Like anyone else, I succumb to the pleasures of food and drink, especially during this time of year. Just last night I had a delicious dinner with friends during my husband’s office Christmas party. The food was wonderful, and I ate far more than I should have. I’m not recommending doing that [overeating], but what I do want to call attention to today is reality as it relates to nutrition.
Eating doesn’t JUST have to be about nutrients to be healthy. Having an occasional indulgence just for the sake of indulgence isn’t “bad.” As a matter of fact, labeling your food choices as either “good” or “bad” is an indication that you’re steering away from a healthy relationship with food; so is a preoccupation with the mathematical stats of foods. Sure, I definitely recommend seeking strategies that merge healthy eating with indulgences so that we don’t stray from obtaining the proper nutrients our body needs. (My most favorite “healthy indulgence” is mashed avocado mixed with boiled eggs or chicken. O-M-G.) But the real key lies within finding peace with choosing mostly healthy foods mixed with the occasional treat while enjoying all that life has to offer.
How do we find true balance with eating? How do we ensure that treats are, in fact, treats? Although the word “balance” has been so distorted over the years it’s nearly ridiculous, you can find balance quite easily. If you’re having a significant amount of something regularly, it is no longer a treat; rather, it is routine. There is no specific parameter that identifies your allotment of treats each day or week. In other words, you have to consider your wants and decide how they can reasonably fit into an otherwise healthy eating style.
Some questions to ask yourself to determine if balance is present in your world:
- Am I eating meals composed mostly of non-starchy vegetables?
- Are most of my daily carbohydrate choices coming from 100% whole grains, or starchy vegetables, or whole fruits?
- Am I having good quality meats and/or fatty fish and plant-based protein sources?
- Am I choosing water as my main beverage each day? Am I drinking enough?
- Am I leaving meals feeling satisfied but not overly full?
If 90% of the time you can answer “yes” to ALL of the questions listed above, and this holds true nearly every day of the week, then you likely have achieved nutritional balance. As a result, having a couple slices of pizza or some cake every now and again is unlikely to pose a significant threat to your health. The problem with most people I see who are really struggling with their weight or with chronic disease is that rather than eating well 90% of the time and indulging 10% of the time, they have it completely backward. Or we fall into more of a 50% healthy, 50% indulgent eating style and still wonder why we’re struggling.
I’ll give you an example of how we can become delusional about our treats. I had a patient many years ago that said “I only have a [large] DQ Blizzard once a week.” I thought, “Well, ok, I guess…” But then, after further discussion, he told me “I only have a half a pound of bacon once a week…and I only have a 6-pack of beer one day a week…and I only have a double bacon cheeseburger once a week…” It went on from there, but you get the idea. What happened was that because EACH of his individual indulgences were only once per week, this guy truly felt he was restricting and wondered why his health wasn’t improving much. I’m not kidding, this is a true story. It was only later when we discussed that, collectively, he is indulging at least 50% of the time that the real habits were exposed.
Here’s the thing: find ways to make healthy eating taste amazing, and you will have no trouble with the 90% healthy vs 10% treat philosophy. Flavor foods with herbs, spices, and a moderate amount of nutrient-rich fat. Plan ahead so you can cook amazing (yet simple), fresh, homemade real-food meals that rock your socks off. When you fuel your body with nutrient-rich, fiber-filled, quality foods, you will naturally crave less of the sugary, processed stuff.
Lastly, make sure that if you’re going to indulge that it is worth it. I’ve found myself blowing far too many calories (not that I’m counting, because I’m not) on foods that were just “meh.” Don’t waste time putting treats down the hatch unless you know they are worth it. Don’t eat just to eat. An indulgent treat should bring you some pleasure, and that’s not a bad thing. (However, if you are emotionally distressed or depressed, and you find yourself turning to food for comfort, you are heading down a dangerous road. Seek guidance from a registered dietitian nutritionist and/or a mental health professional to find strategies to better cope with your emotional situation if so.)
xoxo ~ Casey