Often I see clients in my practice who consider themselves vegetarians, but after a few minutes chatting, will also mention their regular intake of fish, chicken and even bacon. Don't they know these are animals? Don't they know that by definition, vegetarians are not supposed to eat animals? It used to drive me insane.
That was until I went working at an eating disorders clinic and saw the damage strict rules and black and white thinking can do to people. Aware of eating disorders such as anorexia, bulimia and the proposed 'orthorexia', I started to notice the same signs and patterns in many of my private practice clients, although in a smaller degree. Small enough to not be considered a full on disorder, but big enough to negatively influence their lives.
Unhelpful thinking styles dictated their choices and influenced how they saw themselves and others: being bad, naughty or even a failure for eating a bad or prohibited food and even avoiding going out with friends because of the challenges of choosing something on the menu that fitted their diet.
In my line of work, something is very clear to me: we have too many diet labels!
There's Paleo, Primal, Clean, Veganism... each with their own sets of rules and avid followers. Now I see those "mislabeled" patients with different eyes, and cudos to them, for being flexible. For being able to observe nutrition more widely and make personal modifications to enrich their eating style. To pick the good stuff out of each diet and make up their own. Even if that means they are now vegetarians who eat fish, or paleo dieters who drink milk. Better yet, they don't follow a diet or have an eating style, they simply have a positive relationship with food and choose what is nourishing to their bodies. They are spirituals without a religion, they love the sport but don't follow a particular team, they are eclectic and authentic.
But with flexibility also comes responsibility. Without a set of rules to tell you what is right or wrong, prohibited or allowed, you must be aware of your decisions, listen to your body, experiment and be honest with yourself. I've also seen the opposite of the example above: the vegetarian who only eats muffins and french fries, and the paleo dieter who only eats bacon. Although diets are very individual and what is good for one, might not be good for another, eating like the above is good for no one.
If you'd like to make improvements to what you eat, start with what most diets have in common: Limited refined starches, added sugar and processed foods. Emphasis on whole plant foods, with or without meat. This is gold and simple, most importantly, it's flexible.
But there is more! If you want to. We can modify the amount, timing and combination of foods to reach different results. Eating for health, eating for weight loss and eating for performance are very different things, as I will discuss in more details at another time. From now to then, reflect on your current eating habits. Are they overly strict? Are they varied enough? Are there aspects of other diets that could benefit you?
Experiment, enjoy and be flexible!