How to Diet Properly

Step off the scale.

For once, though, I’m not digging at that small box of depression and disillusion we keep by the toilet. I’ve argued against the bathroom scale long enough, I think, to justify its rapid donation to your local Goodwill. The intent of this one small guide is to tackle a different scale entirely – the scale that runs from 0 to 100, a numeric indication of how much you are ‘on’ your diet.

In a healthy world, the number would fall somewhere shy of the right. I’m a solid 75, you’d say, well short of the weight of unnecessary perfectionism. The number might fluctuate a bit (much like your actual weight, come to think of it!), but you’d generally recognize that it was smack-dab where it need to be: never too high to be unrealistic, and so far above zero that you’d never feel terrible for enjoying the occasional indulgence.

Sounds nice, doesn’t it?

But let’s talk about how this pans out in practice. Let’s talk about how the vast majority of people tend to sit at either 0 or 100 — on or off — and let’s segue straight into why this is by far the worst way to diet.

The Problem With Black or White

Let’s be honest: it’s hard not to paint everything we eat in extremes. The very nature of a diet tends to lump food into two categories, good or incredibly bad, which the Paleo lifestyle is as ‘guilty’ of as any other. I think there’s some value in this, especially when you’re looking to make informed decisions about what to eat, but a lot of that value gets tangled and left behind in the everyday details — in the practical reality of being on a diet on a day-to-day basis.

The need to put our plates in categories, in other words, can do more harm than good.

What starts as ‘gluten = bad’ tends to pretty rapidly be blown out of proportion. Incidental exposure to wheat, then, or even a slice of home-made bread become something so much more: an invitation to depression, to drama, and to the unshakeable feeling that one small pastry has moved you in the worst direction imaginable.

You’ve gone from 100% back down to 0%, unfortunately. That one indulgence, small though it may have been, suddenly has huge consequences:  it takes you off your diet. And in the post-cupcake period, when all is fuzzy and your thighs are suddenly carrying thirteen extra pounds, it too often feels like there’s no way back.

Step off the scale.

The Proper Way to Diet

Let’s keep a few things in mind.

1. You’re here for the long haul.

Echoing my past sentiments that you need a lifestyle over any kind of short-lived diet, keep in mind that you’re here for the long run. You’re making informed decisions about what to eat on a daily basis for months upon months at a time, totaling up to a pretty staggering amount of healthy choices over the course of an entire lifetime.

2. You’re not perfect.

So why and even try? Why saddle yourself with unnecessary guilt each and every time you stop at a food cart, as I did this past weekend, and split one of the city’s most famous burgers?

Why not just admit that you’re going to eat the occasional dessert? And why not just realize, now, that your ratio of good meals to ‘bad’ ones is so much more important than getting bogged down with the occasional indulgence?

You’re not perfect — and you don’t have to be.

3. Your goal is unchanging: strong, simple health, with none of the excess physical (and emotional!) weight.

That’s the bigger point, here, and the one that warrants the most attention.

You’re not striving for any quick fix. You’re not demanding any short-term solution, and nor are you expecting results without putting in a little effort first.

You’re seeking, instead, a long, full life of optimum health, and you’re doing so with the full understanding that it’s going to be a long and winding journey. You’re going to encounter more than a handful of bumps in the road, except these bumps might seem distinctly delicious in nature: cakes, pasta, cookies and snacks by the dozen, each asking you to indulge for the small price of your emotional sanity.

There’s a different way to handle the snags. I won’t call it easier, but I will suggest that it’ll prove more manageable — more satisfying – in the long run.

How to Step Off the Scale

I want you to practice what I call ‘Indulgence Control.’

Next time you’re eyeing a big slice of temptation, ask yourself two questions:

1. Am I already full?

2. Do I already know what this tastes like? Can I remember exactly how it’ll taste if I try it, and does that kind of kill the whole allure of the indulgence?

If the answer is yes to any of these questions, I’m going to recommend you pass. Move on to a different dessert or a different opportunity to indulge — one that has the opportunity to justify itself by offering a new, unique flavor, and one that you haven’t already had a dozen times before.

If the answer is no, however, I’m going to recommend that you just try this: eat the damn dish. Enjoy it slowly, savoring every bite, and then do something a little different from your usual post-pancake routine.

Stop feeling guilty.

Stop painting everything in black or white. Eating a single slice of birthday cake doesn’t immediately take you from 100% compliance all the way back down to sad, lonely 0%. Why? You weren’t at 100% in the first place. You never even tried to be. And you can be honest with yourself, now, and admit something that people too often tend to forget: one meal isn’t nearly enough to make or break your lifestyle. It’s tempting to think otherwise, but try and remember that one stray meal — hell, even a week of them — won’t derail you, especially in comparison to the mounds upon mounds of unhealthy dishes you ate when gaining weight in the first place.

Let’s step off the scale, now, and stop living in the extremes.

Let’s be kind to ourselves, now, and realize that sometimes we’re going to eat the damn bread.

Let’s gives ourselves a break, bow, and realize that it’s okay if we do — we’re still so much healthier despite it, and our health, in the long-term, is going to be strong, solid, and happy no matter how many bumps we may encounter on the road.

Let’s realize, lastly, that we’re nowhere near the black and the white. Let’s realize that we’re not at 0%, and that we’re most definitely not at 100%, either. Why?

We’re off the scale entirely. We’re free from the guilt trips, negative emotions, and the incredible, impossible pressure to stick to our diets 100%, and we’re fully enjoying what’s left behind: an entire life full of healthy, delicious meals, without any of the physical or emotional weight.

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  1. Megyn @ Minimalist Mommi says:

    I think I need to print this and post it in every room of my house. As I’m struggling with Orthorexia, it’s nice to have moderate people such as yourself give moderate advice to those of us who are extreme perfectionists. Thanks again for such a well thought out post!

  2. Primal Toad says:

    Love the thoughts Matt. I tell people all the time who ask me for advice to forget about an indulgence. They are going to happen and one should let them happen. When they do, let go. Forget about it. Enjoy it while it happens then move on!

    I say fill your curiosity. Have a bite or 2 of this or that or enjoy a whole slice if you want. Don’t feel guilty. If you feel guilty then you will probably indulge when you really don’t want to.

    • Matt Madeiro says:

      That’s a great point, man. And it’s something I’ve seen in my own indulging — why do we need to eat the whole thing? I already know it what it tastes like, for the most part (which is a compelling reason to just skip it), and a few bites really is enough to satisfy my curiosity. I guess it goes back to the “you must clear your plate!” mentality that so many of us are raised with.

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  4. chris says:

    Thanks! The whole reason I moved to a Primal Lifestyle was because it seemed to me to be all about common sense. This fits in perfectly with that. The idea that savoring a few bites of a heavenly indulgence “ruins” my “diet” and is a ticket to pigging out is just ludicrous.

    Thanks, I really do appreciate your approach.

  5. Topher Fangio says:

    Hey Matt!

    Great post! It’s amazing how we humans tend to overanalyze things instead of looking at the reality of the situation.

    Thanks for opening our eyes!

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