From family to coworkers, unsolicited health and dieting advice can come from many sources. Here’s how you can figure out if it applies to you.
From scientific studies and medical professionals to Instagram influencer ‘experts’, there is no shortage of nutrition and health information out there. But, the reality is the field of nutrition and dietetics is still new, and safe, effective health and diet advice implementation not only involves a great deal of trial-and-error, but also some solid critical thinking skills. It’s the nuance, ‘big picture’ perspective, and occasionally, the ability to hold two opposing ideas at one time.
It’s not the simple cause-and-effect model that we’ve always assumed.
If you’re making beneficial shifts to your diet and movement patterns for your health, just like surgery and medication, it’s important to remember that it comes with a series of potential side effects and risks.
Here’s how you can determine if implementing a specific piece of health or diet advice is worth trying.
1. Identify the problem you are trying to manage or solve.
At some point over the last few decades, the field of nutrition, dietetics, and fitness took a turn from the realm of therapeutic and medicinal to “how to become smaller”. But it’s important to know that weight and body size in-and-of-itself is not a problem. The way our medical system and our society treats people in larger bodies is the real culprit.
So when you’re considering implementing health or diet advice, whether it be from your doctor or from your neighbor, ask yourself, what problem am I trying to solve with this intervention?
If the goal is something more tangible like managing digestive discomfort or pain, high blood pressure or cholesterol, or diabetes, take a moment to take stock in what you’re hoping to get out of implementing this intervention. It could be anything from identifying foods that both taste and feel good to eat in order to dine out confidently, or manage blood sugar levels so you have the energy to start your business, play with your kids, or just live your life. In this first step, try your best to dig deeper to identify a goal that is not weight-centric.
2. Review the research.
Despite the amount of articles published everyday on nutrition and the amount of unsolicited diet advice we get from our cycling instructors and yoga teachers, again, there is really very little we know for sure about dietary interventions. Being able to view research studies from primary sources (such as medical journals vs. Self Magazine) is an extremely important and useful skill.
However, sometimes reviewing the research means interrogating our neighbor about his experience with implementing a dietary intervention. He might be excited to talk about all of the benefits he’s experiencing, and if you’re someone who is suffering, taking his advice can sound really enticing. But before blindly going in, review his sample size of 1, anecdotal study a little more closely.
How long has he been doing this for? Are there any times he’s able to be flexible and eat certain restricted foods? What else changed when he decided to eliminate certain foods from his diet? Did he stop drinking beer, something he was drinking a lot of previously? Did he start eating more fruits and vegetables? Did is exercise patterns shift? What’s been the hardest part? Has he been able maintain his social relationships? Has he had any negative side effects?
It’s also important to keep in mind this is just one person’s experience. For every one person that had a great experience, there is another person who experienced no changes to their mental or physical health, and another person who’s health suffered greatly. Talk to those people too.
3. Get a second opinion.
Just like you would get a second opinion from another doctor on a risky surgery, it’s important to do the second opinion work for yourself. While in some cases a dietary intervention might be the way to go for disease or symptom management, there is a likely chance there are other options.
For example, while consistent exercise can be a helpful way to manage your mood, so is going to regular therapy or counseling, or considering medical management for anxiety or depression. Make sure that you are presenting yourself with all options available to you before pigeonhole yourself into one course of treatment.
4. Identify the costs and the risks.
Think about this as creating your own “side effects may include” voice over. While nothing is 100% guarantee, diet and health advice is given out so readily that it feels like it is. When considering to making a shift to your eating or exercise habits weighing the costs is an essential, if not the most essential, step.
For example, there are people who are passionate about the keto lifestyle and will talk about their positively life-changing experience with this diet. However, there are also many people who will say that this diet led to an eating disorder, hospitalization, extreme exhaustion, and depression. No one experience is “right”, but it would be irresponsible, and for me as a clinician, unethical to recommend a diet knowing that there are so many costs and risks attached to it.
This is where a good old fashioned cost-benefit or pro-con list comes in handy. Pull out a pen and paper and weigh the financial, physiological, psychological, social, and emotional costs to implementing this advice. And the great thing about this list, is that it’s unique to you, not someone else.
5. Be open to making adjustments.
Once you’ve sorted out your pro-con list, if you decide to move forward with implementing a particular piece of dietary advice, make sure to go into your decision being open to making adjustments as needed, just like you do with any decision in life – starting a new job, relationship, medication. One of the risks of making any dietary or exercise changes is an unnecessary preoccupation with food and body and an all-or-nothing thinking pattern around food.
Eventually, this can lead to an ongoing restrict-binge cycle or a full-blown eating disorder. Again, this is not always the case, but it is a potential risk. The very act of practicing flexibility around eating and exercise can automatically dissipate some of these risks. Usually, this simply means listening to your body and honoring it’s needs. It also means prioritizing your values and what you want out of life.
When we look at dietary interventions through this lens, the conversation automatically becomes much more nuanced and health can no longer be measured by pounds lost or sizes dropped. Take a closer look at your own choices around diet and health in a way that feels more specific to you, and allows you to feel flexible around your choices.
And please know that if something isn’t working for you, you have permission to change without guilt or shame, or having to explain yourself to your friends, family, or strangers on the internet.
It’s your life after all.
Adapted from the original article.
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Jessi Haggerty, RD is a Registered Dietitian, Certified Intuitive Eating Counselor, and Personal Trainer with a private practice outside of Boston, MA. She is the host of the BodyLove Project podcast and runs an online course for personal trainers on eating disorder screening, nutrition, and body image. Learn more at www.JessiHaggerty.com.