What’s Food Got To Do, Got To Do With It: Defining Diet On Your Own Terms
Growing up, my elementary school had a pretty extensive hot lunch program. Pizza, deli sandwiches, ravioli, chocolate milk. Delicious, yes, and every savory-toothed kid’s dream. Most days, my friends and I would bring our own lunches, which would all follow the one guideline that could get us writing standards through recess: no sugar in the first three ingredients.
Fast forward to high school, we switched over to baked chips instead of fried. College, fat-free froyo was the thing. Now, I can’t enter a room without hearing someone mention what they ate and how they ate it (myself included – I can’t help that I love food like it’s my job). Working with various bloggers, chefs, nutritionists, fitness pros, and health fanatics every single day has taught me one huge lesson about health: everyone has an opinion.
One family member might swear off dairy, saying it’s a life changer. One book might preach the gospel of gluten-free. Another might say that all grains no-matter-what are the devil; a magazine on the table says our bodies need whole wheat as nutritional puzzle pieces. Eating for your blood type, eating for your ayurvedic type, eating for your genotype…
Combine the lessons, books, experts, and health fanatics with the amount of incredible information that’s literally at our fingertips – hello, Google! – we’ve started to not only talk reactively instead of proactively, we’ve started to eat reactively instead of proactively. What we’re told should fuel us makes us feel crummy, but we keep going because hey, that’s what we’re told we should do.
No wonder we are so confused.
We like to think of food in black-and-white terms; healthy vs unhealthy, grains vs. dairy vs. meat vs. fruit vs. veggies vs. fat. We limit our views of what we can and cannot eat based on generic categories – and it’s not our fault. Whether you grew up in 1965 or 2015, the slowly changing “food pyramid” has been a visual reminder of the shoulds and should-nots of healthy eating since childhood. We’ve had it drilled into our brains that there is a clear Good Vs. Evil when it comes to food, and diet trends such as low carb, low fat, gluten free, sugar free, fat free, high protein, etc have given us even more extreme and generic views as to what should and shouldn’t go into our mouths.
My question is: if these norms are true, then why do so many of us end up feeling so bad?
By volume, our biggest, most universal behavioral norm is that we all eat. Whether it’s three large meals or periodically grazing throughout the day, it’s also by function our most important behavioral norm.
Here’s the deal: everything you put inside your body puts some sort of chemical reaction into motion, and those chemical reactions not only affect the way we feel, they affect the way we feel about the way we feel. You know how you’re more likely to bash your bod when you’re feeling physically crappy? That negative talk is directly related to the ins and outs of what you eat. Even if you think you are eating well, you might not be eating well for you.
Whether you’re making an effort to follow the healthy guidelines you’ve heard about on the streets (this is actually what you hear about on the streets in LA) or you just go where your tastebuds (or eyes – food is pretty) take you, it’s time to start tuning into what makes your machine run at peak performance.
We need to get back in touch with what makes us vibrant and healthy on an individual basis – and that starts by learning how our food makes us feel and how it actually tastes.
And if you think about it, you’ll probably find that you already know more than you think you do. Here’s how to get back in touch:
Notice how your body reacts to the foods you eat. Think back on your last few days of eating. What has made you feel more energetic, or helped you sustain your energy levels? Have you had bouts of extreme mood swings unrelated to sleep or that-time? Were there mornings you woke up feeling sluggish, flu-like, poofy-bodied (I prefer this adjective over “bloated,” it’s kinder), foggy-brained? Take note of how you’ve felt and look at what you ate during those times.
Your body is quick to react to the good stuff, but can be a little slower to react to what makes your insides cry for help. Whether it’s after twenty minutes or twenty four hours, if you’re not feeling good – listen. And if you’re feeling great – listen. Notice patterns. Your body is smart and tells you what it really loves. Listen. Don’t confuse that love with what your body lusts after in the moment.
Learn what your food actually tastes like. It’s astonishing that so many people think certain foods are seemingly tasteless – when the only foods that are truly tasteless are those made in plants by chemicals, not grown amongst plants by farmers. When you start to strip away all the fixins – sugar and salt-laden heavy dressings, sauces, creams, etc – you’ll realize that everything has a very distinct taste to it. So many people shun veggie because they think they don’t like them, when in reality, we’re so addicted to the junk-filled gunk we throw on top of them that we’re not even giving them a chance to get to first base on their own.
This isn’t about eliminating food groups or going on a regimented diet – it’s about taking control of your food choices instead of letting other people, brands, and businesses control what you crave. Don’t worry, you’ll get to add sauces and fanciness back onto your plate – but not until you know what you are adding them to and why. Is it because they compliment your dish or they mask it? Is it because they round out the meal or feed your cravings?
You won’t eat healthfully for life if you don’t enjoy what you’re eating…so learn what you actually like. Once you figure out what you enjoy eating and what makes you feel good, you’ll start to see a pattern; a correlation between the things you enjoy and the things that make you feel good. They’ll become a dynamic duo; one won’t be able to exist without the other.
Does this mean you’ll shun loaded nachos, chocolate chip cookies, and buttercream frosting forever? Of course not. Loaded nachos, chocolate chip cookies, and buttercream frosting are some of the most wondrous parts of life. But you won’t let them take control of your mind and body. You’ll know what makes you feel like crap and how much indulgence your body can handle before it starts to feel abusive or self-sabotagey. And you’ll be able to really enjoy it without feeling like you’re “cheating.” There’s no way to cheat when you know yourself inside and out.
Whether you’re leaving sugar out of the first three ingredients or swearing off dairy, a healthy diet isn’t really about the food. It’s not about a rulebook or an outline or even a label – certainly not about a pyramid. Healthy eating is about feeding your body so it can move into its best self. It’s about learning to listen to what your body is telling you and taking note, honoring what it has to say. It’s the best friend you will ever have, the most honest confidante you’ll come across. A healthy diet is about loving yourself enough to treat yourself with respect and kindness. Just like any worthwhile relationship, your relationship with your body is about love. Lead with love and the body will follow.
When it comes to the foods that make you feel your best, what’s worked for you in YOUR experience? Or, how can you apply today’s WANTwisdom to your own life?
Feel free to get specific or keep it general, just keep it you. Seeing examples of how different we all inherently are can sometimes be the lightbulb-moment that makes others finally feel ok living by their own rules, instead of abiding by someone else’s.
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