Isn’t trying to optimize your health and your diet a good thing? Well mostly yes... except when it's not. I think most people would agree that fresh, whole foods close to their natural state are the most nutritious, but there’s a catch: eating “super-healthy” all the time can be a huge source of stress.
1. First there’s the physical stress on the body from eating fewer calories, either intentionally to lose weight, or unintentionally through restricting higher calorie foods. Fruits and veggies are very satisfying per calorie, so if you start substituting them for other foods, you can find yourself eating a lot less without realizing it. When you eat significantly fewer calories than you need, your body releases the stress hormone cortisol to break down stored fat, and muscle, for energy. Long term elevation of stress hormones = poor sleep, fatigue, irritability, a weakened immune system…not good!
2. Ok, it took me long enough to figure out this first part, but let’s say you are eating enough. You’re adding healthy fats like avocados and coconut to every meal and eating giant servings of vegetables. There might still be a problem, though, because obsessing about eating the right foods, in the right amounts, at the right times, etc. can be a huge source of psychological or mental stress. If you find yourself afraid of certain foods, or guilty when you eat something that’s not “allowed,” are you really still optimizing your health, or is that just an excuse to restrict your diet? Following strict food rules can be particularly stressful in social situations, when you don’t know exactly what’s in your food or everyone else around you is eating differently. You could end up avoiding meals with friends and missing out on social time, and the body responds to the psychological stress of social isolation the same way as it does to physical stress.
So what is “healthy eating”? If we’re trying to avoid social tensions, then is "healthy eating" the same as “normal eating?” What is “normal”? Doesn’t “normal" depend a lot on the other people around you? What’s normal in one country or one community might be completely bizarre among a different group of people. It could be “normal" to eat three meals a day, or it could be normal to eat just two, or four or five. A “normal” breakfast in America might be cereal with milk, but in India it’s "normal" to eat curry for breakfast. I often eat cauliflower with cinnamon, so that’s “normal" for me. What about putting butter in your coffee (or tea)… is that “normal”? Do you eat with a knife and fork, or chopsticks, or your fingers? Snack between meals or not?
In my opinion, healthy eating is as much (maybe more so) about your attitude towards food as it is about what foods you actually eat and when and how. It’s a flexible approach to food that allows for different preferences, habits, and patterns of eating. It’s providing your body with the nutrients and energy it needs, or maybe a bit more or less depending on the day. It’s treating food as a fuel source instead of an emotional crutch, but sometimes using it to celebrate or comfort yourself after a bad day. It’s not seeing certain foods as “good” or “bad,” but still paying some attention to which ones make you feel your best.
Healthy eating is:
- Not counting calories
- Eating a wide variety of whole foods
- Eating when you’re physically hungry, or sometimes when you’re not
- Stopping when you feel satisfied, or when you’re stuffed
- Eating a balance of macronutrients (protein, carbs, and fat)
- Eating in a relaxed way and actually tasting your food
- Occasionally eating whatever you want without guilt
- Not worrying if you overeat occasionally because it tastes really good or there’s a reason to celebrate or you just feel gloomy
- Not feeling ashamed afterwards or going hungry to “make up” for it
- Being perfectly comfortable eating with friends and in public
- Being comfortable eating food you didn’t prepare
- Being able to cope with emotions and stress without using food or restriction