Food is just food – this is hard to understand after all the craze about healthy eating. While I do blog about health benefits of foods and healthy eating habits, I no longer support the idea that every single thing we eat should be entirely “healthy” and all the mortal pleasures must be denied because they are bad for health. Consider it an evolution of my nutrition and psychology knowledge.
Food can be your medicine or it can be your poison. It can nourish you or deplete your body of essential nutrients. You can indeed go both ways here, but it’s not as black and white. It’s all about balance.
Getting the majority of your energy from processed, sugary and fatty foods is not healthy. But having an exclusively ‘clean’ diet and considering any processed item a ‘taboo’ is also not healthy. This leads to obsession, excessive preoccupation with food that takes a lot of time away from your normal daily activities and it impairs your mental well-being. Not always, but it can.
Instead of paying no attention to our diets or paying a lot of attention to it, there is one better thing and it’s called intuitive eating. Some of us are born with this internal meter that tells us when to eat and when to stop and it helps us to not obsess over what we eat because we know that one piece of cake is just one piece of cake. It won’t ruin our lives forever. Even if your scales go up for a couple of days after, they will eventually go back down because we do not subsist on cakes. And who cares about the scales anyway? The exact number is just one minor thing that determines nothing. It doesn’t determine how we feel, it doesn’t even really determine how we look because the body shape and size is so much more than just a number.
So what is a Healthy Relationship with Food?
I can tell you what it’s not:
- It’s not depriving yourself of food when you are hungry and it’s not stuffing yourself with food because you must eat right now or because you are just bored.
- It’s not sticking to a particular eating regime (6 meals a day, eating every 4 hours, etc.).
- It’s not leaving food on the plate because you think you’ve had enough (vs. feeling full) and it’s not forcing yourself to eat up everything because you’ve paid for it or you have to eat a particular amount.
- It’s not forcing yourself to eat foods that you do not like just because they are good for you and it’s not depriving yourself of a pleasurable food because it is bad.
- It’s not feeling guilty about eating that serving of crisps and then trying to punish yourself or make up for it in a gym.
- It’s not deciding what and how much you should eat based on other people’s choices.
- It’s not deciding whether you can or cannot eat a food based on it’s calorie content.
- It’s not asking a servant in a restaurant of a dozen of unnecessary modifications (no dressing, no bread, no potatoes) because it’s fattening otherwise.
- It’s not skipping meals because you need to lose weight or you’re going out later and it’s not eating every item on the list just because it’s free/included.
Healthy Eating Habits
It is when you sit down for a meal and your brain is tuned on having a meal. You can see it, smell it and anticipate it. You know that you are hungry and need a meal. You eat paying attention to textures and flavours, you actually enjoy eating it. You can feel your hunger fade away and you can stop when you feel full. Just like reading a book requires your full attention to understand what you are reading, eating a meal requires your full attention to understand that you are eating. This eliminates the risk of mindlessly stuffing your mouth with food while you’re watching your favourite TV show.
No food is intrinsically good or bad. Even the healthiest foods may have a compound or two that are bad for something. We have to understand this. Yes, there are better choices or worse choices, and this is where balance comes in handy. Make it a habit of basing your meals around better choices: lots of vegetables, fruit, whole grains and whole foods in general. And then let yourself enjoy something extra, too. That way you know that your occasional chocolate bar or a meal out with friends will be balanced out.
This mostly comes down to mindful eating – if you really listen to what your body is telling you then you will know when it’s enough. Sometimes we’re used to eating very large portions that mainly consist of starches (mash or rice) and meats and sauces. Traditional recipes also often have a lot of fat, such as oil, butter or cream. If you have a problem with weight that needs to be addressed, then your best bet is to start with fresh salads as a starter and then eat your usual meals, but paying close attention to your internal signals. Watching the amount of fat you add to your recipes is also vital, but so are the appropriately sized portions. When your body is telling you that you are full – stop. You will have another opportunity to enjoy a meal you like. You don’t have to eat everything on the plate. Keep the leftovers for the next meal if you like, but the overeating pattern needs to be broken. Likewise, if you eat very little you may need to adjust your portion sizes or add some starch and healthy fats. People recovering from anorexia can often have trouble eating more food, while previously orthorexic people may find it hard to eat grains or fats or any other foods/food groups previously thought to be unhealthy.
Eating What You Like
It is a common misconception that to be in a good shape, whether this means healthy or slim, you have to eat disgusting foods, like greens or any other stuff. While greens have a lot of goodness in them, many of the nutrients are not exclusive to green vegetables and can be found in other foods, just like the well know calcium is not exclusive to dairy products and is found in greens, soybeans and some nuts and seeds, like almonds and sesame seeds. Variation, of course, is the key, but it doesn’t mean that you absolutely have to eat foods that you do not like. Eating the foods you do not enjoy just because they are healthy sends your brain the wrong message, making you associate healthy with disgusting and overemphasizes the joy of eating the less healthy foods. This makes it harder to form new habits.
Forgiving Your Mistakes
When you follow a restrictive diet, everything that is ‘off-limit’ is desired twice as much. It is simple psychology – when you know that you can have something freely at any time, you’re not too tempted. Once you know that you can’t, the forbidden fruit becomes the object of your desire. You resist the temptation, which is quite taxing on your mental well-being, but at some point you give in and have it. And instantaneously you’re drenched with guilt, you feel weak, hopeless and not worthy. Then you think of a way to earn redemption and restrict yourself even further, pose some hard-to-complete challenges, or chain yourself to a treadmill. If you recognise yourself in this description – STOP. You don’t have to do this to yourself. Learn to forgive and forget.
I can offer you another way to look at this: Imagine yourself walking. Suddenly, you stumble and fall. Or maybe someone tripped you up and you fell. What do you do? Do you bash yourself and feel ashamed? Do you punish yourself and make yourself walk 5 miles up the hill without stumbling even once? Or do you give up because of one missed step? Treat your diet and lifestyle the same way.
Things happen, we make mistakes – it is a natural process and we learn by them. Just like with the wrong step that made you fall, there’s no need to punish yourself or give up just yet if you went off your course. It is not your lack of will power, it is not your weakness. It is human nature. You do not need to feel ashamed, especially if this ‘mistake’ has brought you joy. Forgive and forget. Pick up at where you stopped and keep going. Treat it exactly the same way as the wrong step that made you fall – do your best to walk carefully but if you happen to fall, you fall. You get up and go. Yes, you could have prevented it (not always). But you didn’t. You can’t change it. So just get up and keep on walking.
Making Your Own Decisions
Peer pressure is a serious issue in many parts of our society. Oh the things people do when they feel pressured by their peers! That’s when most of the bad things happen, like drugs and alcohol, felony and crime. Teens are especially prone to getting under influence of their peers, but it doesn’t stop after the teen years are past. It is also not exclusively limited to illegal things: people of all ages and social groups endure peer pressure on a daily basis. It could be a colleague that offers you to have a cigarette with them when you are trying to quit smoking or it could be friends that are trying to drag you to a party when you need to study for a test. And of course there is a lot of peer pressure when it comes to food. It could go both ways – it could cause you to have a relapse and go off your eating regime, or it could influence you to choose healthier options, sometimes to the point that it becomes just as damaging as bad choices. It is common for me to see girls picking on a plate of cucumbers when there is a wide choice of foods around only because neither of them want to look bad in the eyes of the others. But this is not right! It is hard to break free from the peer pressure, but it should be done. You have a mind of your own, you have your own preferences. Stand by them, not by an artificial image that you’re creating or the society is pressurising you into. Be yourself.
Exercising for Pleasure
Healthy and balanced lifestyle does not only involve the dietary changes, but also includes exercise. Physical acivity offers a lot of benefits for health and mind. It helps control many vitals, such as heart rate and blood pressure, blood glucose and lipids, thus positively influencing your heart health and helping control pre-diabetes or diabetes. Weight-bearing exercise increases the bone mineral density, reducing the risks of osteoporosis, and any type of exercise can help control weight. Physical activity, even as simple as walking, is able to improve mood and lower risks of depression, as well as help manage other mental health disorders.
Unfortunately, many people now use physical activity as a means to achieve a certain look, to cut body fat and as a substitute for a healthy diet. When neglecting the dietary aspect, exercise may simply not produce any result, or worse, it may deplete your body of essential nutrients if intake is not sufficient. What is even more concerning is the use of excessive exercise in avid dieters and people suffering from eating disorders. A well balanced lifestyle should include vigorous and moderate physical activity, but it shouldn’t be excessive, as it leads to complications of its own, and it should definitely not be used as punishment to make up for bad dietary choices. As I previously said, learn to forgive yourself for slip ups and learn to nurture yourself and not punish. Practise self-love and acceptance, and surely get exercising, but do it in the way you can enjoy! Forget the calorie counters and trackers, don’t make it your goal to burn a certain amount. Your priority should be the health, both physical and mental.
There is no such thing as a perfect diet. Each dieting enthusiast and a follower of a certain belief will claim that this is the way. But it’s not. We are all unique in the way our bodies are composed. We have different genetical adaptations, depending on many factors, such as where we come from, our lifestyles and those of our ancestors, our health status and even current nutrient status. We absolutely cannot all be prescribed the same diet and expect that it will work equally well for all of us. As Lucretius said back in 50 BC,
‘One man’s food is another man’s poison‘.
Our nutrition should be tailored indvidually, and I firmly believe that no one knows better than your own body what exactly it needs. If we really try and work with it, if we tune to the same wave, we will hear it say what it needs. Cravings are one of the body’s ways to tell what it wants. If we nourish it with the right foods, but don’t deny the simple pleasures, we will learn that it can actually crave many things, and healthy, too. We just need to give it a chance.
This is not to say that eating healthy is bad. It is very good! There is nothing wrong with choosing healthier options and sticking to a healthy diet as long as it doesn’t impair your physical and mental well-being, your social life and other aspects of your life. If you can be flexible nonetheless and not worry about eating something that is ‘off-limit’, if your food choices do not affect you in any negative way and you know how to nourish both your body and soul, then congratulations! You have mastered intuitive eating!
Take a good care of yourself. No one else can do it for you.