It's not uncommon for New Year's resolutions to focus on diets, detoxes, and weight loss. For many of us, the mere thought of weight and food intake can instantly evoke feelings of anxiety and insecurity — and doctors say that's exactly why we should be extremely mindful of how we approach a new eating regimen. For starters, experts advise against "fad" and "crash" diets and instead recommend forming a healthy eating plan that will be a lifestyle change rather than a frenzied effort to rapidly lose weight in a short period of time.
Erin Risius, M.A., LPC, a therapist at Hilton Head Health who specializes in overeating and mindful eating, told POPSUGAR that it's crucial to understand the difference between "dieting" and "eating a healthy diet."
"Diets are overly restrictive and tend to feel depriving, which lends itself to anxiety and, in the end, ditching the diet altogether," Risius said. "Eating a 'healthy diet,' or taking a lifestyle approach to nutrition that supports health and well-being, is much more sustainable. With that said, eating a 'healthy diet' can also produce anxiety, especially if you're feeling overwhelmed with how to eat healthier or how to reduce eating comfort foods if emotional eating is a primary coping mechanism."
To reduce this anxiety, Risius recommended working with a dietitian in order to form a healthy eating plan that takes a number of factors into account, such as your personal food preferences, health conditions, and overall lifestyle. Matthew Ventimiglia, PhD, a psychologist at Detroit Medical Center, also emphasized the importance of consulting a professional before shaking up your diet — for the sake of both your physical and mental health.
"It's important to consult with a physician, a dietician, or both to come up with a realistic and healthy plan for dieting as opposed to relying solely on information from, for example, the internet," Ventimiglia told POPSUGAR. "Having a realistic and healthy diet plan with reasonable goals could help reduce anxiety. Otherwise it would be important to consider therapy to help cope with emotional struggles, including anxiety, that may come up as a result of dieting and difficulties with one's expectations."
The experts POPSUGAR spoke to promoted the habit of mindful eating rather than engaging in restrictive diets. "I would encourage mindfulness of what your goals are, to pay attention to what your body needs or is craving, and to not deprive yourself of enjoying food," psychotherapist Angela Ficken of ProgressWellness.com said. "If you can do this, then anxiety is much less likely to show up because you haven't taken away your freedom to choose what you want to eat. Once you say 'I will never have this' or 'I can't have that' but you actually want it, you set yourself up for obsession."
The key to mindful eating is paying close attention to your body, its cravings, and its triggers. "Becoming more attuned to your own body can help you decipher whether you're responding to an emotional need or whether you're actually hungry," clinical psychologist Dr. Mimi Shagaga explained. She also recommended paying attention to specific cravings, noting that people often crave salty or sweet foods when they're under a lot of stress. "Becoming more aware of this can help you change your eating habits and avoid unhealthy choices," Shagaga said.
Risius noted that "autopilot eating" (the opposite of mindful eating) can cause weight gain even if you're choosing healthy foods. "It's important to learn how to tune in to our appetite cues. The tool of mindful eating is just as important as healthy, balanced nutrition because it enables us to better recognize and honor hunger, and then to eat until satisfied instead of to the point of being overfull," she told POPSUGAR. "It's a skill set of body awareness that takes time to cultivate, but mindful eating is a game changer when it comes to improving our overall relationship with food."
It's also important to be gentle with yourself and allow yourself flexibility. Ficken said setting rigid rules and beliefs about your diet is a recipe for anxiety and cautioned against "all or nothing" thinking when it comes to food. "If you decide that you want to lighten up on desserts, then go for it," Ficken said. "But if you end up having an ice cream sundae or even half a cookie, that's OK. You didn't 'fail' or are now some bad person who will gain a ton of weight. It was dessert."
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