Dieting is a tricky subject. There are so many options out there—trust me, I've done the research. Every expert has something different to say, and every diet trend seemingly gets more and more bizarre. Take the Master Cleanse, for example: the juice fast program where you're not actually allowed to eat and instead only consume a concoction made from lemon juice, maple syrup, and cayenne pepper. News editor Victoria Hoff discusses her takeaway: "The Master Cleanse is a shitshow (figuratively and literally). But lemon juice and cayenne do make for a wonderful drink to get things flowing first thing in the a.m.—followed by ACTUAL FOOD." See what I mean? Fads are not sustainable. Eating like Kim Kardashian West is a testament to your willpower and discipline, but according to Editorial Director Faith Xue, it's implausible in the long run. The buzzy Whole30 diet is "designed to change your life in 30 days," according to the website. However, experts rated it dead last in an annual ranking of 38 different diets.
It's because of these muddled waters, inconsistent messaging, and wholly unhealthy and unsustainable programs that we began to crave a new dieting regimen—one that is both easy to follow and good for our bodies. After experimenting with food restriction, disordered thoughts, and crash dieting for what feels like forever, I'm no longer willing to serve up my well-being in exchange for this year's ideal body. With that, I give you a completely new way to look at wellness. I'm talking dieting guidelines, yes, but more so a basis for living a healthy, satisfied, and unrestrictive existence. And frankly, it's far less of a bummer. Keep reading to find out the 10 small changes that can make a huge difference in leading a healthier diet regimen.
Think of Your Diet as a Lifestyle
"A diet, by definition, is the kinds of food that a person, animal, or community habitually eats," says plant-based cook and health coach Lily Kunin. "So technically, we are all on a 'diet'—but it shouldn't be a restrictive one. Think about the foods you want to eat most of the time and incorporate them into your daily life. The key to a successful program is making it a lifestyle, and to do so, allowing some flexibility is a must. At the end of the day, not demanding perfection is much healthier."
Stay Away From Artificial Sweeteners
"They're really the one thing you should completely cut out. Your health starts in the gut, and research shows the negative impact of artificial sweetener on gut health and metabolism. The Center for Science in the Public Interest has changed the safety rating of sucralose from 'caution' to 'avoid,'" says Brooke Alpert, MS, RD, CDN, a nutrition expert and author. Splenda is now among saccharin, aspartame, and acesulfame as chemicals that should be avoided. Alpert adds, "Artificial sweeteners are so much sweeter than natural sugar that we've lost the ability to decipher what real sweetness actually tastes like. Ideally, you won't add sugar to your foods or beverages. However, if you must, try small amount of real sugar, manuka honey, maple syrup, or molasses."
Eat With the Seasons
"Eating seasonally," Kunin says, "which also means locally (as much as possible), is seriously better for our health. When it doesn't take as long to reach us, food is much fresher, and that has an effect on taste. It's at its peak flavor and is more nutrient-dense that way." This "rule" also puts us in harmony with our environment. "This may sound a little out there," Kunin continues, "but I believe the earth knows exactly what nutrients you need depending on the season. It's why you crave cooling foods like watermelon, berries, and crunchy lettuce in the summer, and warming winter squashes and root vegetables in the winter."
Be Open and Curious Without Being Restrictive
"Listen to your body and how it feels," Kunin notes. "Maintain a constant dialogue with your body. What are you craving? Is there a reason for that? Experiment with how certain foods make you feel. Try eating vegan or paleo for a couple of weeks—do you feel depleted or does your energy soar? Do you feel different after eating a big, raw salad in the winter [as opposed to] the summer? I talk about how to tap into this intuition in my cookbook, Good Clean Food, and share the recipes based on how food makes you feel."
Don't Copy What the Person Next to You Is Doing
"Yes, when it comes to a healthy diet, some general principles apply—like Michael Pollan's mantra: 'Eat food, not too much, mostly plants,'" Kunin explains. "But I believe deeply in bio-individuality, meaning we are all uniquely different, and what works for your friend may not work for you. Only you can determine what foods make you feel your best. So tap into your own intuition rather than following the latest trend."
Eat Food That Tastes Really, Really Good
"This rule may sound kind of silly, but to me," Kunin says, "it's the most important. Food is meant to be pleasurable and enjoyed, and the only way a healthy lifestyle will stick is if you actually like the food you are eating. Look forward to slow-roasted salmon bowls, white bean chili, or winter power bowls with dreamy green goddess dressing. Savor a hand-whisked matcha with coconut butter or farm-fresh eggs fried in ghee or your favorite dark chocolate. The best part of this? Others will want to be around the table to enjoy it with you."
Have a Party
"Rather than holing up alone with your plate of celery, invite friends and family over to enjoy really good food around your table. Make a big pot of chili or set up a taco bar," suggests Kunin. "Have friends bring the guacamole so it's a team effort. Sip on a little mezcal if that's your thing. After all, any lifestyle you end up sticking to should be fun and enjoyable."
Embrace Fats (Not Sugar)
"Healthy fats (like avocado, fatty fish, nuts, and dark chocolate) are an important part of your diet. Refined sugar is not and should be limited," warns Farah Fahad, MS, RD. "I am not talking about fruits, raw honey, or maple syrup, which are natural sources. But watch out for processed sugar as it's usually a combination of glucose and fructose."
"Food manufacturers add chemically produced sugar, typically high-fructose corn syrup, to foods and beverages including crackers, flavored yogurt, tomato sauce, and salad dressing," reports The Cancer Treatment Center of America. "Low-fat foods are the worst offenders, as manufacturers use sugar to add flavor."
Sit Back and Relax
"Be kind to yourself and find some time to relax," recommends Kunin. "This will help reduce cortisol levels, which can often be the culprit for why you feel sluggish, drained, or why you're holding onto a few extra pounds. So instead of hitting another Spin class, be kind to yourself, nourish yourself with real food, and incorporate some meditation and breathing exercises. If meditation isn't your thing, try out some meditative activities, like a restorative yoga class, a 30-minute aimless walk, or cook something you love."
Don't Count Calories
Calorie counting is no longer the gold standard. "Listen to your body! If you are getting full, stop eating. If you are hungry, eat something healthy. We naturally have these incredible signals if we just listen."
For more feel-good diet advice, see how I completely changed my body in three months without giving up… anything.
This post was originally published on Byrdie.com.