Most Healthy Diets Fail. That's Why I Wrote This Cookbook
When people find out that I’m a writer and editor in the wellness world and a healthy cookbook author, they tend to barrage me with questions. What do I think of the keto diet? Do I sprout my nuts? And, most commonly and emphatically, what do I actually eat?
I think some of them picture me sitting in front of a joyless plate filled with several different types of raw kale, and maybe a sprinkle of nutritional yeast on top. In truth, my diet couldn’t be farther removed from that image—because the more I learned from years interviewing the country’s top doctors and registered dietitians, the more I realized that the public conception of a healthy diet is wrong.
There are three main problems most people run into when they’re trying to eat healthy, and the pervasiveness of these problems is why I believe many diets ultimately fail—and the reason I wrote my new cookbook, Healthier Together: Recipes for Two—Nourish Your Body, Nourish Your Relationships.
The first problem occurs in the planning stages: Most people undertake diets alone. They read something in a magazine or hear about a trendy diet on a radio show, and decide to give it a go.
They buy a bunch of new ingredients (and toss out unhealthy foods) and start scheduling out meal plans. And for a week or two, they try it out. But then the newness wears off, and the difficulty of cooking separate meals for partners and kids becomes exhausting. Or the idea of missing another night out with friends becomes depressing. And suddenly it's easy to quit.
Humans are social creatures. We evolved to thrive best when working together. So it’s no surprise that this philosophy extends to dieting as well. Numerous studies have shown the importance of a community to healthy eating, showing that when one partner adopts a healthier lifestyle or behavior, the other is more likely to make a positive healthy change as well—and vise versa. For instance, research has shown that when one partner smokes, it’s more likely the other does too—and if your partners eats plenty of fruits and vegetables, that halo effect will extend to your life as well.
In Healthier Together, the chapters are based on social occasions. There’s a "Cocktails & Bar Bites" section so you can make your own taquitos and Aperol Spritzes (kombucha based!) with friends, instead of starving at happy hour while everyone around you imbibes.
There’s a "Fancy Food" section that mimics the elevated cuisine found in a dimly lit restaurant of a date night. And there's a "Better Than Takeout" section for when you’d normally order in Thai or pizza. Instead of resenting food for separating you from your community, the book encourages you to embrace food’s ability to strengthen relationships by cooking together and supporting each other.
It’s also not a coincidence that the word "diet" tends to be most commonly associated with deprivation. Healthy eating is still synonymous with consuming salad after soulless salad (it makes my jaw hurt just thinking about all of that chewing!).
It seems obvious, but it’s very hard for people to stick to a diet if it’s not filled with food you want to eat. We’ve spent our entire lives absorbing the messaging that food is one of life’s core pleasures, and when we’re asked to start treating food as nothing more than nourishment, it’s not surprising that rewiring the years of well-trod neural pathways is difficult, if not impossible.
Eating healthy will change your taste buds. Really! Time and again, I’ve found that the more vegetables someone eats, the more vegetables they crave—similarly, the less sugar they eat, the less they crave. But you also need to fill your diet with foods that you really love to start with. The secret is finding ways to make feel-good recipes as healthy as possible, without sacrificing the crave-worthy qualities—such as with this Fully Loaded Baked Potatoless Soup, which swaps out starchy potatoes for fiber-rich sunchokes.
In my book, I slip in vegetables, swap carb-heavy crusts for grain-free tortillas, and lean on blood sugar-stabilizing whole-food flour alternatives and lower-GI, unrefined sugars. The result? Food that’s nourishing for the body and soul.
Finally, most diets focus on calories, which are, at best, an incomplete part of the equation. To state the obvious, calories have little to do with many components of overall health—eating solely for calories won’t help boost energy, manage autoimmune disease, or fight inflammation.
Even if you’re eating for weight loss, calories matter less than a systemic picture of your body as a whole. As Dr. Will Cole, one of the country’s top functional medicine practitioners and the author of Ketotarian, says, “We know now that the interplay between hormones, the microbiome, genetics, and food quality matter so much more than just food quantity, or calories.”
Hormones play a heady role in managing a healthy weight, as does gut health. “Your body is a chemistry lab more than a calculator,” explains Cole. “The foods you eat instruct your microbiome, which instructs your brain which instructs your hormones, which instructs your metabolism.”
While the recipes in my book don’t eschew calories completely, they do recognize and work to nourish the other bodily systems that lead to not only weight loss but long-term peak health. There are soups made with prebiotics to provide food for the good bacteria in your gut, and a method of quick pickling that preserves the probiotics in the vegetables.
Every recipe—desserts included—contains a mix of healthy fat, fiber, and protein to eradicate the blood sugar spikes and subsequent falls that lead to short term insulin problems, and long term chain-reactive cortisol, thyroid, leptin, progesterone, estrogen, and testosterone imbalances (yes, all of your body’s hormones are connected—a beautiful and frustrating thing). Keeping blood sugar stable is particularly important from a belly fat perspective, as studies have shown that spikes in cortisol, caused by stressors including a blood sugar rollercoaster, cause the body to hold onto weight.
So back to the question of what I actually eat. I start everyday with a green smoothie, because I know that I’m eating more vegetables before noon than many people eat in a week, but also because I can create concoctions that remind me of my favorite milkshakes, with flavors like chocolate-covered cherries or mint-chip.
For dinner, you can often find me at home, cooking recipes from my book or another favorite with a friend or co-worker or my husband—we’ll likely be sipping wine, and dancing to the 80s Spotify playlist I currently have on repeat. Sometimes I’ll go out, and sometimes when I go out, I’ll have chewy Margarita pizza or tater tots, my all-time favorite bar food. When I do, I make sure two things are true: That I’m eating it with other people (checking off point one), and, to speak to point two, that I’m really, really enjoying it. So what if it’s not hormone-nourishing or anti-inflammatory? It’s lowering my stress, which is at the root of most every bodily ailment, including carrying excess weight. It’s good for my body. It’s good for my soul.
And—oh yeah—whether it’s the Best Healthy Chocolate Chip Cookies from my book or a drippy cone of gelato on a hot Brooklyn day, I don’t shy away from a good dessert.
Liz Moody is the author of two healthy cookbooks: Healthier Together and Glow Pops. A longtime writer, editor, and healthy recipe developer, she served as the food director of leading wellness website mindbodygreen, and her work has been featured in goop, Vogue, Women's Health, and many more. She hosts the acclaimed podcast Healthier Together, where she explores the secrets of living extraordinary lives with some of the country's most notable women. You can follow her daily musings on Instagram @lizmoody and on lizmoody.com.