When it comes to nutrition, we all have passionate, strong opinions.
Celebrities sell exclusive diet plans; magazines, TV and radio advertise hot, metabolism boosting tricks; online misinformation tells you that bananas make you fat. Why? Because it sells, because it’s sexy, and because it offers the potential for a quick fix. But hold on! Do we ever ask ourselves, where’s the research for this? Are these claims reliable? Could I do this for my whole life? What happens if I stop following the diet? Does this sound too good to be true? Is this too extreme? If dieting worked, why do I hear about a new diet every single week?
When did our opinions about food, nutrition, and ourselves become rigid and extreme?
Could it come from physicians encouraging us to “eat better” and we take that to mean we should never eat sugar, fat, or carbs again? Do diets and recommendations about what not to eat cause us to categorize foods as good or bad, resulting in endless cycles of food deprivation, followed by “aww to hell with it,” and then guilt when we give into our favorite foods? Listen here, if anybody tells me to not eat something, all I’m going to want to do is eat 5 pounds of it! Gluten free eating is required for those with celiac disease to prevent small intestine damage; then why are people who tolerate gluten excluding fiber and nutrient filled whole grains from their diet? Do 100 calorie snack packs make us think that snacks should be only 100 calories and anything more is a poor choice (even though such a snack would never satisfy my hunger)? Are our strict ideas about food perpetuated by endless nutrition information online, label reading, and dietitians promoting whole, fresh foods most often? Does this lead us to assume that all processed food will kill us? When did my recommendation of “balance” on your plate and in life become distorted to mean stop eating carbs, only eat vegetables, never eat processed foods, never eat out, never eat after 6pm, and eating unhealthy makes you bad and unhealthy?
It’s time to clarify what “balance” actually means. I am not speaking for all dietitians, but I am speaking from my experience as a registered dietitian. If you feel frustrated, take a step back and see what I see; a world of misinformation, confusion, and unrealistic, unfair expectations. For those whose struggles have little to do with food and more to do with finances, depression, abuse, lack of support, insomnia, or anxiety, food recommendations may be pointless because the problem isn’t just about food. I’ve seen these patients struggle to stick with unrealistic nutrition goals and return to my office feeling completely defeated, with no confidence in themselves. In this case, “balance” may mean first gaining support for other issues and then taking small steps towards nutrition. When a person can go from having no meals to eating anything 1 or 2 times a day, it is an accomplishment.
Balance and nutrition are defined differently for different people. In no way do the same recommendations apply to every single person. Purchasing only fresh, local food may not be possible for families with financial barriers and 4 children to feed. Busy parents who run their kids from school to swimming and soccer may have to decide between fast food or quickly prepared wraps with a few frozen/canned and fresh ingredients. In the above case, balance is going for the wraps! I agree that growing our own food, using fresh local groceries and cooking most meals at home is an optimal way to nourish the body- but it doesn’t mean we have to be perfect at it 100% of the time and it may not be realistic for everyone.
If our goals relate to weight management, research suggests restrictive dieting does not guarantee results since it can trigger our biological starvation response where we become more fuel efficient, burn less calories, store more fat, experience cravings, have constant thoughts of food, and may even experience an enhanced ability to smell and taste food. Furthermore, restrictive extreme measures, yo-yo dieting, harsh food rules, feelings of guilt along with lack of emotional support can become the gateway to disordered eating.
“your best weight is whatever weight you reach when you’re living the healthiest life that you actually enjoy! If your efforts can be summarized as cyclical, episodic, concentrated bouts of suffering, during which your aim isn’t the healthiest life that you can enjoy but rather the healthiest life that you can tolerate, well, go figure you’re not likely to keep it off. If you want to succeed with long-term weight loss, it’s crucial that you embrace both reality and imperfection.”
The best balance involves a life we enjoy. A life where we understand ourselves, accept ourselves the way we are, eliminate judgment, reconnect with our bodies, pay attention to what we eat while we’re eating it, take realistic steps towards long-term health goals, and celebrate success along the way regardless of how big or small our steps may be.
Food is not only our fuel, it encompasses family, connection, tradition, culture, friendship, laughter and love. In this overwhelming world of mixed messages, please do not lose that.
For more details check out Worthy at Any Weight and this video by Dr. Mike Evans: