Think back. Was there a time when you ate, and didn’t even think about it? You just ate because you were hungry, your body needed fueled, and you enjoyed the food you ate. I can remember this. It was probably my entire life until about 10 years ago. The conversation about diet changed around then, and because my profession requires me to read about the latest research and trends in the food and nutrition world, I’m was keenly aware of the constant chatter about diet. The media began focusing on what to eat, what not to eat. Sure, there were occasional news reports in the 80s or 90s about diabetes and diet, or a certain type of diet that’s good for your heart, but in general, other than Oprah, prior to 2000 nobody was talking about it.
The media’s focus on “good food-bad food” didn’t really change my point of view, nor my eating habits, but it did subliminally make me begin to feel bad at times about eating certain foods. “Maybe the bread did make me gain those 5 pounds” I’d think. Of course I know it’s not, but there are so many negative messages circulating about food, that even us dietitians start to wonder.
The 21st century has opened the floodgates for misinformation. The Internet has given a voice to anyone who can type and has some time on his or her hands. The notion that “skinny” is the ultimate goal is perpetuated by the media, particularly for women (you may think it’s motivated by “health”, but in most cases, it’s vanity, poor self-image, insecurity, and possibly an eating disorder). This issue is worsened by the self-proclaimed experts out there. Any old Facebook user can proclaim: “Well, I’m thin and don’t take any medication, and I eat healthy, so I obviously know what I’m doin’, and because of that, I feel entitled to tell you how you should eat!”
As a dietitian, who received both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in nutrition (and has literally spent thousands and thousands of hours counseling others), I find this incredibly frustrating. When do other professional areas of expertise follow suit? Let’s say a stay-at-home mom, or lawyer, or nurse, or refuse truck driver, just invested in a great stock that took off, would this accomplishment make the person feel comfortable publicly posting about financial planning advice on Facebook or Twitter? My son once installed a toilet in our home, a DIY lesson from my husband – do you think he is doling out plumbing expertise now? Heck no.
Everyone eats, therefore everyone has an opinion about what food is best. Some people really enjoy cooking, so they may post food pics or recipes. Some have good intentions:
“Hey, I tried chia seeds to my oatmeal, and it helps hold off my hunger through lunch” or “I make this slow cooker recipe once a week to get a quick family dinner on the table”.
Other times it’s just annoying:
“I never buy anything from the freezer case” or “Sugar will kill you.” or “If we do buy soda, it’s only the kind that’s made with pure cane sugar”
I chose the field of nutrition as a career because, as a young person, I had food sensitivities. I clearly understood that there is a link between diet and health. The more I learned about the science, and also my own food intolerances, the more I realized what and how you eat is a very individual thing, and there is no one way to eat a healthy diet. Thank goodness – options!
So why is there now such a desire to know what is “best” to eat. Does it make any sense at all? Consider the planet. What if, and how could, everyone eat the same things every day, every week? And why would anyone want to?
For many years, I have tried to convey to people that it’s not what you eat, it’s how you eat (and sometimes good health doesn’t have to do with eating at all). It’s also how you perceive yourself and your health (sadly in many cases, people choose to eat or avoid foods solely for the purpose of weight control, with no regard to a greater sense of health and wellbeing).
So the next time you dole out your advice about what you eat and why, consider:
- It’s a challenge for most people to eat a balanced diet everyday (for many reasons – socioeconomic, busy schedules, health). It’s often a bigger challenge for folks who work 50 hours a week to fit in a regular exercise program. It’s not that they don’t want to, it’s that there may be a lot of other more important things going on. And, some people don’t like physical activity as much as others. For them I often encourage more daily movement, not exercise. Some people may not enjoy cooking either, and there are easier options.
- I encourage you to enjoy healthy food but not to think that one food or food group is going to contain some sort of magical ingredient that will make you skinny or healthy (not synonomous). So when you read about Granny Smith apples – understand they also help with weight control because they fill your stomach and controls hunger. Not because it contains a singular magic ingredient. And you should enjoy eating them if you so choose.
- It’s okay for food to be enjoyed for pleasure as well. Whatever your pleasure is – foods that you know aren’t real healthy (dessert, chips, candy), or don’t contribute any important nutrients – are still enjoyable, obviously. So enjoy them. Learn how to fit them into your life without excess.
- Understand that everyone is not as obsessed as you are about dieting. I often hear people talking in public about what very particular foods they do eat (“you must try this coconut avocado shake. It is THE only way I’m able to lose weight), as well as what they “don’t eat”, and make open comments about demonizing certain ingredients (“oh I’m skipping gluten and all starches in general”).
Finally, don’t ask me out to lunch or dinner if you aren’t going to eat, because I still want to enjoy eating and the entire dining experience. I may even treat myself to French Fries.