rub.

We're not particularly good as a species at perpetual and unnecessary suffering. And just as we have been celebrating and comforting with food since time immemorial, so too have we tended to avoid unnecessary suffering. Ultimately, when life inevitably throws a blindly restrictive dieter a curve ball, dietary suffering tends to fall by the wayside; and when life lets up, the tendency for most is not to pick it up again.

[See The Inconvenient Truth of Healthy Living.]

I sometimes think of blindly restrictive dieting like an icy cold lake on an unseasonably hot day. You work up the nerve to dive in and, after the initial shock wears off and numbness sets in, you splash around happily for a while. But once you climb out, the memory of that initial frigidity is enough to keep you warmly on dry land— diving back in is almost never an option.

So instead of adopting a blindly restrictive, icy-cold lake diet, my advice is for you to practice thoughtful reduction. It's not about whether or not a food or an indulgence is allowed; it's whether or not you feel it's worth it to you, where worth isn't determined solely by calories or content, but also by circumstance, desire and the human condition.

[See There's No Such Thing as 'Perfect Eating.']

Sometimes it's worth comforting or celebrating with the most nutritionally terrifying of foods. Just make sure, if you've decided it's worth it, to also ask yourself what's the smallest amount of that delicious awfulness that you need to like your life. A small bit of here-and-there awful, and maybe you'll actually stick to your new and improved dietary intake. But deny yourself that chance, and I'd bet, eventually, you'll find yourself right back at your all-you-can eat, unhappy square one.

[See Best Foods to Eat for Your Mood—and a Few Bad Ones.]

Hungry for more? Write to eatandrun@usnews.com with your questions, concerns, and feedback.

Yoni Freedhoff, MD, is an assistant professor of family medicine at the University of Ottawa, where he's the founder and medical director of the Bariatric Medical Institute—dedicated to non-surgical weight management since 2004. Dr. Freedhoff sounds off daily on his award-winning blog, Weighty Matters, and you can follow him on Twitter @YoniFreedhoff. Dr. Freedhoff's latest book, The 10 Day Reset Solution: Why Everything You've Been Taught About Dieting is Wrong and How to Fix It, will be published by Random House's Crown/Harmony in 2014.