How To Eat "Healthy"
By: Ali Zandi PsyD, MFT
The following suggestions are likely not what you were expecting. You will not find any mention of kale or coconut oil. You won’t read about ketones or putting butter in your coffee. You will not read anything glorifying our ancestor’s diets. You know they lived to around 40, right?
Eating “healthy” has numerous meanings person to person. I have learned that people immediately think of the type of food they eat when they hear “eating healthy”. Some people think it means food with low-fat content. Others will think it means only eating organic or wild.
I view eating “healthy” as recognizing and utilizing the emotional and social forces in order to have a flexible, sustainable approach to eating.
I have worked with eating disorders for several years and I have seen the horrific damage they can cause to individuals and their loved ones. I am also invested in learning how nutrition can be utilized to overcome other mental health conditions, improve performance, and bring joy to one’s life. The nutrition and eating disorder treatment worlds are often contradictory and at time adversarial. I have attempted to synthesize what I have learned from these two worlds into flexible guidelines that can help you work towards a healthy relationship with food.
The quality and quantity of the food we eat play a foundational role in our mood, energy levels, and physical health. The fitness and diet industries seemingly make recommendations that may compromise any of those three pillars of functioning. Everyone has a unique set of physiological variables that make certain dietary practice impactful in positive or harmful ways.
As a therapist (and human) I have learned that people do not like gray areas. Gray areas force us to use critical thinking and feeling skills that require energy, focus, and intuition. This is a far cry from the comforts of black and white, all or nothing conceptualizations of the world. People prefer the thoughtless comforts of a black and white world but sadly,
The fitness and diet industry understands our desire for clear boundaries around food. Many in the industry make a living by taking advantage of our need for dogmas on what to eat and how. The black and white perspective on food is far more profitable than an intuitive approach that encourages flexibility and relating to food “in the gray”. The truth about food is that we are all conflicted and once you embrace that truth, you are free to have a healthier relationship with food.
So here are some tips I can pass along to help you in your relationship with food. Please consult with a Registered Dietitian if you are considering making significant nutritional changes.
#1 Stop viewing food as either “good” or “bad”.
The only foods that are “bad” are the ones that are spoiled or will cause an allergic reaction. Labeling food as “bad” sets up an adversarial and anxiety based relationship with a food and yourself. It may also set up a dynamic where we begin to crave or fear that which we label as forbidden. It is the perfect recipe for all-or-nothing eating disorders like Binge Eating and Anorexia. This dynamic of good versus evil plays out with the concept of clean eating as well, which I will address in a bit.
#2 Explore your emotional relationship with various foods and eating practices.
It is inevitable that we develop emotional ties to certain foods or behaviors around food. There is a reason the term “comfort food” exists. If you find yourself struggling with food restriction, binge eating, and purging you may want to start exploring the emotions you are trying to enhance or diminish with your eating behaviors. The food we enjoy eating involves several neurotransmitters like Dopamine and Serotonin, which are implicated in both the addictive nature of food as well as the associated anxiety. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter responsible for that burst of pleasure we experience with various behaviors like drug use, shopping, gambling, accomplishment, etc. Any behavior that triggers a dopamine release can be used as a means of emotional coping and potentially abused. Food can also elicit significant anxiety that can contribute to restriction and avoidance. Serotonin deficiencies and excesses have been linked to the various stages of Anorexia. Foods may trigger maladaptive thoughts around
#3 Carbs are not evil. Protein is not evil. Fat is not evil.
These are the three macronutrients our food is made of. They all have different functions within our body. Cutting any of them out will inevitably cause you to lose weight, not because they were making you overweight, but because you are consciously cutting a large variety of foods out of your diet. However, limiting any of these three nutrients may result in a decreased mood, energy, cognition, and physical health. Furthermore, when you restrict a macronutrient, you may struggle with feelings of deprivation and craving, especially if you restrict foods you love.
#4 Overeating happens. Binges happen.
You are human and you are not alone in this phenomenon. Again, we all have conflicted relationships with food and we all project emotions onto food. I am not recommending you prohibit yourself from bingeing but getting in touch with the feelings that you had and have around the binge. This will help you learn about yourself, which can be far more beneficial long-term. With that said, frequent binge eating is hard on the body and can be a diagnosable eating disorder. Binging frequently with or without compensatory purging behaviors coupled with feelings of shame and guilt are good reasons to seek out help.
#5 Eat mindfully.
Turn off the television and put away your phone during a meal. Many people engage in “mindless” eating where their attention is elsewhere or they eat at a rapid pace that ignores or undercuts the full sensory experience of a meal. Eating rapidly also outpaces your body’s ability to communicate fullness to you. The underlying goal, most people have when they eat mindlessly is to eliminate their hunger or uncomfortable emotional experiences. Some people eat excessively slow in order to manage anxiety or subconsciously avoid what they are eating. Mindful eating is when one directs all of their attention on the sensory, emotional, and physical experience of a meal in the present moment. When you eat mindfully, all of your focus goes towards the sensory experience of your current meal. Mindful eating tends to be slower paced and involves sight, texture, smell, and of course, taste. Mindful eating also incorporates an awareness of one’s hunger levels. Many times, people eat for reasons other than hunger. Mindful eating will help you become aware of not only how you eat but why you eat.
#6 Recognize what type of hunger you are experiencing.
When we think of hunger, we are usually describing cellular hunger where your energy levels are depleted and you need nourishment for bodily functioning. However, all of our senses can trigger hunger even if we are not physically hungry. Have you ever felt full but ate a food item because it looked wonderful? Have you ever eaten something simply because it smelled good? Hunger extends to our emotions and thoughts as well. Heart hunger is when we eat to soothe a challenging emotion like sadness, anxiety, or even boredom. Mind hunger is when we eat based on self-imposed rules around food unrelated to physiological hunger. I do not recommend only engaging in eating when you are physiologically hungry. It is perfectly fine to eat a food item because of the way it looks or smells. I simply recommend developing an awareness of all of your different hunger cues and identifying what type of hunger you are experiencing when you eat. If you struggle to identify and understand your hunger cues, it may be helpful to slow down, tune in to your hunger, and “scale” your hunger before deciding to go through the process of having a meal. A typical scale is 1-10 with extremely hungry on one end and extremely full on the other. This can help you differentiate between physiological hunger versus other forms of hunger. Again, awareness is key.
#7 Be wary of fitness or diet recommendations that include core features of typical eating disorders.
Intermittent fasting is a popular weight loss technique right now. There are purported physical and cognitive benefits of eliminating food intake for 15-24 hours at a time. In the eating disorder treatment world, this is called “restriction” and is a key symptom of a diagnosable disorder like Anorexia Nervosa. There may be individuals that engage in fasting that have a perfectly healthy relationship with food and their bodies. However, if you struggle with either of those concerns, fasting may pose significant emotional and physical risk to you. If a diet recommendation compromises your mood and/or performance, it may not be a good fit for you and it may even be potentially harming you.
#8 Try to incorporate a variety of nutritionally dense foods that you enjoy into your daily intake.
These foods generally have a wide array of macro and micronutrients (vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, etc.) that your body requires in order for it to function well. With that said…
#9 Don’t stress too much about “eating clean”.
In fact, I would recommend ditching the term “clean” when describing food. It sets up that whole “black and white” dichotomy around food intake, especially if you struggle with perfectionism and anxiety. Orthorexia is a type of disordered eating where one displays obsessive tendencies related to eating foods one considers healthy. The truth is that it takes a tremendous amount of energy, planning, and money to eat “clean” all the time. The term “clean” is also vague and is always changing based on current trends, where the food was purchased, the conditions it was created, how you prepare it, and how you store it. I have seen it where individuals cannot have a simple meal with friends due to the food choices not being “clean” or “healthy”. This inflexibility toward food can cause significant anxiety and life impairment.
Food feeds us and brings us together in so many ways. We often make the mistake of focusing on feelings of guilt, conflict, and anxiety around highly palatable foods. I have also observed people check out or numb out during a meal. This creates a dynamic where one is left feeling unsatisfied and further conflicted about a food item after not allowing themselves to savor it. By mindfully engaging and embracing a meal, you will be far less likely to over-indulge. Engage fully in and experience the pleasure associated with a food item as opposed to feeding negative thoughts and emotions or dissociating.
#11 Focus on building sustainable habits as opposed to dieting.
Dramatically cutting your caloric intake for a short period of time only to go back to the same intake, later on, is difficult on your body and mind. It is also largely unsustainable and will leave you frustrated at yourself. Focus more on flexible approaches that leave you feeling satisfied as opposed to deprived.
#12 Be careful where you get your nutritional advice.
There are a lot of “experts” and gurus out there struggling with disordered eating behaviors that they incorporate into their plans. Remember, their goal is to get your money, clicks, and subscriptions. If you are looking for nutritional guidance, consult with Registered Dietitians, Licensed Therapists with training in psychological aspects of eating, and specialty physicians. One-size-fits-all approaches to nutrition do not take into the unique physiological and emotional factors that make you…you.
#13 Evaluate your food environment.
What are the food practices, rituals, and beliefs of the many relationship networks you are in? Maybe some of the norms of these various groups may be contributing to an unhealthy relationship with you and food.
If you are struggling with your relationship with food, there are people and organizations that are here to help. Working through a problematic relationship with food involves getting in touch with the emotions we experience with food and the act of eating. Recovery also involves the difficult work of building new habits around food and how we go about consuming it. We all have conflicted relationships with food. Health is holding these conflicts to the light and honoring the opposing forces.