Growing up, I don’t remember a bunch of rules about what to eat and when to eat them. I don’t remember being forced to clean my plate (though I was probably encouraged to “eat a few more bites, please”), and I don’t remember being criticized for how I looked.
Because of these absences, I have grown to appreciate food and not be afraid of it. I know it’s possible to enjoy different flavors and cooking styles, and that it’s ok to indulge in desserts and other typically “unhealthy” foods sometimes.
Without the pressure to eat perfectly or look a certain way, I developed an interest in nutrition that really was just that – an interest! I like to know why things work the way they do, and when it came to health I had a curiosity about eating and exercise that led me to study nutrition at The Ohio State University and pursue a career as a dietitian.
My Food Philosophy
As a clinical dietitian (one who works in a hospital), I see patients nearly every day dealing with complications of various diseases – from diabetes to cancer. It’s my job to help those people eat enough, eat well, minimize symptoms, and find things they like to eat amidst necessary changes to their diets.
I never want to be the “Food Police” and tell people what they can or can’t eat – even if you have health issues you’re supposed to enjoy food, not let it control you!
I think this is often lost in the world of diets in which we live. So many people are used to extremely restrictive diets and think the only way to be healthy, to look and feel good, is to suffer to get there.
They adopt rules around eating that they can’t maintain long-term, force themselves to eat bland or boring foods they don’t like, and feel “cheat days” are necessary parts of the process. This is the work of “Food Police”, and it takes the joy out of eating.
“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”
In it, he dives into diets around the world and determines what we really need to know about how to eat well. He summed up his discovery like this: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”
By focusing on eating whole foods, in appropriate portions (eat until you’re satisfied, not until you’re stuffed), with an emphasis on plants, our diets (and our health) could be improved.
This phrase has become the center of my food philosophy because even dietitians can be lured into the claims of diet trends from time to time. By reciting this simple phrase, I can remember that eating well doesn’t need to be complicated!
How to Eat Well
Nutrition is powerful, and there’s room for improvement in many of our lives. Most people could stand to eat more fruits and vegetables, more whole grains, less salt and processed foods. But remember, I said I never want to be the Food Police! My philosophy on nutrition is mostly that you should enjoy what you eat – you’ll be a whole lot healthier when you do!
This means you won’t only eat “good” foods, but rather that you should aim to eat healthy foods that taste good most of the time and allow yourself to eat other things you enjoy (like burgers, cookies, or ice cream) without feeling guilty or worrying about what the scale or any diet book says.
The Simple Principles of Healthy Eating
Remember, eating well doesn’t have to be complicated. Get started with a few, simple principles.
Add Fruits and Veggies
One such principle might be adding more fruits and vegetables into your diet, which is a good recommendation for just about everybody.
These will provide you with vitamins and minerals your body needs to function, as well as fiber to help keep you full, manage blood sugar and cholesterol, and keep your digestive system in good working order. This is why Michael Pollan says eat mostly plants – they’re good for you in so many ways!
Limit Processed Foods
Limiting processed foods would be another simple principle to adopt. Processed foods are quite convenient, and can be included in a healthy diet. They just probably shouldn’t be the most prominent part of your diet.
Using them too often can mean you’re consuming too much sodium and fat – two factors that help extend shelf-life of foods, but that can impact your health in negative ways. This is not meant to make you afraid of salt or fat. Your body needs both! By using more fresh foods over pre-made or snack-y type foods, you can create a healthier balance of all the nutrients your body needs.
Relax into Your Relationship with Food
The third principle I would suggest would be to relax. Remember how I said I’ve learned to appreciate food and not to fear it? I want that for you too! As a dietitian, my job is to help people to be more healthy. This primarily happens by teaching about nutrition, but there’s another component as well.
People struggle with nutrition for a variety of reasons – some because they don’t see the value of it, some because they’ve seen the value clearly and want to control it, some because a “healthy diet” seems so far out of reach it’s not worth working towards. We all want to live long, healthy lives and sometimes we just need a little encouragement to help get us there.
Dietitians teach, but we also counsel. We help people realize food is not an enemy. It is an ally! Food helps us reach our goals, which is what we all want. I would go even further though and say food’s importance lies in its ability to give us pleasure and help us connect with other people around us!
This is why I think it’s so important not to be afraid of food, and to relax about how and when and what you’re supposed to eat. Part of the joy of food is sharing it with other people.
If you can realize that reducing your stress levels and relaxing with friends is as essential to your health as the actual nutrition of your food, you’ll be healthier than if you only ate “healthy” foods.
To Diet Or Not To Diet
There is a lot of information about nutrition out there, and a lot of it contradicts itself – entire food groups are demonized in one diet and praised in another. How are you supposed to know which one is correct?
It can be really confusing. Many of those diets will provide results in the short-term. They often don’t last, however, and the dieter may even end up gaining back more weight than they originally lost.
While there are degrees of truth to some diets, the end results are quite discouraging. And can you really say they “work” if you end up gaining back the weight, and then some?
One big reason for these crumby results is that the changes required in most diets are unsustainable. Cutting out food groups or counting calories – those are just not feasible or fun ways to live your entire life. But there are other, uncontrollable factors at work! Hormonal and metabolic changes that result from crash diets make it harder for you lose weight and keep weight off.
Here’s an important thing to remember: Nutrition is a young science. That means we’re still learning about it and there’s a good amount we probably don’t know! Knowing just that might be enough to help you filter through nutrition claims and diet plans and get you to a more moderate and maintainable pattern of eating.
Long story short – diets don’t work.
The healthiest (for both mind and body) way to eat includes all food groups (even the not as healthy ones) and focuses on balance rather than restriction.
In order to start improving your health, you don’t have to change every part of your life today. In fact, I’d advise against that simply because it’ll be really hard to maintain all kinds of changes at once. If you don’t normally eat any vegetables, try adding one new vegetable to your meals a week. There are zillions of recipes online for free and you can search specifically for recipes using your chosen ingredient. Then build from there!
No matter the change you make, know that you’re not alone. People all over the world struggle with health and nutrition to some degree. It’s ok to ask for help or encouragement from those around you. And if a diet claim sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
Take Home Message
It’s a good idea to understand how small changes in your diet can improve your health. It’s also important to remember that health is way more than just eating healthy foods! Give yourself grace and remember no one is perfect.
Know that it’s probably healthier to just eat “forbidden” foods every once in a while than to live with the stress of a restrictive diet. Most importantly, know that you can be both healthy and happy by enjoying foods from all food groups!
After all, life is a whole lot easier when you like what you eat and eat what you like!