Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Five Psychological Ingredients of a Good Diet

How to approach eating in a psychologically healthy way.

Adapated from my book, Skinny Revisisted: Rethinking Anorexia Nervosa and its Treatment (NASW Press, 2011)

Diets can be seductive, but they come with psychological and physiological consequences, such as failure and weight-gain. Eating what someone else determined you should eat in an attempt to modify your weight rarely works on a long-term basis. It is human nature to want to do things your own way, especially when it comes to eating. Instead of dieting, the following are five psychological ingredients necessary for a lifetime of weight management.

1- Eat Only What You Love

When it comes to eating, it is necessary to make your own choices. A friend once lamented to me that she went on a "tofu diet" but failed to lose any weight. In fact, she absolutely hated eating tofu and ended up eating cookies to get through the day. I asked her, "If you hated tofu, why did you go on a tofu diet?" She responded that everyone in her office decided to go on a tofu diet and she too went along with it, and we laughed together as she admitted that it really didn't make much sense.

If you are told what to eat and it's not something that you like, it is just a matter of time until you give up and return to familiar food choices. What works for one person does not necessarily work for another person; therefore, it is necessary to come up with your own customized eating strategy. An eating plan is only good if the person is motivated to follow it. So be sure that your food choices are also things that you really love to eat.

2- Become Informed about Calories and Nutrition

I had a friend during college who had health issues and needed to lose weight. As friends do, she talked me into going to a Weight Watchers meeting with her (I had the car). I was allowed to sit with her during the meeting as long as I participated. It sounded like fun, since the meeting was about food and lists of foods you could eat, even foods I never thought of eating. So I went home and ate some cool new foods. I went back with her the next week and even weighed myself. I had gained three pounds, and the leader asked me to speak to her after the meeting. Well, that was it for 1970s Weight Watchers and me, but I did learn one thing: it helps to know calories.

With the knowledge of calories, you will have the ability to discern and make informed decisions about what foods and how much of them should be eaten. Counting calories is inarguably objective and together with nutritional information, will help you to make appropriate eating choices.

3- Learn to Eat in Moderation

Years ago, I remember buying a frozen entrée of ravioli. After waiting 45 minutes while it heated in the toaster oven, when it was finally ready to eat, I was shocked to see only three pitiful ravioli staring at me. I impatiently grabbed the box to find the customer service telephone number, dialed it, and complained that the box I purchased had not been properly filled with food. To my surprise, I was told that this was the correct portion. I was amazed that anybody could consider three ravioli a meal.

Satiety is an important part of eating as is eating in moderation. It is important to experience the feeling of having eaten enough while at the same time, eating reasonable portions of food. (For an Italian, three ravioli is not reasonable.) This is a complicated process that requires thought, creativity and takes time and patience to learn.

4- Understand Eating as a Behavior of Habit

People eat what they are used to eating. Most favorite foods are chosen out of habit. Habits are behaviors that become automatic over time and consequently take considerable motivation and time to change. To change eating habits, it is necessary to begin substituting satisfying, and healthy food choices for unhealthy ones, thus establishing a new habit in place of an old, faulty one. Making food-choice decisions begins the process of empowerment, coupled with awareness of the fact that it will take time to change a habit.

5- Make Peace with Your Body

Women are rarely happy with the way they look. We are often guilty of "once over" behavior that involves comparing ourselves to other women, particularly in social situations. Why do we do that? Because of the influence of popular culture, women inevitably fall short of an impossible, unrealistic standard of beauty. No one's body is perfect.

I give my patients an exercise to challenge their critical judgment of their body and appearance. I ask them to begin making a mental note of how often they judge the appearance of others, beginning the moment they leave my office. How often do we look at others and have a critical judgment such as "How can that person wear that outfit?" or "That person looks bad." I ask them to instead temper their judgments with "that person looks just fine." As we are kinder and less critical in our perceptions of others we are kinder and less critical in our perception of ourselves.

It is really okay to look less than perfect. Beauty lies in feeling good about yourself as you are now. More important than how you look is that your body does what it's supposed to do and is healthy. You need to make peace with your body.

To this end, I give my patients another exercise that consists of going home and looking at their bodies in a mirror in a loving manner. Inevitably, this exercise is met with horror, apprehension, and laughter. Never has anyone returned with the comment, "I look great" or "I love the way I look." Making peace with your body leads to self-acceptance and self-care which, in turn, leads to better management of your eating.

More from Maria Baratta Ph.D., L.C.S.W.
More from Psychology Today
More from Maria Baratta Ph.D., L.C.S.W.
More from Psychology Today