If you follow our blog, read magazines, or spend any amount of time online, I’m sure you’ve encountered many articles on healthy eating. As a dietitian, I use this term often as I try to help people navigate the food world. In school, I learned about the science behind food, what certain vitamins do in the body, which foods take longer to digest and why, the hormonal cascade that takes place when glucose enters the bloodstream, etc. I had food down to a science…literally. These are the facts that I turn to when I talk to people about “healthy” eating. You’ll find me saying things like, “This food is healthy, because it contains these nutrients which do these things,” or, “This food is not as healthy, because it lacks these nutrients and contains too much of this or that.”
However, there’s another aspect of my education that’s often overlooked in the fitness world. I see it as a major role of my profession: the emotional and cultural aspect of food. Yes, food is science, but it’s also a way to show our roots, celebrate, comfort, and savor the world around us. I aim and encourage others to be “normal” eaters, not just “healthy” eaters. So what does “normal” eating mean?
I think Ellyn Satter says it best:
“Normal eating is going to the table hungry and eating until you are satisfied. It is being able to choose food you like and eat it and truly get enough of it—not just stop eating because you think you should. Normal eating is being able to give some thought to your food selection so you get nutritious food, but not being so wary and restrictive that you miss out on enjoyable food. Normal eating is giving yourself permission to eat sometimes because you are happy, sad, or bored, or just because it feels good. Normal eating is mostly three meals a day, or four or five, or it can be choosing to munch along the way. It is leaving some cookies on the plate because you know you can have some again tomorrow, or it is eating more now because they taste so wonderful. Normal eating is overeating at times, feeling stuffed and uncomfortable. And it can be undereating at times and wishing you had more. Normal eating is trusting your body to make up for your mistakes in eating. Normal eating takes up some of your time and attention, but keeps its place as only one important area of your life. In short, normal eating is flexible. It varies in response to your hunger, your schedule, your proximity to food, and your feelings.”
I believe that to truly be a “healthy” eater, you have to also be a “normal” eater. Although the science says that oatmeal is healthier than donuts for breakfast (because of the fiber, B vitamins, etc.), not being able to enjoy a donut with your co-workers occasionally, feeling guilty about eating those french fries, or punishing yourself through rigid restriction, is not healthy.
I realize that it’s socially acceptable to be a scientifically healthy eater while ignoring the emotional aspect of healthy eating. We praise each other for eating “clean,” avoiding all sugar, and having a bikini body, while thinking that those who are overweight, eat cake, or have a second helping are unhealthy, dirty eaters, or suffer from a lack of self control. We follow strict diets, go through binge restriction cycles, and get depressed when we “lack willpower.”
This type of thinking can quickly turn to disordered eating. I remember taking screenings in school and being shocked by the questions that were asked. I always assumed that disordered eating was action-based. What I didn’t realize is how much of it is thought-based. Disordered eating starts with how we think and feel about food. Check out some of the questions from the EAT 26 screening. You might be surprised to find that a few of your own thoughts and fears are included:
- I am terrified about being overweight
- I avoid eating when I am hungry
- I find myself preoccupied with food
- I avoid food with a high carbohydrate content
- I feel extremely guilty after eating
- I avoid foods with sugar
- I display self control around food
Now, these questions alone don’t qualify as an eating disorder, but these types of thoughts can lead to disordered eating, and unfortunately, this is too often applauded in our world. We share pictures of our food, often admitting a mistake (#cheatday, #guilty, #sinful, #foodporn), or we post photos displaying that we’re healthy eaters (#cleaneating, #guilt-free, #sugar-free, #raw). We’re promoting unhealthy relationships with food and ourselves. Chocolate cake doesn’t make us “dirty,” and eating kale doesn’t make us “clean.” We should never feel guilty about what we eat, because what we eat has no bearing on our value or morality.
After my schooling, I not only realized the science behind food, but I learned to celebrate the other aspects of food. I often eat large helpings of vegetables, because it makes my body feel good, and I know I need the nutrients, but I also celebrate with food (often pizza or ice cream). I love to learn about other cultures through food (thank goodness for Thai!), and comfort others and myself with food. There are few things I find more comforting when I’m sick than hot soup and homemade bread.
Now, I’m not saying that you should allow yourself to eat cake for all three meals, but I am saying that to be a truly healthy eater, you must allow yourself to enjoy and savor the non-scientific aspects of food without guilt, regret, or punishment. Listen to your body, make scientifically healthy choices most the time, but trust that your body will make up for it, even if you do happen to eat cake for all three meals once in a while…and if it’s poppyseed cake, give me a call and I’ll bring a fork!
Megan Ostler MS, RDN
WARNING: This post is not intended to replace the advice of a medical professional. The above information should not be used to diagnose, treat, or prevent any disease or medical condition. Please consult your doctor before making any changes to your diet, sleep methods, daily activity, or fitness routine. iFit assumes no responsibility for any personal injury or damage sustained by any recommendations, opinions, or advice given in this article.