As a food writer with a health and nutrition focus, January is my busiest month of the year—but not for the reasons you might think. I won’t be encouraging readers to try the keto diet, reduce their sugar intake, and blend kale into everything from smoothies to pancake batter to dairy-free cashew cream sauce because “you can’t taste the difference!” (You can always taste the difference.) Instead, I’ll spend the next month begging readers to ignore all this trendy wellness advice. Because, here’s the thing: We worry way too much about food, and it just isn’t healthy.
It’s not that I don’t think people should eat vegetables, or that I recommend chasing every meal with a super-size box of French fries and a soda. Of course vegetables matter! Of course Cheerwine isn’t a health food! Eating a balanced variety of foods is important, and the basic pillars of nutrition hold up.
What I can’t stand are the diets and restrictive food rules that we keep trying and failing at over and over again. Even worse are the it’s-not-a-diet-it’s-a-lifestyle programs that promise health and happiness if you can just make totally sustainable and barely noticeable tweaks like cutting out entire food groups for a month, “fasting” during certain times of day, or swapping actual breakfast food for butter-filled coffee with metabolism-boosting, influencer-approved superpowers. I’m making it sound ridiculous, and it is, but plenty of people will spend January dabbling in one or more of these fads. Because health.
I’m not against change or self-development, either. Health and happiness are great goals, but it seems to me like we’re missing the mark on what health actually means. Losing weight isn’t the same thing as getting healthy; in fact, a growing body of research shows that diets just don’t work.
Earlier this year, I interviewed behavioral psychologist Traci Mann, whose research focuses primarily on food and dieting. Mann coauthored a 2013 review of several comprehensive weight-loss studies from the last few decades, which found that although diets can lead to short-term weight loss, they’re almost never effective in the long term—most people will regain any weight they lose by dieting. What’s more, a 2011 review of similar weight loss and diet studies found that dieting can actually lead to weight gain, along with a slew of other nasty side effects like a preoccupation with food and body, lowered self-esteem, and disordered eating behaviors.
Plus, you miss out on a lot more than just food when you’re dieting or trying to overhaul your eating habits. If you’re constantly turning down dinner invitations in favor of eating “healthy” food at home, you’re skipping out on a chance to build relationships and connections. Loneliness is a growing problem—a 2015 review found that loneliness and social isolation both significantly increased a person’s mortality risk—so isolating yourself can’t be a good thing.
Then there’s the food piece. If you’re always opting for foods you think you should eat instead of foods you want to eat, you’re undermining your own judgment and denying your body the chance to guide you toward balance all on its own. I’m constantly interviewing dietitians, and I’ve noticed that many have shifted away from using the traditional model of giving food and nutrition guidelines to clients. Instead, they’re teaching “intuitive eating,” the practice of eating what you want and paying attention to how it makes you feel. I could write a whole story on intuitive eating—I did, actually; it’s a feature in the January 2019 issue of Glamour magazine—but one way to sum it up is this: If you stop forcing yourself to eat vegetables, you might find you actually start craving them.
All of this to say: If you’re always worrying about food and nutrition, the healthiest thing to do might be to loosen up a little bit. Food is delicious, and fun, but it shouldn’t be all you think about. Eat your vegetables, drink plenty of water, and stop eating before you’re too stuffed to move. (Except when the food is reallllly good. Then just go for it, and don’t even think about feeling guilty.)