What is healthy eating?
For years, I considered a degree in nutrition (and took a lot of classes in that area before I decided I didn’t want to be a dietician). I’ve read hundreds of books and magazine articles on the topic, and I’ve tried out many styles of eating myself. Five days a week, I work at a lab where we create brochures and videos to encourage people to eat five to nine fruits and veggies a day for cancer prevention. After work, I teach aerobics at a gym where everyone talks about dieting and where a lot of participants in my classes are asking me what I eat. As we all have, I also have witnessed friends, family members, co-workers, and acquaintances try out different diets, with one or two of them sticking with it and finding success and the rest failing and soon moving on to the next trend. I’ve thought about proper nutrition even more since pregnancy and breastfeeding, and as a mom. At the grocery store and in the kitchen, I have choices to make that affect the growth and development of my kids and the physical and mental health of me and my husband. So, yes, I have a vested interest in this question about healthy eating…but, don’t we all?
Recently, I’ve been thinking about it from a few new angles. Several friends and relatives of mine have gone “primal” and report losing a significant amount of weight and having more energy (for more info, visit: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/). Another couple of my friends have just become vegan (http://www.vegan.org/) or vegetarian (http://www.vrg.org/) in the last year. Still others I know swear by Atkins (http://www.atkins.com/) or paleo (http://thepaleodiet.com/) or South Beach (http://www.southbeachdiet.com/). If I ask any of these folks why they are changing their eating habits, they say one of two things: (1) to lose weight or (2) to eat healthier.
If you check out the websites above, you will find that these popular approaches to eating are quite different. For instance, primal, Atkins, and paleo include a variety of animal foods, while veganism and vegetarianism exclude or limit foods that come from animals. These approaches to eating also vary on their recommendations for intake of fats, grains, dairy, and fruit. Yet, they all claim to be healthy. Are they? It all can be very confusing.
My personal standpoint is that we’ve made it far more complicated than it has to be. True, it’s not as easy as just eating whatever we want. In a country where many of us are overweight and have health problems, we can’t get away with not thinking about it at all. Still, once we’ve got the basics of healthy eating down, my opinion is it’s not really that hard either. (And, if you want proof, ask my husband. Without even trying, he dropped 60 pounds the first year we started living together—and has kept if off, just by switching over to my style of eating.)
So, how can we eat healthy?
To me, healthy eating is about these 10 things:
- Getting the nutrients our bodies need so that we can function at our best. It’s about feeling good physically and mentally and having energy. It’s not just about weight loss. Sure, we all may drop a few if we eat only cauliflower for three days. But, seriously?! How healthy is that? I say eat for energy, longevity, glowing skin, shiny hair, strong nails, cancer prevention, whatever health-related goals you have. Then, if you’re overweight, the weight loss will happen. If not, then make a few more changes. Either way, I think the key is to think: health first, losing weight second.
- Natural, whole foods. I mentioned that the diets listed above differ in a lot of ways. Still, they have a few things in common: fresh, natural, unprocessed or minimally processed foods. Think lots of veggies! And nuts and seeds. Think fruit instead of juice…and if you’re eating them, whole grains instead of white flour and steak instead of lunchmeat. I’m sorry, but any “healthy eating plan” that includes a bunch of artificial sweeteners, chemical fat substitutes, additives, or preservatives is not healthy in my books. (Although, if your tried and true way to eliminate a dietary disaster—say, stops at the local donut shop every morning or a supersize fry on the way home from work each night—is to chew on a piece of sugar-free gum or chug a Diet Coke here and there, then I say fine. Although I wouldn’t consider that healthy per se, healthier is a step in the right direction!)
- Variety! Whether you go vegan or primal or you’re just following the USDA guidelines, it’s all about changing it up. If you eat the same stuff every day, not only will you bore yourself right out of your healthy eating plan, but you’re simply not going to get the range of nutrients that your body needs. Protein, fiber, and fat keep you full. Calories keep you going. Eat a little of everything, and you’ll get what you need.
- Enjoying your favorite foods! In my world, nothing is off limits. Sure, I eat smaller portion sizes of most of the naughty foods in my life, but I still eat them. And, on my birthday or during that time of the month, if I want the whole double dip hot fudge chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream sundae (my favorite indulgence that I will never, ever give up), then I go for it. Unless you have a medical problem and the doctor says absolutely none of something, I say just do it. Eat your favorite not-so-healthy treat every once in a while. Have your sundae, French fries, double cheeseburger, whatever…and cherish every single bite! But, then move on to the rest of your healthy eating plan the next time you put something in your mouth.
- Looking for healthy substitutes for some of the unhealthy things you love. True, nothing is better than the real deal sometimes. My ice cream sundaes speak for themselves. However, through the years, I’ve found lots of sensible snacks and treats to fill in when I need to put the brakes on the hot fudge. Look up recipes online. Go to a health food store. And, keep an open mind! I had to try tens of nutrition bars labeled “brownie” before I found my new personal favorite: http://thepurebar.com/pure-products/pure-organic/chocolate/.
- Limiting sugar. Sorry! This is another one of those frustrating parts of healthy eating…and another bullet point that all the diets above have in common. Sugar by itself has very little to offer us nutrition-wise besides calories. For most styles of eating, fruit is best, juice is okay, and sugar should be limited.
- Not feeling too hungry but not feeling stuffed. Most healthy eating plans start with breakfast and include several other meals and snacks. If you skip a meal and let yourself get too hungry, you’ll end up overeating later. Eat enough to satisfy your hunger but not so much that you have to unbutton your pants and take a nap after every meal!
- Gradual changes. Very few of us are good at going cold turkey with anything. You have to experiment a little to find out what works for you. Some changes will come easy; others…not so much. However, tackling a little bit each day is much easier than overhauling your life all at once. Eating healthy depends on your activity level, your preferences, and your schedule, among a bunch of other variables. Don’t overwhelm yourself by trying to think about all these things right off the bat. This is one area of life I firmly believe should not be all or nothing. Take it slow, and things will fall into place.
- Maintaining your sanity! Eating healthy should not make you crazy! To me, there’s a huge mental health component to healthy eating. Eating happens every day, multiple times. I just cannot deal with feeling guilty or like I’m depriving myself that often. No one can. How healthy can any plan really be if it stresses you out? Personally, if I have to worry about counting calories, carbs, or fat grams every time I pop something in my mouth, I’m going to go nuts! If you start slow, you’ll begin to recognize what foods make you feel good and help you achieve your health goals. Sure, it’s okay to look up the nutrient content of something here and there if you’re curious. And, some people do very well with logging what they eat in a diary. If that works for you, fine. But, keep yourself in check. Remind yourself that healthy eating is feeling good about yourself and your body because you know you’ve made the right choices. Eating is one of the things in life that naturally brings us joy. And, we get to do it every single day! Mealtime should not bring on a panic attack. Yes, you can eat healthy and still enjoy food!
- Finding a plan you can stick with over time. If you’re eating plan leaves you hungry, irritable, and longing day and night for cheesecake, it’s not working for you. People have different thresholds for change. I’ve known people who have cut carbs out of their diets permanently. They decided one day—no more bread, potatoes, sweets, etc., and that was that. I know others who tried to go a day without a bagel and ended up eating a whole loaf of bread in one sitting. In general, eliminating a whole food group from our lives (especially all at once) won’t work for most of us. It’s all about choices—if you neeeeeed your fettuccine alfredo or Snickers bar or Dr. Pepper or whatever, then don’t threaten yourself with the idea of never again having it. If you’re like me and you do that, your premenstrual alter-ego will end up playing nasty tricks on you, and your healthy eating plan will go out the window. Your approach to food has to make sense for you. There are healthy vegans out there on lower-fat, animal-free diets focused on whole grains, tofu, nuts, seeds, fruits, and veggies. There are others living on meat and butter and greens who also are healthy. You are a unique individual; the way you eat should reflect that!
To sum it up…in my (non-expert and admittedly biased) opinion, healthy eating, like many other things, looks a little different for all of us. But, it focuses on a few of the same things—providing ourselves with the nutrients and energy we need to feel good and get through our days, without stressing us out! And, if you truly want to be healthy, some exercise won’t hurt either…but that’s another post for another day. Until then, happy (healthy) eating!