Keeping it Real: Food Choices and Healthy Eating

farmers market stash final

A farmer’s market stash from a few weeks ago

Do you consider yourself a healthy eater? Do you know someone else who could be considered as such?

If so, I imagine that some consider certain foods “healthy” or “nutritious”, and others are considered “bad”. These terms are synonymous with our culture, it seems. We talk of “being good” while eating a salad, or eating a “sinful” dessert. A well-known food “guru” (I hate to link to their site, because while I once was into following a Whole 30 plan, I now feel otherwise. However, I don’t want to inadequately credit their quote.) is famous for saying “The food that you eat either makes you more healthy or less healthy.” This mindset is not only dangerous.

It’s also not true.

When we start focusing on eating more healthily, though, many of us fall into this mindset. I know I did. I’d visit the farmer’s market, buy only local, organic, grass-fed meats, sustainably raised produce, and I’d post photos on Instagram and feel virtuous for all of my food choices. I’d make everything I ate from scratch, or in those occasions where I purchased something to eat, I’d make sure there were no “bad” ingredients in those items. If I was in a situation where I had to purchase something with questionable ingredients, I’d either face feeling immense guilt, or starve. I flip-flopped between both for a number of years. The result? The stress of being “perfect” with my food choices was eating me up - literally.

Donielle of Natural Fertility and Wellness wrote a great post the other day about food choices. Her words really spoke to me, because this is something that I have battled with in my past. I am just now at a point where I am confident in my food choices enough to not feel guilt when I eat something that breaks one of my former “food rules”.

A number of years ago, I started transitioning towards a diet based on mostly unprocessed, whole foods. I was becoming more cognizant of how I ate, and also learning to cook. At first, this was wonderful. I fell in love with cooking (which is a healthy activity – I’ll always encourage cooking!) and thrived on finding quality ingredients. The more I learned (and let’s be honest, the more I read things on the internet), the more I considered some foods “healthy” and some foods “unhealthy”. It didn’t help that I also struggled with digestive issues at the time. I would eat, have issues digesting, and worry that I wasn’t eating the right things. Somehow, I wasn’t eating healthy/clean/paleo enough, and that was the reason for all my woes. I would try to research, and the insanity that is the internet diet world would give my suggestions on how I could eat my way back to health. If I just followed the rules (which are different, depending on which set of “rules” you prescribe to), I would be eating perfectly, my health would be perfect, and everything would just fall in line, like magic.

Of course, this didn’t happen. I spent years chasing perfection. I celebrated my healthy choices, but more often, I just never felt like I did enough. I wasn’t eating enough vegetables. I was eating too many carbs. I was eating too much meat. I wasn’t eating enough meat. That one little treat with sugar in it set me back and now I was never going to heal, and I beat myself up for it. Furthermore, I chastised others (sometimes vocally, other times in my head) for their food choices. I was an expert who knew it all. In truth, I was ignorant to the larger reality of the world, and I was a miserable jerk. Knowing what I know now, I wish I had more empathy, both for myself and for others.

It’s taken me more than a year to move away from this mindset and to a place where moderation, acceptance, and understanding took hold. It’s been some mental work to move away from a place where I judged the quality of foods I ate (or others ate), but the work has paid off in a lot of ways.

First and foremost, I regained my digestive health. Turns out, stressing about eating did way more damage than any single thing I put into my mouth. I’d worry I wasn’t getting enough protein. Worry I didn’t eat enough vegetables. Stress that my vegetables were non-organic. Now, I enjoy my food, and my entire body thanks me for the chill-out factor. So do my dining companions.

Speaking of dining companions, I definitely find it much more enjoyable to eat with others. If someone offers me something homemade, I try it. I go out to eat with people more often, and enjoy the company as well as the meal, and don’t stress that the meat is conventionally raised or that the grains might be genetically modified.

I enjoy cooking and eating again. No longer do I try to “healthify” or make “paleo” versions of foods I crave – I just eat. Yes, I make gluten-free recipes often, as I have family members with celiac disease that cannot tolerate gluten, but I don’t try to make everything a “healthy” version of something else. I cook and eat a wide variety of vegetables, fruits, meats, and desserts. I eat until I’m satisfied, and that’s it. No remorse, no guilt, no feeling addicted to sugar (because remarkably, when I stopped with the food rules, sugar no longer had control over me).

Sometimes, that means I eat processed foods. I had a few peanut M&Ms while writing this post. I also had non-organic cheese on my sandwich at lunch, along with a store-bought ranch dressing for my carrots and celery. There are currently tortilla chips (not organic, and most likely GMO) in my pantry. Regardless of whether I chose those foods because they were cheaper, they taste better, or I was treating myself is irrelevant. I am certain that those choices are not making me “less healthy”. I promise, three M&Ms will not send me to my grave. I like them, they were delicious, and they fit into my highly-varied diet. That’s it. No judgment.

Most importantly, my removal of food dogma extended to acceptance of others’ choices. Who was I to judge what others eat? There is no one perfect diet, and we are different, and thrive on different things. Furthermore, I am privileged to be able to afford a diet full of local, mostly organic produce, sustainably raised meats, and locally baked breads and other such goodies. I am thankful to have a job with regular hours and weekends off, so I can cook dinner at home many nights, and cook delicious recipes on the weekends. Many others cannot afford organic foods. In fact, a great many people live with food insecurity. They have limited or no access to a fully-stocked grocery and limited funds to purchase any food, much less the bounty I consider my norm. Many living below the poverty line work hard to provide for their families, working extra hours, or two and three jobs, just to make ends meet. I don’t know about you, but many days I am exhausted from my one job and don’t feel like cooking. How could I judge someone who has just gotten home from working 16 hours straight for choosing to not cook all of their meals from scratch? The answer? I shouldn’t. It is not my place to decide what is right for anyone else, and I should never make anyone feel like their choices are not good enough.

We are all humans, and we are all doing our best. I hope to practice a lot more empathy, a lot more kindness, and a lot less dogma. There is no food heaven, and this is not a religion. When I eat a rich, delicious dessert, I am not sinning. We don’t need to atone for our “sins” by going on an all-kale diet, juicing for days, or going on a sugar detox. (Your body can “detox” all by itself!) And in the same vein, I am not being virtuous by eating all-organic, local, sustainably-raised food. Instead, I ought to be spending our mental energy on things that are more important in the grand scheme of things – family, friends, or other, more fruitful endeavors. And you know what? Slowly, but surely, I am.

Now, if I share photos such as the one at the top, I am celebrating the fresh, delicious foods I’ve found, not the healthfulness or superiority of any of those foods. I’m excited to support local farmers, and most of the time, the stuff tastes better because it’s fresher than the grocery. But I’m not special because I chose these things. I’m just a lover of food, and get excited about good stuff. I can’t help it – I love to cook and I love food. I also keep it real, and share store-bought, processed foods, restaurant dishes, delicious beer, or candy, if I’m excited about it. If you’re a long-time follower of this blog, you may have noticed the same shift in my recipes. Yes, many recipes are still whole foods-based, but others might call for a store-bought ingredient or two. It’s moderation. It’s balance.

I’m keeping it real, because this is real life. I prefer to celebrate it by enjoying lots of delicious, real food – and it’s ALL real food.

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