It wouldn't be surprising if most millennials, having grown up surrounded by so many heavily advertised diet plans, processed foods, and an internet chock-full of conflicting health advice, have a pretty wonky relationship to dieting and food in general. It's a wonder any of our bodies are still functioning. There are scores of terrible diet tips our generation has followed, but according to nutritionists, there are seven especially insidious ones that most people between the ages of 24 and 38 have tried at some point.
If you really want to change your body for the better, "do it from a place of love," advises registered dietitian Shauna McQueen, a graduate of the Institute of Integrative Nutrition. This is not the mindset most body image–warped millennials grew up with. But eating healthier and making positive adjustments to your body is a positive thing, not a punishment. "Work with your body and not against it," McQueen continues. "Be patient with yourself, choose vibrant, nourishing foods you love, get in touch with your body to connect with how your food choices make you feel, and enjoy your food mindfully."
The first step to doing all that is to recognize what doesn't work. Keep scrolling for seven common (damaging) diet tips we've all followed—and what to do instead.
1. Carbs are bad.
In the '80s, everyone thought fat was the enemy, but by the time millennials were old enough to diet, the story had changed to demonize carbs. "Carbs have gotten a really bad rap," says McQueen. "But it's really refined grains that deserve the bad press. There's a big nutritional difference between refined and whole grains." Refined carbs (think white flour, white rice) lack two out of the three parts of grain that contain the most nutrition. "Whole grains, on the other hand, are intact and a great source of minerals as well as fiber, which supports both gut and cardiovascular health," says McQueen. They also stabilize blood sugar, which in the end will actually help you stay slimmer if that's what you're going for.
Cutting out any entire nutrient group is something few nutritionists recommend: You need "all of the food groups and the essential macronutrients," says Jessica Sepel, clinical nutritionist, best-selling author, and health blogger. "Fiber, good fats, protein, and complex carbohydrates." So rather than nixing carbs altogether, choose complex grains, like brown rice, oats, and quinoa.
2. The sugar in fruit is just as bad as candy.
Forgoing fruit (and even some vegetables) because it's too sugary is a common, though ill-advised, diet tip. "I have heard countless times from clients that they will absolutely not eat carrots, yet they may be having ice cream on a nightly basis," says registered dietitian Rachel Daniels, senior director of nutrition at Virtual Health Partners.
The truth is that fruits do contain sugar, some will spike your blood sugar, and going full fruitarian is not something any nutritionist we've talked to suggests. But according to McQueen, "Most of us would likely benefit from more fruit in our diet, not less."
Fruit and, especially, vegetables, even those with a higher glycemic index, are "not the same as having fruit chews or gummy candies and are an essential part of any eating plan," Daniels explains. Unlike candy, fruit offers vitamins, minerals, hydration, flavor, and fiber to keep you full. "Consume a reasonable amount of fruit," Daniels suggests, "i.e. not an entire bunch of bananas or pound of grapes in a sitting, but a small apple, two clementines, or a cup of berries. And please, enjoy your carrot and celery snack guilt-free."
3. Foods labeled "diet" will help you lose weight.
"Millennials have grown up with sugar substitutes in processed foods," says Daniels (think diet soda, sugar-free candy, reduced-calorie chips, etc.) "These options seem like the perfect combo—taste without the calories," Daniels continues. "But it is not so simple." Unsatisfying, blood-sugar-spiking sugar substitutes can actually make us crave sweets even more, ultimately derailing your nutrition goals.
Daniels suggests replacing diet soda with flavored seltzer and sugar-free candies with fruit or dark chocolate chips. "Your taste and desire for the sweet will start to dissipate and it will be easier to avoid sweets overall," she says.
4. Weight loss is as simple as calories in, calories out.
"Weight balance is so much more complicated than the old calories-in-calories-out theory," says McQueen. "By restricting yourself around certain foods that you want, you tend to actually become more preoccupied by them and less likely to control yourself once you encounter them." Deprivation is how we end up in vicious dieting cycles that are detrimental to our health and weight-loss goals, not to mention the toll it takes on our mental wellness.
The same amount of calories in a processed sweet and a fresh vegetable is not going to have the same short- or long-term effect on our bodies. "A 100-calorie snack pack is not going to fuel your body the same as an avocado," explains Katie Ulrich, health coach at Be Well. "Ditch the old calorie-counting mentality. Quality over quantity is a new rule to live by."
5. When you want to "reset" your body, go on a detox.
"Detox diets are all the rage with millennials, who are heavily focused on overall wellness and clean eating," says Daniels. "These trendy cleanses seem great because they can lead to boosts in energy levels and drops on the scale." But even though those initial results can seem encouraging, they're not sustainable. "You will first lose water weight and sugar stores, and when these sources are depleted, weight loss will slow down," says Daniels. "Additionally, not all detox diets are safe, and the limited intake can lead to nutritional issues long-term."
Instead, be gentle with yourself by starting slow and focusing on a sustainable, long-term plan. "Consume a diet rich in lean protein, whole grains fruits, and vegetables," says Daniels. "Focus on fiber and drink LOTS of water. This will allow the body’s built-in detoxification processes to work smoothly and naturally and will help you lose weight in a safe way."
6. Supplements work as a quick fix.
Millennials have supplement fever, but "weight loss is not found in a bottle," says Ulrich. Supplements are by no means bad, especially if you're using them in a targeted way to help make sure your body is meeting its nutrient requirements. "But you cannot supplement your way thin," Ulrich says. "They go hand in hand with a healthy diet, but you must do both."
7. Exercise will offset your unhealthy eating.
"You cannot reach your best health by thinking this way," says Ulrich. "Yes, working out is key to well-being, but you must do both, not just one."
Interestingly, there is also such a thing as working out so hard it actually hinders any weight loss efforts. "Intense exercise can raise cortisol and adrenaline, which puts our bodies into a state of fight or flight. … This often causes the body to hold onto weight," says Sepel, adding that 30 minutes of moderate exercise a day is best for weight management. "I do believe that movement plays an important role in the healthy life … [but] it's important to slow down, tune into your body, and see how you feel," Sepel says. "If I have more energy, I'll do some HIIT or weight training, or if I'm feeling a slower pace, I'll go for a walk in nature or do some yoga."
Next: Nutritionists agree these diet habits are sabotaging your health.