From counting calories to cutting out certain foods (or entire food groups), diets rely on all kinds of tactics to help people drop pounds. Often, however, they make eating more complicated than it should be.
“Instead of learning how to competently eat all foods, restrictive plans teach an all-or-nothing mindset that leads to deprivation followed by overeating or bingeing,” explains dietitian Rachael Hartley, R.D., author of Gentle Nutrition: A Non-Diet Approach to Healthy Eating. Not only is this deprive-binge cycle a total drag, but it also doesn’t help you lose weight and stay healthy in the long run.
To make matters more complicated, many of the “anti-diet” programs on the market are really diets at heart. “Any time you have to refer to an external source of information when deciding what you’re allowed to eat or log [what you eat] in an app, you’re on a restrictive plan,” says Michelle May, M.D., founder of “Am I Hungry?” Mindful Eating Programs.
A long-term healthy lifestyle doesn’t rely on sticking to daily calorie limits or eating on a schedule. And it’s built around foods that make you feel good, not foods that are considered “good.”
“The more limitations imposed on us, the greater our natural tendency to rebel incites us to break the rules,” says dietitian Georgie Fear, R.D., co-author of Give Yourself MORE. But when you make lifestyle changes based on personal values and wants (e.g. energy to crush your day, fewer belly aches), decisions about what and when to eat become a lot clearer, she explains.
So how do you know if you’re truly making lifestyle changes or are stuck in a dieting loop? Look out for the following signs.
1. You say “I can’t have”
If you ever say (or think) the words “I can’t have,” or “I’m not allowed to” when talking about food, consider yourself in unsustainable eating habit territory, May says.
For starters, saying “I can’t have” is, in most cases, a lie. “You are legally permitted to buy chips and can physically manage to chew and swallow cookies,” reminds Fear. Your brain knows this, so placing bagels, pasta, or chocolate into the “no-no” category often has the effect of making you want to assert your autonomy by having those very foods, she explains.
The fix: Remove “I can’t” from your vocabulary because there’s no reason you can’t enjoy your favorite foods, May says. “Remind yourself that eating them daily or in large quantities may not be consistent with your goals,” adds Fear. “But eating them occasionally or in smaller amounts can be.”
2. You cut or limit entire food groups
Eliminating entire food groups is a popular diet tactic—and one that’s sure to eventually fail. “By cutting out foods and especially food groups, you’re eliminating valuable sources of nutrition,” Hartley says. All foods serve a nutritional purpose—and eliminating any completely is one of the clearest signs you’re dieting.
For example, many popular diets eliminate or drastically reduce carbs, but “these foods provide important nutrients, like B vitamins, iron, fiber, and phytonutrients, as well as carbohydrates themselves, which are an important energy source,” Hartley explains.
Even foods that don’t truly serve a nutritional purpose, like sweets and salty snacks, can provide pleasure and social connection. “And connecting with others and eating enjoyable foods is health-promoting,” adds Hartley.
That said, if eating certain foods really messes with your body (looking at you, gluten and dairy) or doesn’t align with your values (hey, meat), it’s okay to cut them from your diet. You can usually find plenty of food substitutes to fill any nutrient gaps, and supplementation is always an option.
The fix: Instead of cutting out foods completely, learn how to eat them in a way that makes you feel good. Start by incorporating them into your meals with intention. Instead of eliminating pasta, for example, Hartley recommends serving it as a planned, balanced meal with roasted veggies, tomato sauce, and chicken.
3. You don’t physically feel good
Restrictive diets often come with noticeable side effects, such as lethargy, feeling cold all the time, recovering poorly from workouts, tossing and turning at night, or even declines in sex drive. Even if you’re motivated to follow your eating plan, you can only white-knuckle it for so long before these side effects get the best of you.
Read More: 6 Signs You’re Not Getting Enough Calories
Once you do call it quits, chances are you’ll swing in the opposite direction: overeating. “Instead of just getting satisfied, a person who hasn’t felt satisfied after a meal in months typically eats past satisfaction, and may continue to do so for an extended period of time,” Fear says.
The fix: Lessening the side effects of a strict diet is as simple as loosening the reins a bit. For example, if you’re trying to cut weight, know this: “Losing two pounds a week will typically involve a significant amount of pervasive hunger, lack of satisfaction, and low energy,” Fear says. “However, losing a half-pound a week is far less likely to produce these same side effects.” By adding enough food (read: calories) back into your day to keep you progressing at a rate that doesn’t also stress out your body, you’ll be more successful in the long run.
4. You obsess or stress over food
Another classic sign you’re dieting: Obsessing over food or spending chunks of the day thinking about it.
Food-related thoughts can appear in many forms, including anxiety over following food “rules,” constantly wondering what and when you’ll eat next, stressing about food preparation, and logging every morsel of food that passes your lips, according to Fear.
Lasting food obsession can really mess with your overall health and happiness. For example, it’s tough to enjoy a night out with friends or a bucket list trip if you’re anxious over being able to follow all your food rules along the way. And, “if a diet method or food plan is complicated enough that cooking or shopping gives us anxiety, it’s just not sustainable long-term,” Fear says.
The fix: There’s nothing wrong with wanting to create eating habits that lead to weight loss. But if your habits are only causing you to obsess or stress over your food, it’s time to give them another look. “Instead of sacrificing your sanity for a lower weight, consider that you’ll want to be able to follow your intended behaviors even on a relatively crappy day,” Fear says. By shooting for smaller, more manageable changes—and giving yourself time to get the hang of one habit before tackling another—you can see results while still living your life.
5. You judge what other people eat
Ever tsk-tsk your friend for ordering fries instead of a side salad? Say hello to one of the sneakier signs that you’re dieting (and paying the price for a restrictive approach). “What other people eat is none of your business, and if you’re paying attention to that then it’s probably an indicator that your own diet is out of balance,” May says.
Take your friend’s fries, for example. Chances are your judgment is coming from a place of jealousy. In other words, you wish you could order fries, too. (Hint: You can!) But if you deprive yourself of what you want for long enough, you’ll eventually give in. “Then you’re bingeing on the very foods you were judging other people for eating, and the guilt and shame you feel just gets magnified,” May says. This guilt often then drives more restrictive eating, causing the eat-repent cycle to repeat over and over again.
The fix: The next time you catch yourself judging someone for their food choices, remember that people are free to eat what they want—including you. Then, ask yourself why that person’s food choices are sticking out to you. If it’s because you want what they’re having, consider how you can have that food in a way you feel good about.