A recent interview on the topic of orthorexia, or an obsession with eating healthy, got me thinking about my own views on health and eating well. I discussed some of the issues in my blog The Pitfalls of the Quest for Perfect Nutrition so won’t repeat those here.
We are constantly bombarded with messages about the “best” way to eat. Eat this “good” food to be healthy, avoid that “bad” food to feel better! Coffee will make us live longer one day and kill us the next. The messages we receive about food and nutrition are often conflicting and sometimes downright scary. And, unfortunately, a lot of them come with a lot of judgement about the foods we eat. After spending the past 5 years working with people suffering from eating disorders I’ve come to develop a different, but I feel more balanced, way to look at food and eating. So here it is, my definition of eating well:
At its core, food is fuel. All foods provide energy for our bodies in the form of calories. We freak out a lot about calories, but from a scientific standpoint all they are is a unit of energy. Sure, some fuels are more productive than others, and I’ll get into that in a minute, but I don’t believe in good or bad foods. That is putting a lot of judgment on the food, which often becomes judgment on ourselves if we eat that food. How many of us have labeled a donut bad, and then referred to ourselves as “being bad” when we ate one? And how many of us actually let it ruin our day (or at least part of it) that we were bad and ate a bad food and “wasted calories”? Some of us may have even punished ourselves by going to the gym and working out when we’d rather have been hanging out with friends or family. That’s no way to live! Eating a donut (or whatever other food you think is “bad”) does not make you a bad person. It just makes you a person who ate a donut. Maybe even a person who likes donuts, which is no better or worse than a person who likes broccoli. When it comes to being non-judgmental about food I always give the example of fire. Would you say fire is good or bad? Most people immediately think of forest fires or houses burning down and say fire is bad. But for thousands of years fires have helped us cook our food and keep us warm. The same goes for water. Water tends to be thought of as good, and it’s true we need it to survive, but drink too much and you can dilute your electrolytes, feel awful, and even die. Fire is not good or bad. Water is not good or bad. Food is not good or bad. Let’s please stop judging our food and ourselves. It’s not helpful. As Yoda would say “good or bad, food is not. Just is, is food”, or something like that!
Instead of labeling foods as good or bad, I like to describe foods by their nutritional productivity. Some foods are more productive, meaning they are high in nutrients (vitamins, minerals, amino acids, fiber, essential fats etc) and other foods are less productive, meaning lower in those nutrients. If you are eating well by my definition you are probably eating both productive foods and less productive foods. Notice I am not saying “unproductive foods”? That’s because even foods that are low in nutrients are still providing calories, so still giving our bodies fuel they can use. So all foods fall on the spectrum of productivity. There is really no such thing as “empty calories” as that implies there is nothing in them, which is physiologically impossible. Even soda, often deemed empty calories, provides sugar which your body can use for fuel, and actually prefers for fuel during intense exercise.
So what exactly is eating well? Overall, eating well is choosing from a wide variety of foods. It’s having the majority of your diet come from productive foods, but also allowing yourself to eat less productive foods in moderation because they bring pleasure or enjoyment. And moderation could mean every day. Eating well is not denying yourself any food, as this often leads to over doing it with that food down the road. Eating well is listening to your body’s internal hunger cues while also being aware of how your own emotions or external factors influence your satiety cues. Eating well is letting food be fuel first, but also a way to celebrate and enjoy life. Eating well is moderation-not over doing any one food, whether that food be kale or cake. Eating well is letting food be a part of your life, but not the center of it.