A few months ago, a reader emailed me to ask how I came to be at peace with my food choices. She noted how balanced my approach to eating seemed to be, and that I ate and cooked with a whole host of foods, never purposefully eliminating certain categories. Eating based on how foods make me feel and thrive versus eating based on a diet or following specific rules is something I’ve come to be very passionate about. I often discuss it on my Instagram account, encouraging readers to throw out preconceived notions about “good” foods and “bad” foods and just eat real foods. It can be a baffling idea at first, since we are bombarded daily with the media and diet industry telling us to count calories, instructing us on what to eat, and aggressively telling us what not to eat. Just today a friend shared Bob Harper’s 20 “Skinny Rules” on Facebook, and it’s estimated that 108 million Americans diet each year, spending over $20 billion annually on diet and weight-loss products.
The idea of eating a diet that includes all the food groups and doesn’t, in essence, eliminate anything that nature made has come to be an almost foreign concept, especially if we want to lose some amount of weight. In fact when I originally posted a photo comparison of my slow and gradual weight loss after the birth of my third child, some readers couldn’t believe I had managed to trim down while still eating red meat, dairy products, and carbohydrates. I had one reader in particular who was so shocked, she almost seemed to think I was fibbing. I promise I’m not.
To be completely honest, in the beginning of my clean eating journey, I did go through brief periods where I cut out gluten and dairy. But what I soon came to find out was that my body is not affected negatively or positively by the consumption of gluten. So I continue to eat my whole-wheat toast because it tastes better than the bricks they try to pass off as gluten-free bread. My body does, in fact, react negatively to the cheap processed American cheese I had been making grilled cheese sandwiches with for years. And that huge glass of cow’s milk does give me a rocking stomachache. So now I limit the occasional consumption of cheese to good blocks of Parmesan and the occasional mozzarella I pick up at a local cheese shop, and I mainly drink almond milk, although nothing beats a cold class of milk with chocolate chip cookies. So this is how I’ve eaten consistently for the last year: red meat, seafood, poultry, baguettes, some cheese (but not a lot), every single veggie that the farmer’s market has to offer, and a whole assortment of legumes and grains. I eat it all and eat it with delight, eyeing my portions, but not counting my calories.
Diet plans like Whole 30, Atkins, Paleo, and so on have undoubtedly helped many people. Those who suffer from obesity, autoimmune disorders, Celiac disease, and so on can all greatly benefit from reducing or eliminating certain food groups or food triggers, and I wholeheartedly support whatever food and wellness path that gets a person to optimal health. But for the average person, like me, who just wants to lose the baby weight or feel better, eating well doesn’t have to be all that complex, and it certainly can allow us to eat a whole range of foods with a certain sense of peace — maybe even enjoyment!
That I’m even able to discuss a subject such as escaping a fear of food and finding peace in eating is both humbling and overwhelming. While I’ve never battled a severe eating disorder, I dealt with the typical fear of foods and body image issues that the average American woman deals with, and I’d never been so fearful of food and unhappy with myself as when I was a size 2. At the time, my biggest fear was that any morsel I put in my mouth would quickly push me out of the size 2 category, a fear I now realize was completely irrational, unhealthy, and detrimental to my well-being.
So what did I tell that reader who wrote me, asking for advice in achieving some sort of peaceful balance with food? In a nutshell, here are the 6 tips I shared:
1. Stop categorizing real foods as “good” or “bad”
Real food, that is, foods found in nature or that are very minimally processed, is neither inherently “good” or “bad.” While some foods have higher nutritional value than others, each category of foods can serve us in a beneficial way. The key here is, of course, variety and moderation. Subsisting off pasta alone is never a good idea, but there is no credible reason why the average person should completely eliminate carbohydrates from their diet. After all, us humans need them to exist, and at minimum, 45 percent of our calories per day should come from carbohydrates.
2. Eliminate words like “cheat” and “splurge” from your food vocabulary
The notion of cheating in anything is wrapped up in all sorts of negativity, and when we apply it to food, it can just lead to unnecessary feelings of guilt and remorse when we cheat or indulge in “off limit” foods. I like the way Nia Shanks, the author of Safe and Sane Nutrition, phrases it: “Having a ‘splurge meal’ reinforces the idea that food is a ‘reward.’ We’re not dogs. We don’t get rewarded with treats.”
3. Break free from rules
The food world is filled with all sorts of rules. Sure, some make a lot of sense, like “Drink Plenty of Water,” but others are completely obscure, such as “No Eating After 7 PM.” With just a bit of research and some common sense, you can decide for yourself which diet “rules” are just general guidelines that work for you and which ones are meaningless for your lifestyle and personal health. If your gut seems to be unaffected by legumes, do you need to follow a strict Paleo diet? And if I get home from a grueling 8 PM hot yoga class, absolutely starving, you bet your bottom dollar I’m going to eat a filling and nutritious snack.
4. Trust yourself, and don’t beat yourself up
Part of any healthy relationship is a level of trust. Many of us have some trust issues with food, which is why we don’t allow ourselves to be around certain trigger foods, like candy or cakes, or why we resort to strange behaviors, like throwing salt on desserts to stop ourselves from eating them. This can leave us jonesing so bad for a piece of cake, that by the time we finally dig in, we don’t just “splurge,” but we make ourselves sick. The best thing I’ve done for myself in this category is instead of limiting any exposure to sweets or savory foods, I just find healthier alternatives to these foods I love most. To fill a sugar craving, instead of polishing off a sleeve of Oreos, I eat some dark chocolate or raw, plant-based macaroons. Or instead of Doritos, I eat some simple olive oil and sea salt popcorn. We’re humans after all; we’re genetically predisposed to crave certain foods that are comforting and produce the feel-good hormone serotonin, so it almost goes against our human makeup to commit to an eternal sugar-free lifestyle. But by allowing your cravings to manifest themselves in more healthy ways, you’ll probably find that you’ll eventually come to crave the “healthy” version of your favorite junk food instead.
5. Learn about food, and what makes you feel best
As I raise my own three children, seemingly made up of an assortment of the same genes, I’m continually amazed by how completely unique we all are. This is why I continue to be confused by the notion of “one diet fits all.” While some statements about eating better are universally true, including cutting out processed and fast food, ditching soda, and cutting back on sugar intake, many other dietary rules that involve elimination of certain foods and drastic reduction of calories cannot and do not work for every individual. After I took some time to read labels and understand the important role that each nutrient plays in my health and did a little bit of trial and error, I finally found a way of healthy, balanced eating that works for me, and me alone. I strongly encourage every individual to do their own research and spend some time experimenting before deciding that a certain diet is right for them. You just may find out that the best type of diet is no real diet at all.
6. Embrace your body
This is the one that has admittedly been the hardest for me to overcome, and during the last couple of summer months, I have found myself, on occasion, swirling with negative thoughts about my “problem areas.” So I get it: Accepting and loving your body is sadly one of the most challenging things many women deal with. One thought I try to reinforce to help me get out of a negative mental loop is reminding myself that I’m doing the best I can for my health. I eat as wholesome and nutritiously as I can and I exercise consistently, therefore I’m really doing my best. The body I’m left with after all that precious self-care is decidedly the body I’m left with, and I am good with that. Looking at genetics has helped me, too. I look at my dad, and even now at my daughter, and I see how eerily close our builds resemble each other. From our backside to our legs and almost everything in between, we are almost clones of each other. So while good eating habits and consistent exercise may help keep me trim and sane, there’s a strong case of genetics at play here, and perhaps abs of steel just aren’t in the cards for me, no matter how hard I try.
The end result in all of this has been that I’ve finally found a way, for the most part, to stop obsessing about my food choices and just start enjoying them. After all, life is too short, and it’s certainly too short to feel guilty about food.