The other day I was casually chatting with a young man about healthy eating. When someone finds out you are a dietitian they often have lots of questions. Anyway, this young man said something that really stuck in my head: “I feel like a war is going on in my head” he said when talking about trying to eat healthier. Apparently, he had been trying to lose weight and thought he should totally avoid eating junk food, and, just like everyone else who tries to “not eat” something, it creates a struggle. But the way he described it as a “war” made me think. I actually could relate to having “wars” in my head with lots of things. We all have ideas of what the “right’ thing to do is, and struggle with decisions on a daily basis. Whether it be about what we should be accomplishing, if we should spend money on something, if we should have another drink, or visit a loved one, or make an appointment for a colonoscopy.
But when it comes to food and eating, what does this “war” mean? What is going on here? Where does it all stem from?
I have my opinion about that war, and where it originates when it comes to eating, and it is complicated. I don’t think we can ever totally come to a conclusion with this as everyone’s experience is different. I know people who grew up with health food nuts (sorry, don’t mean to offend anyone, but I am referring to those who are kind of obsessed with eating healthy foods only…..whatever you consider healthy food….you are talking to an Italian here, I have trouble thinking sausage is not ok). And then there are those who have a different food background with cultures dictating the foods they are exposed to. Or, think about someone who grew up with a weight watcher kind of mom who was always dieting and talking about her weight, jumping on a scale and degrading herself depending on the force of gravity that day. Another common scenario I have seen these days is the truly good and caring parents who have heard from the pediatrician about BMI concerns with their child. These parents unknowingly start thinking they need to restrict their children and scold them for wanting what everyone else is eating. Then of course there is the cultural influence, the final word of what we are supposed to look like. One year big breasts are the thing to have for women and the next year it is all about muscles. Abs always seem to be “in”. The bottom line is how we look at food can be complicated. God bless the untainted soul who somehow is resilient to all of it. Far and few between.
No matter what the contributing factors are as to why an individual may be so affected as to feel at war with themselves when it comes to food, it is helpful to know we are not alone. The experts have been looking into this for many years. There happens to be decades of research exploring this phenomenon of what is typically referred to as “restrained eating”. I have talked about this before as it is a theme that never seems to have disappeared. People don’t seem to stop and re-evaluate, even when they experience the same thing over and over (dieting, losing weight, gaining it back, dieting again). Not sure why, but guessing it has to do with the constant focus and pressure on being the right body size, something that women especially seem to distract themselves with. Although those suffering from eating disorders focus on eating, weight and food for other reasons, I am referring to the “typical” dieter, that person who just simply wants to lose weight. Even for these people, looking at food in a restrictive way eventually can become harmful. The person who starts out just wanting to lose a few pounds often starts to look at food in a different way (once they start dieting). For example, before the weight concerns and dieting/restrained eating started, maybe they were a bit picky about what kind of cookie they liked. They could easily refuse an oreo because they only liked their mom’s homemade oatmeal cookies. Nothing could hold a candle to those. But, suddenly, after 3 months of dieting and avoiding sweets altogether, even fake cookies look good. At a meeting at work, if cookies are on the table, they call out to dieters. The bigger the “war” in a person’s head, the louder that cookie’s voice. The non-dieter, on the other hand, may glance at those cookies and just not want one. Yes, any cookie takes on a different meaning depending on the war in someone’s head.
But is it not just about cookies. According to that young man I was talking to, any “bad” food was a food to be avoided. Once he realized he needed to lose weight he fell into the trap of thinking what everyone else in the world seems to think: certain foods make you fat and other (healthy) foods don’t. The good/bad all-or-nothing thinking when it comes to food is the problem yet again. Giving any one food this particular power is a mistake. When it comes to health (or even weight for that matter) NO FOOD IN THE WORLD has the power to affect either (well, unless of course it is poisonous, but that is not what I am talking about and I think you know just what I mean).
What I told this young man is the same thing I will tell you. Yes, nutrition matters because eating a variety of healthy foods gives us everything we need to feel good, do what we want and prevent illness. But, it does not have to be that complicated. I believe in working on “mindful” and “intuitive” eating, and listening to one’s body, which is not easy for everyone (especially dieters or those with eating disorders). But, for the typical dieter who is at war with themselves, I have seen it work to free them. I have seen people actually learn to have just one slice of cake instead of half of the entire cake…..like they did when they told themselves they should not have any, ever. When people are able to tune out the “war” voice, and instead tune in to their true hunger and actually give themselves permission to have it, a funny thing happens. Your body really does not need or want more than a normal amount of anything. It is only when we deprive ourselves, when we restrict and unrealistically tell ourselves we can’t ever eat something that we break down and overeat it. And continue a war that we will never win.
Instead, I suggest you care about your health, make it a priority. Eat your vegetables (experiment with ways to prepare them to make them taste yummy such as roasting). Include protein sources with all your meals because it makes you feel better and last longer. Eat fruits you enjoy because they taste good and are healthy. Buy wheat bread instead of white. But, for heaven’s sake, don’t go to war over something as simple as a food choice. Your body knows what to do if you learn to listen to it. A normal serving of anything will never hurt you. But, if you deprive yourself, you definitely will be more obsessed with food and more likely to overeat and binge on it…..and not feel so good afterward.
Oh, you might be wondering what the heck “Two Cookies and a Yogurt” means. Well, I hate throwing away food, especially cookies. So on New Year’s Eve when my good friends Barbara and Fred had us over, there were gobs of Italian cookies leftover. She offered them to me, and well, you know, I couldn’t say no. They ended up in my freezer and I have been having them with my coffee for breakfast ever since (only 6 left I think!) No, cookies do not comprise a well balanced breakfast however, throw in a Greek yogurt and you are good to go. Well, I am. Everyone is different. Eat what is good for YOU for breakfast.
But don’t go to war over a cookie.