Is your healthy lifestyle a diet? and other worrisome questions

guilt free brownies

So, I was just bebopping around the internet, soaking up some interesting stories and looking for something to tell you all about when I found this: 5 Signs Your “Healthy Lifestyle” Is Actually A Diet. Most of these things are pretty diet-y, yes, but when I read this, my only thought was that something much more dangerous was afoot.

Orthorexia Nervosa

To me, this read like orthorexia nervosa, or the obsession with a healthy/right/pure diet. While not (yet) classified as a true eating disorder in the DSM-V, it was coined in the early nineties by Steve Bratman, MD. It is an obsession with food quality and exercise. It’s paying penance for any indulgence with more restriction or exercise. It starts with the quest for better health and ends with health alluding you. This specific eating behavior can lead to nutrient deficits and, as you might have guessed when I mentioned the DSM-V, mental and social health problems.

On this blog, I plan on talking about eating well and living well, and I would be so disappointed in myself if I contributed to someone giving up true health (physical, mental, social, emotional, spiritual) for the sake of “right eating.” I had a brush with disordered eating and my interest in studying nutrition came from a desire to help people out of the situation I got myself into, not helping them into that same hole. Orthorexia starts off as a desire to be healthy, but gets taken to the extreme. Remember–eating well is part of a happy, healthy life; it’s eating only healthy foods and exercising religiously at the expense of your friends, family, social life, goals, dreams, and other parts of a truly healthy life that causes problems. The difference really lies in how you think about food.

So, let’s pretend your mom made a cake for you. Or maybe it was that nice neighbor down the street. Or your significant other. In any case, it is a perfect cake–your favorite kind and just how you like it. Do you have a slice, savor it, thank the baker, and go on with your day, maybe with some bounce in your step because someone thought of you? Or do you refuse the cake, even when refusal hurts our lovely baker’s feelings? Do you feel virtuous for turning down that “bad” cake and wonder how anyone could eat something full of so many empty calories? Do you have a small slice and feel guilty about it and maybe punish yourself with less food next mealtime or by running it off? Do you feel like you have lost control if you eat the cake–maybe you could eat it if you had prepared it and knew what went into the making?

If you picked the first one, you need a high-five because it is a rare person with a healthy relationship with food (at least from what I have seen of America). The others–well, that might be an indication that you should look into your food habits. An important hallmark of a healthy way of eating is balance and moderation. That really means that you can eat your cake. A slice now and then isn’t going to make you fat or unhealthy (just like a salad now and then won’t bolster you against unhealthiness if you otherwise don’t eat well).

And while I am at it, moderation, the 80/20 rule, whatever you want to call it–it applies to potato chips, too. Or even Twinkies–as much as I may like to think that everyone would rather a slice of homemade vanilla sponge cake with some frosting, the truth is that some people like Twinkies and they like them lots. And, there is a balance that each person has to figure out for his or herself to find out what fun foods he likes to eat and how often he can eat them and maintain his health.

Intuitive Eating

It might sound crazy after being raised in a world of good food and bad food with the media harping on us about the obesity epidemic, but the whole point of intuitive eating is that you listen to your body and eat whatever you want. While in the beginning, you will probably crave all your forbidden foods–pizza, pasta, ice cream–as you get used to not restricting yourself at all, you’ll come to want vegetables and so-called “good” foods, not because you think that they are something virtuous, but because they are appealing to you and take care of your body.

One great thing about the principles behind intuitive eating is the non-diet approach–it takes your focus away from food every waking hour and forces you to think about how you feel. It is difficult, of course, to train yourself out of the eating habits you’ve picked up. It is hard for many of us to know when to stop since Americans tend not to stop eating when full but rather when the plate is empty or the cereal bowl runs out of milk. Learning to eat slowly and listen to your satiety signals is no easy feat.  And learing to restore a neutral relationship with food is harder still because we are so used to eating (or at least trying to eat) virtuously, rather than for the pleasure of eating good food and taking care of our bodies.

There is a story at Refinery 29 about intuitive eating and about a woman on a journey to live without a diet. Her decision is inspiring and a great way to put healthy eating habits in the spot light. I am still working with developing those selfsame habits, but it has been very rewarding since, to paraphrase the second article, I like guilt-free brownies–those are normal brownies that you don’t feel bad about.

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