by Nutritionist Jen Sommer-Dirks
I once overheard a personal trainer at my gym say to another trainer, “I was so bad today; I had a white bagel!” As the other trainer gasped in horror, I cringed to myself and debated whether or not it was worth telling the trainer how silly she sounded. I don’t like when people refer to themselves as bad because of something they ate. That’s classic eating disorder talk, and it’s sad to think that some people genuinely feel so guilty about something they eat. Sometimes statements like the trainer said are meant as an exaggeration or for effect, but it’s still not a good habit. Eating a less-than-healthy food does not make one a bad person! Lying, cheating, stealing…those things make you a bad person, but not your nutrition choices.
The main problem I see with striving for perfect nutrition is that perfect nutrition doesn’t exist. Think about it: two of the current most popular ways out there of eating are vegetarianism and Paleo, which are just about as opposite as you can get. So how do you even begin to define what “perfect” would look like? There’s no consensus on what the best diet is, even among nutrition professionals.
Another problem with trying to attain perfect nutrition is that there is almost always a next step that could be taken. Eating lean meats isn’t good enough; you have to marinate them to help reduce development of carcinogenic compounds during cooking. Oh, and make sure it’s grass fed and free range. And local. Maybe it starts with decreasing sweets, and then it’s decreasing refined grains, then it’s all grains, then it’s an eating disorder. Okay, I’m exaggerating, but you know what I mean. Where do you draw the line? To me, this means that trying to reach nutrition perfection will result in inevitable failure. You’ll only end up feeling bad about yourself and possibly set yourself up for disordered eating.
So what do you do if health is important to you but you don’t want to feel bad about your nutrition choices? Here are a few suggestions.
1. Eliminate food rules. If you have rules, you’re more likely to want to break them and then feel guilty about it afterwards.
2. Practice mindful eating. Pay attention to what you are eating and enjoy it.
3. Find balance. A white bagel isn’t going to ruin your health as long as it’s not the main staple. Set more realistic goals, like choosing whole grains more often than not; that way you don’t have to shame yourself for the occasional appearance of a white bread product.
4. Practice moderation. Allow yourself less nutrient dense foods (such as dessert) occasionally. Totally denying yourself will just make you want it more.
5. Don’t stress about the occasional indulgence. It’s normal, and it’s part of what makes life enjoyable. One brownie will not change the course of your life (unless maybe if it has an engagement ring in it or something!).
6. Reward with food in moderation, but also try to find other forms of reward, like getting a massage or buying yourself that new gadget you’ve been wanting.
7. Never punish with food (either yourself or your kids). Even taking away dessert can backfire. I once worked with a patient whose parents locked up all the candy in the house when she was a kid. Years later when she got a car she started driving to the store daily to buy her own candy to binge on.
8. Focus on the positive. Instead of thinking about what you shouldn’t eat, focus on getting plenty of nutritious foods. If you’re getting enough of them, you just might find you don’t even want the less nutrient dense stuff.
9. Get to the bottom of the bad feeling. Chances are it’s not really about the food, so if you’re feeling really guilty about your food, your eating habits, or your body, enlist the help of a dietitian or even a therapist to explore your relationship with food and your body.
Food shouldn’t rule your life, whether you’re trying to avoid or indulge or simply reach perfection. Find the freedom to enjoy it instead!
Jen Sommer-Dirks is a registered dietitian, a certified specialist in sports dietetics, a former NASM certified personal trainer, and a self-appointed mountain girl. As a cyclist, skier, hiker, and runner (among other things), she knows firsthand the importance of proper nutrition and training.