I was at a lovely outdoor graduation party yesterday and happened to walk in on a conversation that was going on between a sweet young man in his 20’s and my husband. “She’s a dietitian, you should ask her”. Apparently, this healthy-looking but thin young man was trying to gain weight. He had been a runner in high school, now worked out but not as much, sharing that when he was lifting he was able to put on some weight. I went into my spiel about “listening to your body”, explaining how our natural set-point makes it difficult to change (our genetics) and that even if he tried to eat more or add protein shakes (what he has tried in the past), it would be hard to maintain due to the fact that it requires way too much thinking and also, just as with dieting, your body tends to compensate and do what it needs to so you will go back to where you are supposed to be. “But what should he eat? He doesn’t know!” my husband says. I looked at this guy and he says “he’s right, I don’t really know”. Oy. How did eating become so complicated for even a twenty-something year old male? I kind of understand, it makes sense that women, especially older women who have spent a life time dieting and not being happy with their bodies continue to try one diet after another, end up on and off restricting and overeating, but this just felt odd to me. I just wanted to say “Just eat what you want!” It struck me at that moment that people who don’t know much about nutrition and really do care about their health (and body size, which always seems to be the motivating factor to look into nutrition) really don’t know where to begin.
I started to share a few websites I thought might be helpful about nutrition as far as basic facts (such as how much calcium an adult needs, protein needs, etc) and I tried to convince him to let his body determine how big it is going to be once he finds an eating pattern that he is happy with along with a healthy lifestyle (which he already pretty much had). But I left that conversation feeling as though I really didn’t help him much. I also got a bit of a reality check when my husband commented “people can’t eat what they want, they are not dietitians, they don’t know!”
If you can relate to any of this, I hope to give you another way to solve the puzzle of being healthy and at the same time, “eating what you want”. In another post, Humming and Beckoning Foods I mentioned a book I read decades ago called “The Psychologist’s Eat Anything Diet” which I now feel was way ahead of the game because the science behind what the authors were recommending was not yet discovered. We now know our brains are regulated tightly by many neurotransmitters, or messengers when it comes to eating. We now know the physiological reason why when people cut out carbs they may end up craving sweets (which often leads to binge eating them). Anyway, even though we know this, people continue to diet and restrict because they really want to lose weight.On top of this, if you are someone who wants to be healthy, eating “what you want” is a scary proposition because you may fear (as my husband thinks) you would live on corn dogs. And that would not be good.
The truth is, although it is not easy, you could do both (eat what you want and also be healthy). One exercise I remember from the book was taking the time to really think about what particular food you wanted. You were supposed to wait until a “meal time”, in other words, you were not supposed to mindlessly nibble all day, you needed to get to a point of physiological hunger (such as lunch time). This alone would be a very hard thing for many people to do, since random snacking is common. Mindless snacking without hunger is a behavior many of my past patients needed to work on since this was not conducive to the “intuitive” eating they wanted to learn. Mindless eating is disconnected eating. So this exercise forces you to be “mindful” in that you really have to check in to see if you are hungry. Then, when you get to the point of hunger, instead of automatically making what you think you should have, or eating food just because “it is there”, you are supposed to really think about what you want. Do you want something cold? Hot? Salty? Crunchy? Sweet? The healthiness of the food was not what you were supposed to think about. When you chose your foods (let’s pretend it is a tuna fish sandwich), then you are supposed to put it on a plate (or in a bowl?) , sit at a table without distractions (no TV, cell phones and tablets and all that weren’t invented yet, but none of that kind of stuff), and eat. Paying attention to the taste, texture and pleasure of the food you were eating was key. Funny how now we know that for our “fullness” messengers to get to our brain to tell us we had enough, we need to look at our food and pay attention. Mindful eating is how our bodies function best.
This type of exercise is not easy for those who have a “good food/bad food” mentality. It might be scary and uncomfortable for some people, especially those with eating disorders to do an exercise like this, and that is why therapists often supervise these kinds of experiences (and if you are interested in working on mindful eating, but have an eating disorder, you should ask your therapist about it). For chronic dieters, or those struggling with mindless eating, it might be helpful to think about really paying attention to how often you don’t let yourself “eat what you want” but never do enjoy what you eat.
So is it true that if you eat just what you want that you might want to eat corn dogs everyday? The tricky part is combining “eating what you want” or “intuitive eating” with healthy eating. Ask yourself: how often do you REALLY have a food craving? Is it every single meal or snack? Probably not. By food craving, I mean that urge for something that is not in your presence at the time (so not those donuts you saw when you walked into the break room, that is a “trigger” or “beckoning” food and not a true craving). The more imbalanced your diet, the more cravings you are likely to have. If your serotonin levels drop because you avoided carbs all day you might find yourself craving pasta every night. However, if you eat a variety, then you may have less cravings. This is where educating yourself about healthy but yummy cooking and nutrition come in. I believe that it is good to know about eating healthy, simple things like including more vegetables and fruits that you really enjoy because we know they promote health (different than forcing yourself to eat broccoli every night, instead discovering you love garlic roasted asparagus or kale salad with goat cheese-my new favorite, I am talking yummy). Learning that you need protein to keep your blood sugar stable, so you don’t get cranky by 2:30 pm in the afternoon is good to know. There are many resources out there on general nutrition (unfortunately, most of them are obsessed with obesity, weight loss, etc), so try to ignore that lingo and pick out what you need to know. My favorite book as far as learning about getting in touch with your hunger and what/how to eat is Intuitive Eating so check out the website for more great information to help you on the way to “eating what you want”….but being healthy, too.
Just to clarify, if have any predisposition to heart disease, or genetically inherited hypercholesterolemia or hypertension, or diabetes, or any other condition that requires a special diet, then you really do need to think about what you eat. We are all different and all unique in our health needs, as well as our eating style, cultural preferences, dieting history, emotional eating, disordered eating, or any other issue that may affect our health. But tuning into your body instead of ignoring it can only help.
And my body says go get another cup of coffee : )
No, it is not an easy task, but if you are not happy with your current eating style, why not try?