The WFL Step 12: Diet-thinking vs. Lifestyle-thinking

I know – diet and lifestyle are both loaded terms. But until my genius subconscious comes up with something better, let’s redefine what we already have to work with.

The Takeaway: Realize the fundamental changes in thinking that precede any major life or habit change – and use it to cultivate success!

Actions: Observe your thoughts. Use non-judgmental language. Start a journal. (Details below!)

I spun my wheels for a good 10 years on diet-thinking, leaving me totally and utterly exhausted, frustrated, and frazzled. Often crabby too, as my siblings will attest. I got a burst of inspiration from a bunch of podcasts that I listened to in the past two weeks on my walk to work and weekly walk in the hills around my home. Here are all the best thoughts & intentions, cobbled together, so we can have a reference list. Some of these may not resonate with you right now, but they’ll be great tools further down the line when you need to find a way around the resistance blocking your path.

Psychology of Eating

I. The Differences Between a Diet and a Lifestyle

The first thing about diets is that they take all your other behaviors and old baggage and stuff them into a shiny new label. No diet will work well if you don’t address all the underlying causes – including stress management, sleep, emotions, exercise, past events and traumas, and your world outlook. Lifestyles are sustainable, practical, and easily broken down into small action steps.

Diets are something you must endure, while a lifestyle is something you enjoy.

Diets use force and extremes to drive people with fear and negative perspectives. Lifestyles are about small changes to gradually open you up to a new way of thinking, living, and loving. 

Diet-thinking puts the responsibility on external factors to fix you. Lifestyle-thinking takes ownership and responsibility. You don’t need to be fixed, because you are not broken. You just need to reconnect with yourself.

Underneath your relationship to food is your relationship to yourself and life. Dieting is a behavior-pattern that seeks to repress and stifle this relationship, or cover it up or numb it because of shame.

Dieting focuses only on weight loss. Lifestyles focus on health in all facets of your life.

II. Diet-thinking vs. Lifestyle Thinking

Diet-thinking focuses on problems: what’s wrong or bad about you or your situation.

  • (Here’s a little known fact: NOTHING is wrong with you!)

Lifestyle-thinking focuses on solutions: what works for you and your unique, individual needs.

Diet-thinking is win at all costs, and don’t even try if you can’t be perfect.

  • So many people won’t even start something because they are afraid they are “doing it wrong”. That if you can’t be perfect, it isn’t worth it.

Lifestyle thinking recognizes that we can’t be perfect all the time, and despite this we are still worthy and deserve to have the things we want in life. Making mistakes is a crucial part of the process, and having compassion and self-love will help us learn what is best for our needs.

*Lack of self-compassion, the all or nothing attitude, means that when perfection doesn’t work, people will assume that they just aren’t trying hard enough. This traps you in an endlessly negative cycle of perfection, judgment and lack of self-worth. Basically, it means you will always feel like you are never enough. Once we shed the weight of shame, the path to shedding physical weight becomes lighter and much less cluttered.

Diet-thinking enforces constant judgment of every aspect of your life: actions, thoughts, food, behaviors, habits, results, worthiness.

Lifestyle thinking promotes self-kindness – promoting positive behaviors, gentle encouragement, & healthy self-talk to move forward and improve. Speak to yourself as you would a loved one, such as your daughter or son (real or theoretical).

Diet-thinking promotes isolation and resentment. We shut ourselves off from food, friends, and pleasure in order not to be tempted to “be bad” or eat “bad food”. We resent others for seemingly being able to eat whatever they want or having an “ideal body”. Most of all, we resent ourselves for our situation and needlessly blame ourselves.

Lifestyle thinking promotes connection and a shared feeling of humanity. We’re open about our struggles without feeling self-pity or self-hate, because we know we are not alone. We share our experiences, listen to others share their stories, and work together to heal and enjoy life.

Diet-thinking promotes over-identifying with your problems. You define yourself by your disease or disorder. You are consumed by negative thoughts and feelings.

Lifestyle thinking promotes mindfulness. You are aware of your thoughts, feelings, challenges and strengths without judgment. You know that your weight or ailment isn’t the true you, but just an opportunity to bring out the unique wisdom of your true self – the resilient being that can create blessings and opportunities from obstacles.

III. How to Move Forward

If you’re like me and you’ve been trapped in diet-land for years or decades, this type of thinking won’t fall away overnight. But gradually shifting to a lifestyle mindset, inviting positive actions and thoughts into your life, will make you stronger and stronger until maintaining a lifestyle is easier than the life of restriction and self-hate brought on by diet-learned behaviors. Some tools that have helped me to shift are:

1. Meditation.

Before you start protesting that you’re not a hippy and I can take my unshowered, crunchy granola self to the backwoods and stay there, I just want to say that meditation is simply a practice of observing your thoughts.

  • I know because I used to be that same reactionist cynic, until I found language that resonated with me. I like to be efficient, and I realized the amount of time and effort I spent judging my every move was a huge waste of energy. I didn’t go off and join a zazen sect of monks in Japan (though after a few years I’m contemplating a retreat). But, like anything, I STARTED SMALL.
  • Guided meditation was so helpful, so go over and check out Meditation Oasis. Or try sitting for 3 minutes each day and simply observing what thoughts come into your head. One of my favorite techniques is to imagine my thoughts as clouds, and I’m lying on the ground watching them. They are still there – I’m not trying to push them out or blank my mind (which always makes me think of the tv room in the original Willy Wonka), but I’m separate from them. I enjoy watching clouds in reality, so I associate positive feelings with observing my thoughts.

2. Use non-judgmental language.

We are cruel, and we are cruelest to ourselves. No one is born hating anyone, including ourselves. We learn it from magazines that teach us to focus on our imperfections so we buy advertised products out of insecurity. We learn it from a society and culture that promotes the COMPLETELY FALSE idea that if there are two people in a room and one is beautiful, the other person must be less beautiful. I suffered for years thinking that I couldn’t be pretty, talented, athletic, or attractive because there was always someone more pretty, talented, attractive or athletic than I was.

  • We are not in a zero-sum game of scarcity. The person next to you is just as awesome as you are, so celebrate your mutual admiration and awesomeness together. We rock, people!
  • Stop berating yourself. Screaming at a clerk doesn’t get you better service. Telling children how terrible they are doesn’t make them play any better in a game. Constantly critiquing yourself, exaggerating your faults, and losing sight of the positive and beautiful parts of you will not only leave you stuck in an endless dieting cycle, but also tired, unhappy, and not enjoying your life.
  • Embrace the idea that you are totally worth loving exactly as you are right now. You can have a goals for your future, but take a moment to be grateful for what is good in the present.

3. Start a journal. Or find your own therapeutic medium.

Writing is cathartic for me. It helps me release pent up emotions and thoughts that I struggle to deal with. It allows me to reflect on things and put pieces together so I become more aware of how I react to my life, especially obstacles. A journal gave a purpose to my healing. It helped me learn more about how my body works. It helped me sort out difficult emotions and remember good advice. It is a safe space to share my deepest fears and release shame – the first  step is often admitting things to yourself, and growing comfortable with the idea of discomfort. Once you share in a journal, you can get a clearer headspace and start to consider the idea of sharing with a friend, family, or professional.

  • Try writing in a journal for at least 30 days. If it really doesn’t resonate with you, find some other activity that helps to heal the rift with yourself – preferably one that makes you feel connected and a sense of belonging.
  • Attending meetings, finding some form of therapy (creative ones like art-based therapies would be great), talking through your problems out loud, starting a blog: any way that allows you to express your struggles and then go back and reflect on them is a great place to start.

4. Be your own coach (or find one).

I think we all should work with a coach at some point in our lives. They can hold open a compassionate space for wisdom, reflection, and awareness. Not everyone is comfortable with that idea or can afford private coaching. But you can start with being your own coach – using a compassionate voice and being solution-focused. “Experts” of any kind are problem-focused, so that makes me an expert in criticism, doubt, and shame. But I am slowly learning to be more open, to share my story, to gradually engage with discomfort. And all that started when I learned to coach myself with self-love, vulnerability, and sharing raw truths with myself and others.

  • I cannot emphasize enough the importance of the practice of self-love.
  • It’s all about a new way of communication – with yourself and your place in the world.

4. Change

success is the sum of small efforts

Diets don’t change you. You may be divided in two states – on the wagon, off the wagon, “being good” or “being bad”, but you don’t change. At the end of the day, you find yourself still miserable, still desperate, and longing for happiness – despite having a lost a few pounds or seen a small result.

With a lifestyle, you empower yourself to change. It’s scary, but you learn that fear is an essential part of life, one that can lead to positive results. It leaves you feeling vulnerable, but you realize that when you live openly, you invite greater connection, love, friendship, compassion, and understanding into your life, in addition to positive experiences and happiness. Vulnerability is actually the root of joy, but that’s a story for another post.

The crazy thing about lifestyles is that it isn’t about forever and always. You don’t have to say “I’ll never do —— again.” Because you might, and that’s ok. You just concentrate on making the best possible choice in that moment. And if you make a mistake – you can forgive yourself and clear your mind in order to make your next choice a good one. Lifestyles are a way to enjoy each day, more and more, which is why they are sustainable. Not because you are perfect 100% of the time, but because you like what you are doing or where it leads you, and you have a better quality of life. 

Choose joy. Choose enjoyment. Choose living full out – the good and the bad, because it is better than being numb on the sidelines. I know you can do it. Trust yourself – you’ve got an inner wisdom, intuition, resilience, and unbreakable love that you may not realize is there. I know for a fact that it is, and discovering it is just one great adventure called a good life.


Thanks to Underground Wellness and their podcast on The End of Diet Thinking with Greg Hottinger & Michael Sholtz and 15 Fat Loss Shifts with Dean Dwyer.