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Middle-of-the-road nutrition: Being okay with the "gray" area

I often talk to clients about nutrition being a gray area, which doesn’t always go over so well. People like things compartmentalized – good or bad, right or wrong, healthy or unhealthy. Somehow we need to be able to categorize our eating experience, and it’s usually on either end of an extreme scale.

But if only it were so simple. Sometimes we try to force our eating by listening only to the judgment of our mind (“I’ll be good if I eat this, bad if I eat that…”). But who wrote these dietary Ten Commandments? Too often folks take a strict or extreme approach to eating only to find they just can’t stick with it, control their cravings, or be “trusted” around certain foods.

Sure, there are foods out there that are less nutritious than others. Could we stand to eat a little bit less of them? Probably. Am I advocating we throw our hands up in the air and just eat whatever, whenever? Of course not – that would just be a different yet still extreme response.

The issue is when we take any all-or-nothing approach to eating; when we categorize foods as go or no-go; when we think our health status hinges on the tiniest ingestion of certain foods or nutrients (a sign of orthorexia). And when we DO eat them, we beat ourselves up with guilt and shame. Our only absolution is to swear off and abstain from said food vowing to return to a chaste diet the next day.

At what point did these seemingly moral judgments somehow became intertwined with food? Sure, a diet of Twinkies and soda isn’t the healthiest, but who decided their consumption made you a bad person? And most importantly, did categorizing food and punishing yourself ever lead to a positive, long-term change in your eating habits or health?

So here’s the hard part: you have to trust yourself with your food decisions. And this requires listening to your body. Too often we apply external factors to our food choices and we almost become detached from our eating experiences and needs. It’s about being able to determine when a craving for a Snickers bar will be satisfied by nothing else and should be met, or when it’s really just about craving something – comfort, boredom relief, the 2:00 pm work break. It’s being able to eat while taking note of how your body responds (Too much? Not enough? Is my energy better? Worse? Did I really enjoy that food?) and not placing judgment on your eating experience.

In other words, while our natural response is often to get more strict and controlling with our eating to achieve health or weight goals, what often serves us best is to loosen up a bit. The tighter we cling to our perfect diet, the harder we snap back when we “cave”. If we can find a happy medium which allows (and this is key – you have to mentally allow it) for the occasional less nutritious but delicious food, then quite often the cravings diminish, food doesn’t occupy daily thoughts, and our body finds its healthy state.

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