What is Healthy Eating ?

file000423443801This seems to be one of the most confusing aspects about health at the moment. There seems to be so many opposing philosophies on what is the ‘natural’, ‘original’ and ‘perfect’ diet for humans. What is more confusing is that each diet is backed by research and science to justify why eating this particular diet guarantees optimum health. With all of these options how can anyone be sure on the right way to eat? There are advocates of vegan diets who claim that we are not designed to eat meat. Then there is the recent Paleo diet that eliminates grain, dairy and beans and consumes enough meat to make any vegan break out in hives at the mere idea.

Diet is a controversial issue these days. It can be as risqué to discuss as religion. It is amazing how fired up some people get if you tell them you have decided to eliminate gluten or dairy, or that you eat dairy or that you only eat unpasteurized dairy. There’s the belief that no vegan can possibly be healthy and there are vegetarians who believe meat eaters are destined for heart disease and cancer. These days people defend their diet choices like that of a chosen religion and condemn others who choose another ‘way’ as being misguided; a diet different from one’s own is often viewed as ignorant and a guarantee to failing health.

For years, even as a nutritionist, I was confused as to what I should be eating. How much meat, how much protein? Were potatoes the root of all evil or unfairly labeled? After all they did sustain the Irish for hundreds of years.

I don’t pretend to have all the answers but what does make sense is the simple truth that there is no one ‘perfect diet’. Why? Because just as alternative medicine recognizes that each person is different, so then must our dietary needs be different as well. This might not seem very reassuring at first. How then can we begin to know what our individual body needs?

My first suggestion would be to listen to your body. The more you pay attention to how your body reacts when you feed it certain foods the more you will know what nourishes and what depletes your health. Pay attention to such things as mood, energy, digestion (heart burn, cramping, constipation, diarrhea), sleep, general well-being and for women changes in hormonal fluctuations and increased or decreased symptoms of PMS.

In my experience most people can’t sustain sudden and major changes in their diets or in their life. I really think baby steps is the way to go unless you feel totally committed, are an unusually determined person and/or are willing to not beat yourself up too much if you fall off the proverbial wagon. For many, small changes and small successes in healthy living will take you farther in the long run than a complete lifestyle overhaul fueled with an overzealous mania about how great life will be now that you are healthier and thinner. This latter approach is often met with feelings of complete worthlessness if you ‘fail’ and then followed by more self-destructive and unhealthy habits to numb negative feelings.

For myself, it took five years of falling off the wagon and getting back on to completely eliminate white sugar from my diet. It took two years of failing and re-starting to commit to cutting out gluten (the odd time I still slip) and about ten years to stick to a generally clean eating diet with virtually no processed, fried or packaged foods.

So don’t be so hard on yourself! Healthy eating is a journey like anything else. Surely, you don’t expect to master a marriage or a career when you first begin. Hopefully, you realize, with a career, as a parent or with a hobby that it takes years to learn how to do it right and to figure out what works and what doesn’t. It took me years to figure out what to choose at restaurants, food courts and family socials. It took as many to know what to snack on when I had certain cravings instead of giving into them. Now while my sometimes slightly-less health dedicated husband snacks on nachos and cheese I am quite content eating cucumbers with a side of olive oil and garlic dressing or hummus. I have learned enough times that I will feel worse opting for the nachos and I feel less bloated, guilty and energetic (and sleep better) when I eat something nourishing. But this took years of failure, effort and practice. So please don’t give up!

If you change one thing about your diet to be healthier then that is a success and a step towards health.Don’t underestimate those small changes. Someday they will be huge! The small successes will motivate you to challenge yourself further. The small failures will show you where you went off your path and help you to pay attention so that you don’t fall into the same traps again. You will learn to pick up a new trick to avoid the same slip-ups again. Again it might take ten of the same slip-ups before you realize how to really avoid it or you may need to get fed up enough not to allow it to happen again. The secret is patience and the challenge is being gentle and having forgiveness for yourself.

As Winston Churchill once said, “ Never, never, never give up.”

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