Healthy Eating Doesn’t Mean Perfect Eating

If you think healthy eating means perfect eating, think again.

Because you know what’s even healthier than kale? A good relationship with food and your body.

If your pursuit of healthy eating doesn’t consider your relationship with food you’re missing a critical ingredient.

While I bet you understand the importance of healthy human relationships, you might overlook your relationship with food, though it’s one of the longest relationships you’ll ever have. When it comes to healthy eating, we’re often only told what to eat — or, more commonly, what not to eat — without taking into account the person, the human being, doing the eating.

Eat this, not that. Kale is good. Cake is bad.

Healthy eating doesn't mean perfect eating.
Healthy eating doesn’t mean perfect eating.

But clearly, more nutritional information isn’t solving the epidemic of health problems in our nation.

Nutrients are only part of “good nutrition”

Healthy eating is about more than nutrients; it’s more than making righteous choices aimed at upholding our culture’s perfectionist and unrealistic body standards.

Our culture has created an urgency to control and perfect our eating with that mythical perfect body waiting for us as a reward. That constant pursuit creates a vicious cycle known as the dieter’s dilemma.

Put simply, the dieter’s dilemma is driven by a desire to be thinner. We restrict, and maybe we lose weight. But then we’re also faced with cravings and what feels like a lack of self-control. We eat. Maybe we binge. We regain the weight we had lost. Rinse and repeat.

Does that sound healthy?

Eating healthy has become a difficult struggle, rigid and controlled. The messages we see everyday further solidify the black and white thinking about what’s healthy. Those nutritional absolutes set us up for failure.

Perfect eating is impossible — and also not a part of healthy eating.

“All or nothing descriptions can pressure us into developing problematic self-perceptions,” said Alyssa Pike, a registered dietitian who is part of the International Food Information Council Foundation. “The way we describe food can morph into the way we describe ourselves for eating that food.”

We feel bad eating the cake. We believe we are bad because we feel this way. But guilt and shame are worse for our health than anything on our plates.

Ditch the nutrition trends

Beyond absolutes, perfectionist eating is also full of rules and opposing nutritional philosophies that create endless confusion.

One moment dietary fat is out; the next it’s the star of your plate. Nutritional science is constantly changing.

We may also blame ourselves or find others judging us for an assumed lack of willpower. We are labeled lazy and uncommitted. And for most of us, that isn’t true. We have tried to eat healthy for years and years. We have tried everything.

We aren’t the problem. It’s the controlled, restrictive approach that we’ve been taught that creates an unhealthy relationship with food and causes us to continue to struggle with food year and year.

Too much of a good thing

Perhaps you don’t struggle with eating healthfully. In fact you’ve perfected it because you think that it will make you healthier.

If this is you, you’re not alone. I too thought I had to eat perfectly to be healthy.

I fell into that trap after nutrition school. I ate perfectly to the point of obsession, known as orthorexia, and never considered that it was a strain on my relationship with food.

It doesn’t help that perfectionist eating is often applauded in our culture because it’s portrayed as the ultimate goal.

“Orthorexia, to the untrained eye, may seem like healthy eating,” – Dr. Sadie Monaghan, a psychologist in Jackson Hole.

I had to consider the side effects of my approach and how it affected my quality of life. It wasn’t easy to keep all the plates spinning, pardon the phrase.

Does how or what you eat cause any of the following: struggle, worry, anxiety, fear, guilt, shame, frustration, failure, dissatisfaction, deprivation, social isolation or an excessive preoccupation with food and your body?

Stressing about food is stress on the body.

Your thoughts, worries or beliefs about food will engage your body’s sympathetic nervous response, the stress response.

The Mayo Clinic reports that chronic activation of that system puts you at risk for anxiety, depression, digestive problems, headaches, heart disease, sleep problems, weight challenges and memory and concentration impairment. The World Health Organization has even named stress the “health epidemic of the 21st century.”

There are a lot of stressors we can’t control. A stressful relationship with food and our body is one we can choose to free ourselves from.

Honor thy body

Just like in healthy human relationships, a good relationship with food involves trust, respect, connection and communication — with our body.

A healthy relationship with food means trusting yourself, honoring hunger and fullness cues, differentiating between physical and emotional hunger and eating for pleasure and satisfaction while honoring our whole health. It respects body diversity as part of the human experience and recognizes that healthy bodies come in all sizes and shapes.

All of those positive relationship traits can be learned through exploring Intuitive Eating, a non-diet approach to health and wellness.

Building a healthy relationship with food and our body takes time and attention. Expect ups and downs. But also expect that over time your hard work will pay off:

  • You’ll reduce the stress you feel over food.
  • You’ll reduce the stress you feel about your body.
  • You’ll stop worrying about the cake and you’ll enjoy it. As you should.

Nourishment is not just “nutrition.” Nourishment is the nutrients in the food, the taste, the aroma, the ambiance of the room, the conversation at the table, the love and the inspiration in the cooking and the joy of the entire eating experience.

The next time your friend says “I’m so bad for eating this cake” or is forcing down a kale smoothie in the name of health, remember that healthy eating doesn’t truly exist without a healthy relationship with food.

So no, my friend, healthy eating doesn’t mean perfect eating.

(This article was published in the March 6, 2019 Jackson Hole News and Guide).