How to Break Out of Diet Mentality and Think About Food Neutrally

1. There is no one “right” way of eating for everyone; it’s about finding out what works for your body and lifestyle.

You’re probably aware of the many different ways to eat. There are increasingly popular options like intermittent fasting, veganism and keto. Some people choose to follow these diets indefinitely, while others try them for a short time and return to their pre-diet eating style. It seems that everyone has an opinion about which way is “best” or “healthiest,” however there really isn’t a right or wrong way of eating. What’s most important is finding out what works well for you and your body!

If you’re struggling with figuring out what works best for you, here are some things that may be helpful:

  • Consider starting by taking a break from focusing on what you’re eating and instead focus on how it makes you feel. Keep in mind that this process can take a few weeks or months; results won’t always happen overnight!
  • You may also want to keep track of how certain foods make you feel. Whatever information feels relevant can help guide your food choices moving forward.

2. You can choose to hold on to certain preferences or rules around food when they serve you, but it doesn’t have to be forever if it stops serving you at some point down the road.

One of the things that I have learned over the years is that some people enjoy having certain rules and guidelines around food. If you’re one of those people, you can decide which ones work for you and hold on to those. For example, maybe you feel more balanced when you don’t eat out during the week. That kind of rule is not problematic because it doesn’t leave room for judgement or shame; it simply helps bring structure to your life in a way that feels good to you and works for your schedule. However, if eating out at lunch means that you feel guilty about eating “too much” or it leads to an obsessive cycle of calorie counting, then maybe this rule is working against you.

When we look at food from a neutral standpoint, we recognize rules as tools (or not) and we can let go of them at any time if they stop serving us. A lot of people find freedom in letting go of their old rules around food because they finally realize that they have the ability to make their own decisions instead of feeling like they are bound by them.

3. You don’t have to make a statement by eating or not eating what someone else offers you.

Nobody can be the hero or villain in every situation. When you eat according to your own personal philosophy, you demonstrate that food is not a moral issue. It takes pressure off you and the people around you by making it clear that eating a certain way doesn’t make someone a good person or bad person. They’re just choosing to do something one way instead of another.

Consider how this applies if you are offered food at work and decline for whatever reason: You don’t have to prove anything by eating or not eating someone else’s food. You don’t owe anyone an explanation, and they don’t need one from you either! This also holds true if someone offers to buy you a meal, or if they have cooked something special for all of their guests: You get to be the hero of your life, not theirs.

So next time somebody offers you something that isn’t in line with what your body wants, try saying “No thank-you, I’m full at the moment.” If curiosity gets the best of them (as it often does), explain that it’s not in line with your values or goals but avoid absolutes like “I never eat pizza,” since even small shifts can create tension and leave them feeling defensive about their choices.

4. It’s okay to eat things that aren’t as wholesome as you’d prefer, even if you think of yourself as a health-conscious person.

If you’re a health-conscious person, you don’t have to feel guilty about eating something that isn’t as “clean” as you would prefer.

Rather than worrying that an unhealthy food item will negatively impact your health and wellbeing, think of it as just another thing you eat. It doesn’t make you a bad person to enjoy the occasional treat, even if it’s not something you’d normally eat.

A diverse diet is more important than sticking to the same group of healthy foods all the time. It’s also better for your body!

Eating one thing doesn’t define who you are or what kind of dieter/cook/person you are.

5. You’re not backsliding if you don’t eat exactly how you want to every single day.

One of the biggest traps that people can fall into when striving to improve their relationship with food is to get hung up on eating exactly how they want every single day. This can lead to a lot of inner turmoil and negative thoughts about oneself if you don’t meet your goals 100% of the time. The truth is though, that it’s not humanly possible to eat exactly how you want all the time. Sometimes you won’t have access to the foods you love. Sometimes you won’t have time for your favorite meal rituals. Sometimes something just doesn’t appeal to you as much as it used to. And sometimes, it will be someone else that decides what gets eaten instead of you. These are all totally normal things, and they happen to everyone! No matter how in-tuned with yourself or your body you are, there will always be days where things just don’t go as planned or appealed-to. That doesn’t make those days failures though! It just makes them what they are — a normal part of life and learning how we interact with food in every facet of our lives.

6. If you overeat something and feel sick afterwards, it wasn’t your fault.

You don’t need to figure out how to be perfect all the time when it comes to food. That’s not how human biology works! If you overeat something and then regret it afterwards and feel sick, don’t blame yourself for being bad or weak. It wasn’t your fault; you’re only human like everyone else.

7. You can eat food for nourishment, pleasure, and social connection (not just for one of these reasons).

Reconnect with the fun of food. Food is nourishment, sure, but it is so much more than that too! It’s pleasure and connection, and a way to celebrate. Becoming neutral about food doesn’t mean you have to give up enjoying your food — just that you stop giving yourself a hard time for being human. Food is more than just fuel and there are many wonderful things it has to offer us. Let go of the guilt surrounding your choices (there’s no such thing as a “good” or “bad” food) and start enjoying all the things it can bring into your life!

8. You can try different eating patterns without it saying anything about you as a person (flexible dieting, veganism, Mediterranean diet, etc.).

This is another one that may seem obvious if you’ve been reading along, but I want to stress it because I think many people make the mistake of believing that what they choose to eat says something about them as a person. It doesn’t. You are not a bad or weird person for wanting to try out flexible dieting, or veganism, or paleo, or whatever else. You’re also not a bad or weird person for switching from one plan to another — possibly even within the same week — while you figure out what works best for you.

When you accept all foods as morally neutral and understand that there is no one right way to eat, you open yourself up to exploring different ways of eating, which in turn will help you learn more about yourself and your body and your preferences.

9. Food doesn’t need to be everything in your life; there are plenty of other wonderful things to enjoy and focus on besides food!

Food and exercise don’t have to be everything. There are plenty of other wonderful things in life!

It’s easy to get caught up in the quest for health, letting it consume all of your time and energy. Once you start exercising regularly, it’s easy to feel like you can never miss a gym session or take an extra day off. If you let yourself learn to enjoy healthy food over time, you might start feeling like you’re doing something wrong if you eat dessert more than once a week.

The truth is that while health is important, it isn’t the only thing worth living for. You don’t need to exercise five times a week or skip dessert entirely. It’s possible to be healthy enough without going overboard — and there are plenty of things that matter just as much as those habits (and sometimes more).

So enjoy the gym! Just make sure that both your body and mind get rest days when they need them.

Thinking neutral thoughts makes food less stressful and more enjoyable!

One of the most powerful things about neutral thinking is that it reminds you that food is just one part of your life, not your whole life. That’s such a simple idea, but it can be easy to forget it when you’re in the throes of diet mentality. If food were truly an important and meaningful part of our lives, we would take the time to really enjoy eating. Unfortunately, for many people, food is a source of stress rather than pleasure. Neutral thinking helps us see how we create this stress and gives us the tools to change our mindsets so we can start enjoying food again — with no guilt, no judgment, and no hypocrisy!

Maybe all this sounds like common sense to you. But again, notice that diet mentality challenges these ideas at every turn! In diets or “lifestyle changes” that require counting points or calories or grams or servings from various food groups (and let’s not even get into those awful fad diets), there are rules about what you should and shouldn’t eat if you want to lose weight. Foods are labeled good or bad or healthy or unhealthy depending on their nutritional content and/or whether they fit within a certain plan. The very existence of these terms signals that eating certain foods will make you better than other people who don’t know enough to avoid them!

But if foods aren’t inherently good/bad/healthy/unhealthy (they aren’t!) then there’s nothing left but our own judgments? Is eating “bad foods” always cause for guilt? Well…maybe sometimes-but why!? Why should there be any guilt involved in something as natural as eating?!

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Emily Coffman

Emily Coffman

Author of Elite to Everyday Athlete. Host of Live Your Personal Best Podcast. Follow for fitness motivation and pep talks