If healthy eating feels like deprivation…you’re doing it wrong. Here’s how to get it right.
Margaret Mead once famously said that you could change a man’s religion easier than his diet.
As a dietitian – and an eater – I think about this quote a lot.
As a dietitian, it guides me in maintaining empathy for my client’s own healthy eating journey. It motivates me to guide them away from ‘all or nothing’ mindsets. To remind my clients that every health road block, nutritional course correction and joyously devoured meal is all part of the journey.
For myself as an eater, it has helped me understand my own journey with healthy eating. When I was a child, I simply ate what I liked. I was surrounded by delicious, wholesome, home-cooked food and all the usual fast food and junk. I loved – and ate – it all. I didn’t think about food as healthy or unhealthy.
When I became vegetarian as a teen, my thinking about food really kicked into overdrive. I started reading a lot about food, nutrition and health and started fervently – religiously – adhering to whatever scheme seemed to be the healthiest. This was the point where I strongly connected to the idea of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ food choices.
But, perhaps most importantly, I began flip-flopping between eating ‘ultra-healthy’ and ‘indulging’. I would eat plain and boring ‘healthy food’ without really enjoying it…and then go overboard for days or weeks eating junk. I used food both as a way of muting feelings of anxiety or sadness…and the guilt and shame of overindulgence itself. I felt pride in following a ‘healthy diet’ for days at a time – and shame in ‘breaking the streak’.
Looking back, I can see this was borne of two things: having taste buds that weren’t ready to let certain things go…and slavishly thinking I needed to eat (or look) a certain way to be healthy.
The other thing that didn’t help? I wasn’t much of a cook yet.
So throughout my late teens and early 20s, my healthy eating journey kind of looked like a rollercoaster until one day, I had had enough. Tired of going off the rails and then ‘dieting’ to get things back on track.
I declared nothing off limits. I swore off diets and ‘detoxes’. I decided to eat whatever the hell I wanted. And for a while, my diet got worse…until I got tired and bored of eating garbage.
And that’s when it happened. I started craving healthier foods.
I started looking at food as a way of honouring my body instead of beating it into submission.
I started to learn more about cooking and how to enhance the flavour whole foods so they were a joy to eat. With each passing year, the ups and downs of healthy eating got a hell of a lot smoother.
Now, I can honestly say that I truly crave eating healthy, plant-centred and whole. I would gladly eat a really well made salad every single day. I am no longer obsessed with cheese…or chocolate…or chips…but when I want those foods, I go for it – guilt free. I love how eating well makes me feel – and care not at all about how it makes me look. After all these years, I instinctively make choices that make me feel good.
Sometimes it is harder to eat as I would like…travel can trip me up, as can being too busy to do a proper grocery shop. But most of the time, it’s all good – particularly because I feel zero guilt at enjoying a glass of wine or a bowl of buttery popcorn.
My intention behind sharing my story was as a way of showing you that no matter where you are on your journey, you can get to a healthier place because I did too. That even though my current MO is whole, plant-centred and healthy, it wasn’t always this way. I know what it is like to lose myself in a bag of chips. Or a giant piece of cheesecake.
Want to get to a place where you eat well out of respect – not as penance – for your body?
You’ve got to dig deep. You need to release the connection between eating well and a desire to look a different way. Like, 100%.
As long as your food choices are motivated by looks or a number on the scale, the relationship you have with food is going to be tainted.
This isn’t going to happen overnight. You will need to actively set the intention to reach a new mindset. And, you might want to throw out your scale.
A healthy relationship with food comes from a place of deep respect for your body and a desire to feed it what it needs and what it deserves. That’s not just broccoli on your plate… it’s an anti-inflammatory offering to your immune system. It should be treated as such; not just dumped in a steamed mess on a plate but lavished with roasted garlic or kissed with sea salt.
From now on, banish the idea of deprivation from your mind. Unless you follow a specific medical diet (like a gluten free diet for celiac disease), trust yourself to consider no food ‘off limits’. Sure, a piece of cheesecake may not be healthy…but it’s not the end of the world. Enjoy it and move on. Have a big yummy salad for dinner.
Always strive – gently – to eat well and don’t worry when it doesn’t work out according to plan. When making goals, choose a positive, health focused goal for healthy eating. Such as, “I want to eat more vegetables”. Or, “I want to eat more beans.”
Get in the kitchen. Be curious and have a sense of play. Turn on the tunes and let those good vibes infuse your cooking. Lack confidence? Treat yourself to a new cookbook or even a cooking class and build those skills.
Keep tuning into mindfulness. Actively connect the act of eating to self-care. Be aware of any emotional stuff that food cues up for you and talk it through with someone you trust.
Have a ritual for indulgences – and moving past them. If you want to have an indulgent food, be it chips or cake or candy…connect a little mindfulness ritual to the experience. For example, turn off the TV, serve the snack on your best china and savour every bite. And if indulgence is followed by anxiety or guilt, you need a ritual for moving past it. For example, dancing to a favourite song to boost your energy. Or, mindfully letting go of those feelings as you wash the dish post-indulgence.
Eating is the ultimate act of intimacy. The food you eat becomes your body. Don’t let bad vibes anywhere near your plate.
A little note…
Today marks the beginning of Eating Disorders Awareness Week here in Canada. If you or someone you know needs help healing your soul and restoring a healthy relationship with food, don’t wait. It may feel scary…but the help you seek is there waiting for you.
Contact the NEDIC helpline here in Canada at 1 866 633 4220 or the NEDA helpline in the US at 1 800 931 2237