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To go low carb or full-blown keto, that is the question… or at least it feels like it, living amid America’s pervasive diet culture. And yet, just a few decades ago, fat was considered the enemy.
We get it: When it comes to making actually healthy food choices, the landscape is confusing, ever-changing, and — between our friends’ recommendations and celeb endorsements — incredibly tough to navigate.
If adopting a whole lifestyle change isn’t your jam, we feel you. That’s why we reached out to professionals in food media while at The New York Times Food Festival. These cookbook authors, food reporters, and registered dietitians have become experts in maintaining a positive, balanced relationship with food.
Here’s how they approach food trends and cultivate well-being in regards to eating.
Keto, Paleo, and other low carb diets do have purported weight loss benefits, claims Bonnie Taub-Dix, RDN. However, they are bound to fail in the long run, because they restrict you from eating what you normally consume.
“Usually the weight loss comes because a person on a fad diet is restricting themselves from foods that they ate before,” she says. “If they are doing this in a fashion that is not realistic or healthy for them, has consequences for them, or is not the way they or their family eats, this diet is not going to last. [These diets] don’t have longevity.”
Even if you feel like it’s a never-before-seen concept, don’t be fooled. Chances are it’s recycled.
She continues, “These fad diets are trends, and they do come back with different names. It’s kind of like a wolf in sheep’s clothing. But the concepts are the same — cutting carbs, fats, or some major food group that provides important and valuable nutrients out of your diet. [These diets are] bound to come back, but it doesn’t mean they will last.”
It’s more intuitive than you think to create a well-balanced plate, and it doesn’t require you to bust out a scale or a set of measuring cups. If you need some measurements to start, nutritionists recommend filling half your plate with fruits and veggies (“mostly veggies,” says Taub-Dix), a quarter with whole grains, and a quarter with protein.
Restaurant critic Pete Wells claims reducing his alcohol consumption has been a huge part of how he manages his health despite his rigorous schedule of dining out.
“I have really dramatically cut down on my drinking… largely because those are calories I can stop myself from consuming,” he says. “The less I drink, the better I do my job in terms of memory, concentration, and focus.”
Additionally, he has found himself inadvertently participating in intermittent fasting. “I have found my metabolism has really changed,” he adds. “My body is now expecting one big feed every day. During the morning and at lunch, I am barely hungry. [At dinner] I’m like a python.”
Taub-Dix hesitates to endorse fasting, saying, “Unless it’s a religious belief, I think fasting is more of a punishment. What I have seen with fasting, and I’m not saying it’s not effective for some, but it can lead to overeating,” she argues. “It’s taxing your body to not eat for long periods of time and then [you] wind up overeating.”
If that happens, don’t be too hard on yourself, particularly on holidays. “You can’t expect yourself to eat perfectly every day. If you don’t eat well, you shouldn’t be beating yourself up over it and depriving yourself the next day,” Taub-Dix says.
Your body is smart, and you should trust it. NYT Cooking editor Sam Sifton echoes this as he notes readers’ willingness to try a recipe, regardless of the meat, veg, and carb ratio. “We understand that the readership of NYT Cooking and The Times is highly educated and curious. [They] understand that if a recipe has a stick of butter in it, that’s a lot of butter.”
When you’re deciding whether to follow a food trend, common sense will help you determine if it’s accessible and offers you an alternative. Opening yourself to a variety of choices will also help you make sure you aren’t restricting yourself too much.
For instance, replacing carbs with cauliflower has become a huge movement in recent years. Cookbook author and New York Times reporter Melissa Clark, who is famous for some of her low carb and vegetarian dinners, has embraced this by emphasizing one beloved, recognizable ingredient.
“It’s sort of just amping up one yummy ingredient you can get behind, so it ends up tasting delicious, whether you’re cooking vegetarian and using nuts or cheese or vegan food using avocados, coconut oil, or chocolate.”
“I don’t create the trends, but I’m right behind them,” Clark says about the accessibility of her recipes. “People are trying to eat more vegetables and less meat, and they need a little bit of help. If I can supply that, it can be a very useful thing.”
Just remember: The key is to not rely on any one food product or cooking appliance to solve all your health woes.
“There’s no one food that is going to be miraculous for your weight loss or make your skin beautiful,” Taub-Dix says. “Expecting one food or one diet strategy to do everything for you is like expecting one instrument to play the music of an orchestra. It doesn’t happen.”
Developing a healthy relationship with food means considering whether your habits promote a sense of emotional well-being.
“When we go on restrictive fad diets, you may have the boosted emotion of weight loss or fitting into small clothing, but then comes the negative side effects that may impact you emotionally,” says Taub-Dix. “What if it prevents you from socializing the way you like to socialize?”
You can combat FOMO of bar-hopping or pizza night by hosting your own dinner parties by your own rules.
There is an emerging movement to bring people together at the table more often, as evidenced by upcoming cookbook releases from prominent recipe developers. Sifton’s “See You on Sunday” (out February 2020) mentions studies citing the importance of hosting regular dinners among friends and/or family.
“Adults benefit from the fellowship of the table as well, as much as and probably more than children,” he writes. “Life satisfaction, the academics say, is strongly correlated with time spent with those who care about you and about whom you care. Dinner is a marvelous way to create that time.”
Dinner also doesn’t have to be elaborate or stressful to be enjoyable and appreciated. Best-selling cookbook author Alison Roman’s new book, “Nothing Fancy,” promotes this concept.
“Roasting a nice chicken for people is such a good way to say, ‘I love you,’” she writes in her book. “[U]sing your time and resources to feed people you care about is the ultimate expression of love. And love is about expressing joy, not producing anxiety.”
Though saying “no” to dairy, gluten, or sugar can be beneficial, if you don’t have an allergy or serious adverse reactions, avoid the “avoid” list.
“I never believe in an allow list and an avoid list, because that avoid list really calls you when you’ve had enough of that allow list,” Taub-Dix says. “Protein, carbohydrate, and fat are like three legs of a stool. They really balance each other. You shouldn’t be having an overabundance of one over the other. You really need all of them to feel good physically and emotionally.”
Clark agrees that “it’s really important” for us as a culture to move beyond restrictive diets, though she believes there has been progress.
“I feel like it’s changing,” she says. “My mom’s generation was obsessed with diets. I feel like we’re moving away from that, which is really good. People are learning how to balance everything. It’s less demonizing one ingredient and more harmonizing all of the ingredients together.”
And that’s kind of the key to any relationship — with food, people, or yourself: understanding that you’re made of different parts and all those parts deserve attention.
Anna Monette Roberts is a food writer, recipe developer, and photographer. Follow her in the kitchen on Instagram.