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Dieting vs. Healthy Habits – What’s the Difference?

By Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RDOctober 12, 2011
From the WebMD Archives

There has been a lot of controversy about a new children’s book called Maggie Goes on a Diet. Many health professionals, and parents alike, don’t like the idea of dieting kids.

The author of the book defends himself by saying he is advocating healthy habits including eating well and exercise. Because the book is not out yet, I can’t say for sure, but it brings up an important point:

What is the difference between dieting and healthy behaviors?  And why does it matter so much?

Diet-related behaviors are limiting

According to a survey conducted by the International Food and Information Council, 77% of Americans are trying to lose weight.  I believe most people have got the message that dieting is bad, but many still participate in diet-related behaviors.

As I see it, dieting is ultimately about deprivation — focusing on what you shouldn’t have.  It’s often driven by a set of rules where foods are either good or bad and people become good or bad for eating them.  How often do you hear someone say they were “good” or “bad” based on what they ate that day?

Another hallmark of dieting is its focus on weight.  Dieters weigh themselves frequently and feel more motivated with each new pound lost.  The problem is when the weight plateaus, as it always does, the motivation to follow the diet plateaus right along with it.

Worst of all, dieting is often met with the eventual period of splurging (on the bad foods) and the lost weight is often regained and sometimes more.  According to a 2007 review in American Psychologist, two-thirds of people who diet gain the weight back.

Healthy behaviors are liberating

I see healthy behaviors as small changes that occur over time.  Instead of following rules about good or bad foods, the person learns how to balance all foods in their diet.   The small steps allow them to make changes that work well for their lives.  There is a constant shifting and re-prioritizing that never stops.

People that continue lifelong healthy behaviors are not motivated by weight.  Instead, they see how much better their lives are, and, as a result, are internally motivated.  Weight is still part of the equation but far from the most important factor.  The healthy behaviors become a preferred way to live instead of an obligation.

I believe that learning to eat well in modern society is more of an art than science.  The choice of what to eat is a careful balance between taste, nutrition and how food makes you feel — what I call the powerful three.

The bottom line: Dieting is limiting, leaving people with few choices, while healthy behaviors expand choices, increasing the likelihood of success.

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