It is impossible to ignore all when the calendar rolls over and a fresh year begins. Keto, Mediterranean, Whole-30, South Beach, vegan, raw food: there is an endless barrage of diet plans aimed at consumers at the beginning of January, all of which look to draw us in with the promise of perfection.
“I think with the new year, with health and nutrition, people think it’s what they are doing and eating that matters,” says Caroline Green. Green is a registered dietician nutritionist at Simply Nutrition, a local wellness group dedicated to serving individuals with nutrition-related conditions.
“Health is more complex than that. I encourage people to not focus on dieting or what they can take out of their feeding patterns. To not to focus on what they are eating, but rather what they can add in. We have extensive research that [dieting] actually declines our health more than helps it.”
In an interview with The Washington Post in 2015, University of Minnesota psychologist Traci Mann shared that her research team found three aspects of the whole dieting process that were major barriers to actual improvements in health. These included: neurological stresses related to being focused on the diet itself; hormonal changes due to fast body weight decline, and metabolism impacts inside our body, which are fighting to adjust to the rapid changes from dramatic diets. Mann suggested that these issues compound and make it difficult for most people to actually diet long term and keep the weight off. Importantly, it also affects your mental state, which often can be disregarded in the process of dieting.
“Sure we can eat less sugar, but if you take it to the extreme, it’s going to affect your mental health,” Green says. “I’ve seen it in my clients. When they loosen up, everything changes. When I first learned about nutrition, I thought it was about perfect nutrition. Food is just one small piece of the puzzle. Not stressing out about that pizza and being more relaxed is what is healthy for you.”
Mental health has become a major focus not just in the nutrition world, but also in the physical fitness industry.
“When it comes to dieting and intensive gym focus for weight loss, that affects your mental health,” Green explains. “If you are stressed because you are not going out with friends and focusing on a diet, that’s taking a stressful toll on your mental health. Community and relationships have a larger role in preventing disease. If we as a culture are focused on shrinking bodies and weight and lose that joyful community aspect, we are actually doing more harm to our health. Basically if you are missing out in your life, that’s not healthy in the long run.“
Green partners with The Well Collective, a health and wellness community center that opened this past August in the Rosewood neighborhood. While fitness is often the primary objective when it comes to working out, the Collective puts equal emphasis on mental health in their daily course offerings.
“Mental health has become the most important thing,” says Hannah Bratcher, who co-owns The Well Collective with Kelly Holbrook. “Being able to take some time for yourself and putting yourself first. We’ve had a really great response from people coming to our classes that it’s really changed their anxiety or depression: that time to not only sweat but also have a few minutes to themselves, because a lot of people don’t get that day to day.“
Outside of mental health, there are still plenty of direct nutritional aspects to consider. Green brings in the scientific elements of nutritional studies to help individuals better understand how their bodies operate on a daily basis. A certified counselor on the subject, Green focuses on an approach known as intuitive eating.
“Intuitive eating is a non-diet approach to eating,” Green explains. “You are following to your internal system. In recent years, people got set up on all of these diet culture rules, keto or the opposite. You don’t want to be a slave to diet forever. You can be healthy without having to do it.”
Created in response to the diet culture, intuitive eating unravels the rules created by diets and focuses on letting the individual decide what is best for them on a daily basis. It doesn’t always equate to weight loss specifically — Green stresses that physical fitness and incorporating a color palette of fruits and vegetables into everyday eating is still essential — but it does lead to better mental health, lowered risk of eating disorder and positive metabolic health.
The last effect is one that is particularly important from Green’s standpoint. Having a better understanding of how our body works helps us to better focus on what we need daily and how we think about eating. Green uses blood sugar as an example.
“When it comes to energy, our body breaks down carbs into blood sugar,” Green offers. “When we eat carbs, fruit, etc., it breaks it into glucose. That is the source that our body uses. If you go a long time without eating, what happens is you get shaky, headache. What we often call ‘hangry’ — that feeling when you are hungry and sometimes become grumpy or irritable.”
Green says small snacks go a long way in helping maintain a steady blood sugar level daily.
“We know after four hours our blood sugar drops,” Green says. “Try to not get to four hours [without] feeding body throughout the day.”
Greek yogurt, nut butters and hummus are a few examples of options that not only make good snacks, but help keep individuals full and satisfied in between meals.