You'd think as a dietitian I'd be living and breathing everything nutrition at this point….and I'm not. In fact, as my path has led me to the field of eating disorders I spend most of my time telling people to chill the @$%^ out about food, nutrition and health.
When most people think about nutrition it's full of "I should be eating ___" and "I shouldn't eat ___." It's based out of fear, guilt and shame. This doesn't lead to enjoyable eating.
By the time someone reaches my office they have gone so deep down this rabbit hole that they are miserable and often (ironically) UNhealthy. Their fear-based relationship with food has often resulted in restriction of food groups and nutrients, bingeing and excessive intake of food at other times, all sorts of digestive issues, and basically feeling like crap about themselves.
They don't need me to get on my dietitian soap box and preach about the food guide pyramid (or My Plate…whatever, they're both crap). Nope. These people need someone to give them permission to chill the @$%^ out.
I'm happy to fill those shoes.
We've got a world full of people who think they know a lot about nutrition, and they are living their lives based on these assumptions. They label foods as good and bad, and judge themselves and others based on consumption of foods from these categories. What most people are failing to recognize is that their assumptions are faulty or exaggerated to begin with.
People hold on to such strong beliefs about food, nutrition and health, while most people don't have any formal education in the area. Yet they become self-proclaimed experts, thanks to the internet.
When I was in grad school I attended a program at the National Cancer Institute called the Nutrition and Cancer Prevention Research Practicum. We sat there listening to lectures from some of the world's leading cancer prevention researchers. After one presentation about the benefits of a nutrient in broccoli we broke for lunch. People stampeded to the salad bar and ate all of the broccoli. The attendees of this program were all academics themselves – we had to apply and be accepted in – and all it took was a power point presentation to alter their behaviors at the very next meal. As if eating a broccoli salad that day was going to make all of us healthier…LOL.
If a room full of people who literally study nutrition can be so easily fooled, it's no wonder the general public is a hot mess with this nutrition stuff.
Here's a scary example from a recent study showing an increase in liver damage resulting from supplement use – in particular from supplements alleging to change a person's appearance: anabolic steroids (for body building) and green tea extract (for weight loss). Supplements are heavily marketed with all sorts of false claims and aren't regulated by the FDA, so there's not really any oversight to protect the public from harm. People hear a rumor that something is good for them and they start taking mega doses without consideration to the risks.
Be careful what you read
It's a huge problem that the food and exercise research is flawed in many ways. It's also problematic that the headlines about it are sensationalized. As a result, people are operating on misinformation that is exaggerated and sometimes even false. And we have such a fear-based relationship with food and exercise – fear that if we don't do it "right" we will be "unhealthy" (which, let's be honest, is code for fat). And we believe that being fat is the worst thing that could happen to a person, which is really really sad. Because we are so much more than a number on a scale. A person isn't "good" or "bad" based on what they eat, exercise or weigh.
That's why my approach is to eat lots of variety, eat what sounds good, strive for variety, listen to my body's appetite cues, and not worry too much about the rest. I move my body because it makes me feel good. The rest is in God's hands.
For the general public, the focus on nutrition that currently exists is doing more harm than good. Most people do not need to focus on the specific details about the food they are eating – because this tends to create maladaptive and pathological eating behaviors, and doesn't actually improve their health. In fact, it often causes psychological distress for no good reason.
More knowledge isn't the solution
Most of the clients who enter my office know a great deal about nutrition. Often to their detriment. And sometimes this keeps them from seeking help from a dietitian, because they don't see how we could help them since they already know so much about what they think they "should" be eating. They're often surprised, and relieved, when I say, "I want to talk about WHY you can't eat what you think you should be eating." Because that's the issue that's been plaguing them – they can't stick to the rules that have been formed in their mind about eating.
[Infographic created by the super smart and talented Jessica Setnick, RD!]
So here I am as a person who now treats eating disorders. I spend all day every day un-doing what our culture has done to people. I have been known to frequently utter phrases like:
- If you never eat another vegetable again, nothing bad is going to happen to you.
- There's nothing wrong with fast food.
- Let's eat a cookie together.
- Pizza is a great food – it has all 3 macronutrients: carb, protein and fat. How's that "bad?"
- I don't care if you eat brownies or not – I care that if you wanted one you could eat it without guilt.
Have you ever felt guilty after eating something?
That's what my clients are experiencing – on steroids x1000. Intense guilt and shame over their eating and the size/shape of their body.
Regardless of what you do or don't eat – you are still a wonderful person. Your morality is not based on the food you consume. So when you are feeling "guilty," remind yourself that you haven't done anything wrong (unless you stole the food or murdered somebody to get it).
Most of what I'm trying to convey to people is to chill out about food. I encourage folks to follow these basic principles:
- Eat when you are hungry.
- Choose a food that sounds satisfying.
- Pay attention while you are eating it.
- Stop when you are satisfied.
- Live your life.
- Repeat the next time you are hungry.
It doesn't require a master's degree in nutrition to do this. All you need to do is stop trolling the internet and falling for click bait designed to win your buy-in via fear about food and your body. YOU are the expert of your own body, so listen to what it is telling you, and use common sense that eating a wide variety of foods will give you a wide variety of nutrients – trust that your body will do the rest.
Some people with certain health conditions (e.g. diabetes, IBS, renal disease), or circumstances (e.g. athletes, people with bariatric surgery) may benefit from using food strategically. And that's great if they can do it with a positive regard to nutrition – rather than pathological (see infographic above). If you don't have anything like this going on, chances are you will be fine with just chilling out and listening to your body.
What do you need to chill out about when it comes to your eating?