Striving to optimize your health, lose weight, or even just tone your body are great objectives. Unfortunately, some people fail to get the results they want no matter how many diet and fitness programs they try. It’s not because diet and exercise don’t work — in fact, they’re arguably the two most important foundational elements in any fitness plan. 

So, what separates the successful weight loss, increased muscle gain, or higher endurance goal achievers from those who repeatedly find themselves back at square one? Two words: obsession and deprivation.

The Dangers of Diet Obsession

When most people hear the word “diet,” they tend to focus more on less. They spend hours and hours thinking about how to power through with less food, fewer calories, less energy, and — let’s be honest — less fun. However, any diet based on obsession and deprivation is just not feasible or desirable in the long term.

Any diet you choose should ultimately focus on how to help your body perform better, not how much weight you can gain or lose in the shortest possible time frame. In addition, when you rely on deprivation rather than balanced nutritional habits or align your goals to a specific end result instead of a lifetime of consistent choices, it’s almost certain you won’t succeed in achieving, let alone maintaining, a healthy weight for long.

It’s not just your fitness goals that are in trouble when you approach dieting the wrong way. Research shows that a cycle of diet-related “failure” can lend itself to even worse food habits and depression. Other studies find that teens who diet have a fivefold increased incidence of eating disorders compared with non-dieting peers. Any perceived failure, such as not seeing rapid results or having the inevitable slip-up, can create an emotional tailspin. This can result in becoming increasingly anxious about food, obsessing over what is seen as a lack of willpower, or even going so far as punishing yourself for overindulging before moving on to the next dieting fad and the same vicious cycle.

A Sea of Nutrition Misinformation

One major contributor to diet anxiety is all of the conflicting information floating around, with so little backed by science. For example, 37% of participants in one research project said they trusted social media to provide them with nutritional advice, while only 14% turned to medical providers. That’s a problem because popular diet content tends to skew toward skinniness, not health. Rather than talk about the scientific make-up of a calorie or the value of micronutrients, most dieting articles promote specific eating styles like paleo or keto. Readers are led to believe that if they follow a one-size-fits-all plan, they’ll lose weight.

To be clear, some people do lose weight when following popular diets. But for most, it’s simply not sustainable. Not surprisingly, if a diet program backfires and all the weight comes back, that regain can take an emotional toll. One surefire way out of this devastating cycle is to forgo diets in favor of one basic rule: eating clean.

An Alternative to Diet Obsession

To put it simply, clean eating means choosing natural foods over heavily processed ones. The fewer ingredients in a food, the cleaner it is. This means your body knows exactly what to do with it, can use more as energy, and can store fewer calories as fat in real time. The result: You become an efficient fuel-burning machine. You no longer feel the need to deprive yourself of meals or obsess over what you can or cannot eat and when you’re allowed to eat it. When combined with a fitness regimen, clean eating primes your body to actively use the food you give it at the time you consume it.

Secondly, it’s important to view food as a friend and as fuel for your body, instead of as an energy-sucking enemy to avoid in order to shed a few pounds. Clean eating can actually increase your energy levels, improve your digestive system, and — perhaps best of all — boost your mood.

Plenty of feel-good serotonin receptors live in or around the stomach. When you eat, your body releases chemicals that affect your hormones. Highly processed foods can throw your emotional responses, including your self-control, out of whack. In fact, elevated carbohydrate loads have even been associated with fatigue and depressive symptoms. On the other hand, clean foods give the receptors exactly what they need and are less likely to cause miscommunication between the gut and brain.

To ditch dieting for good and to embrace a healthy relationship with food, start with these four tips:

1. Reach for water.

Feel like you overeat when you add a sugar-sweetened drink to your lunch? You’re probably right. One study showed that people who drank sugary beverages with meals ate 7.8% more calories than drinkers of non-sugar beverages. Consequently, one of the best moves you can make is to guzzle water all day rather than juice or soda. Water keeps the metabolism burning, regulates perspiration, and streamlines elimination.

2. Eat items found on the grocery store perimeter.

Instead of reaching for cereals, breads, processed bars, or grains, explore items purchased from the perimeter of the store. Typically, these will include fresh produce, dairy, fish, and meat. If you need to start out slow, say with one meal a day, experiment with breakfast recipes like a simple omelet or egg scramble with diced veggies. By beginning your day clean, you set your body up for high-octane performance.

3. Say no to boxed foods.

Craving brownies? There’s nothing wrong with that. However, if you’re serious about clean eating, take the extra step to make it from scratch using only ingredients with names you can pronounce. In general, anything in a box is more apt to be highly processed and loaded with sugar, fat, and salt. Get in the habit of reading nutrition labels as part of your clean eating pursuit.

4. Listen to your body.

As you incorporate cleaner ingredients into your meals, pay attention to the way you feel, think, and respond to stimuli. It’s very easy to see which foods are your BFFs when you’re making it a point to be aware of changes in your body and mindset. With that said, do give your body a chance to get accustomed to eating clean. For example, higher levels of fiber may cause temporary bloating. If you’re consuming adequate water, reassess your bloat, energy, and satiety levels after about two to three weeks. If you’re still struggling in these areas, make a switch.

As you embrace a clean eating lifestyle, keep two things in mind: First, healthy eating is not a punishment. And, second, the most basic principle of healthy eating is to eat what you need to fuel your body (#EatForLife), not as a way to soothe your emotions or combat boredom. Not only can comfort eating undermine your weight loss efforts, but it may also even contribute to your negative feelings instead of eliminating them.

Avoid diet obsession and anxiety. Lift your stress and get incredible nutritional advantages at the same time — not to mention helping your body look and feel better — by developing a clean eating lifestyle.