Why “Healthy Food Swaps” Backfire


In 2019, I wrote a story for SELF Magazine about why I stopped making “healthy food swaps” in Thanksgiving recipes. I’ve shared it every November since, and always get lots of comments and messages from people saying that they feel seen. I love reading those comments. I remember being nervous to write the story, and even more nervous about whether or not it would land with people. (If you’d like to read it, you can do that here.)

Eating what you want, instead of trying to fill up on "healthy food swaps," is the only way to truly feel satisfied.

There’s so much bad advice out there about making “healthy food swaps” to “save calories”.

Two years later, I kind of wonder how I ever worried that people wouldn’t be able to relate. The internet is BRIMMING with stories about how to “save calories” during your holiday meal. Or, how to make “healthy food swaps that no one will even notice”. And orthorexia — an unhealthy obsession with “healthy” eating — is more normalized than ever. 

So many people can relate to the frustration of “healthifying” Thanksgiving dinner only to leave the table feeling uncomfortably overstuffed. But I’m not sure everyone has a firm grasp on why this is. Too often, the solution put forth is to just eat “everything in moderation” and “stop eating when you’re full”. That doesn’t usually feel helpful, and it definitely doesn’t get to the root of the issue. (The “it’s just one meal!” line isn’t great, either. It implies that you’re only allowed to eat what you want on special occasions, but that’s an argument for another issue.)

Mashed cauliflower will never be satisfying when what you really want is a scoop of mashed potatoes.

You’ll end up eating massive amounts of cauliflower, assuming that the satisfaction will eventually come. (In this particular example, you’ll also end up feeling very gassy.) Then when dessert rolls around, you’re so unsatisfied, albeit uncomfortably full, that you’ll feel out of control around the pies. Even after dessert, you’ll probably keep going back for whatever leftovers are around. 

Wouldn’t it have been so much easier if you just ate the mashed potatoes in the first place?

Let’s take this scenario even further. You go to bed feeling incredibly stuffed. (So stuffed that maybe you can’t even sleep.) You wake up and commit to only eating “healthy” foods for however long. You’re surprised when they don’t satisfy you. Even though you’ve already learned that they won’t, you choose to ignore that fact. You think that it was just a temporary lack of willpower, and that what needs to change is your level of DISCIPLINE, not your mindset around food. 

And so you keep eating “healthy” foods that don’t satisfy you. Until you go to a holiday party in early December, and you see that there’s a spread of “bad” foods. You tell yourself you’ll only have a little bit, but then you spend the whole evening going back for just a little bit more. Cue the same uncomfortable fullness that you felt on Thanksgiving. 

That’s the binge-restrict cycle at work.

But again, you just don’t believe that this out-of-control feeling you get around food could be a natural response to all of your efforts to “be good” about what you eat. The world has told you it’s possible and normal to eat “good” foods and restrict bad ones without consequence. So you believe it. You’ve been convinced that being “careful” about what you eat is just part of being a responsible adult. The fact that your own experience completely contradicts that just makes you certain that there’s something wrong with you. 

Eventually, you’ll realize that you’re not the problem.

Mashed potatoes aren’t the problem, nor are white bread stuffing and full-fat pumpkin pie. It’s your perceived need to control what you eat that’s the problem. It’s the whole “good” and “bad” food belief system that’s the problem. 

You might not fully realize that this year. Maybe not next year either. But if you wake up on Black Friday still filled to the brim with cauliflower, pie, and every leftover you could find? Remember that there’s nothing wrong with you. You were just following a set of rules that will never deliver on their promise. 

If you feel out of control or guilty around food, I can help. I’m a dietitian who specializes in eating disorders and disordered eating. I take a weight-inclusive, gender-affirming, patient-centered approach. Learn more about my virtual nutrition counseling, offered to clients in several states. If you’re not ready to commit to counseling but want more information about the anti-diet approach, subscribe to my weekly newsletter.

You might also like:

What Is Orthorexia — And Do I Have It?

Why Do We Talk About Emotional Eating Like It’s Bad?

The Binge Restrict Cycle: How Dieting Causes Binge Eating

Binge Eating at the Start of Intuitive Eating? It’s OK.

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Looking for a free intuitive eating course? Whether you’re new to the anti-diet approach or you’ve been trying to work towards intuitive eating for a while, our 5-Day Intuitive Eating Starter Course is a great start for anyone who’s tired of obsessing over “wellness” and constantly struggling with food and body acceptance.


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