There was a little girl,
And she had a little curl
Right in the middle of her forehead.
When she was good, she was very, very good,
But when she was bad she was horrid.
That old Mother Goose nursery rhyme comes to mind often in my work. Women sitting there telling me of all the beautiful meals they make for themselves “when I’m being good.” There’s a self-righteousness to these parts of their food day, a certain pride in the fact that they’ve learned the rules and show a sense of discipline.
These same women go on to tell me about later in the day – during that afternoon dip or once supper’s over and they’ve settled in front of the TV. That’s “when I’m being bad” and their poor food habits show up. When the office candy bowl and cookies and ice cream and the repeat visits to the fridge take over all sense of reason or strength of will.
One client recently referred to such bad habits as “sins” – insinuating that there is a moral transgression being committed, one punishable by God. Ouch.
Is that tendency a part of the perfectionist’s personality? That when you’re being good, you’re very, very good, and when you’re bad you do so with equal zeal? Which certainly translates to those sins being well worth the self-flagellation and berating you offer yourself in return. Double ouch.
That’s the kind of black and white thinking your inner perfectionist no-doubt craves. There ends up being no room for grey zones.
Unfortunately, nutritional advice has evolved into nothing less than one huge grey zone.
The lines get very blurry from one style of eating to the next, and even blurrier between experts on a given style.
Even so, when you decide on a specific set of rules, you will accept nothing less of yourself than following those rules to the letter as outlined by one of said experts. Sometimes to the sacrifice of your likes and dislikes. Or in ignorance of your emotional state or how active you’ve been or the fluctuations through your cycle. Sometimes cutting out any sense of celebration.
Yet, when it comes to “good” and “bad” food choices, there can be no absolutes.
I do the air-quote thing on purpose when using those words with students or clients. I want to emphasize the fact that the goodness or badness of a food or an eating habit is relative.
Here’s what I mean:
We all know sugar is “bad” for us, more so for those dealing with such conditions as Type II diabetes or cancer. Even when calming inflammation of any kind (including those 15 lbs that have set up camp on your middle), sugar will feed the issue.
In that sense, sugars from any source need to be taken into consideration, whether it’s from a candy bar or a PB&J or a carrot or a glass of wine. At the end of the day, they all contribute to how much sugar you’ve taken in. That is, the carrot has potentially become one of the “bad” guys.
That said, sugar is our cleanest energy source and getting a certain amount (up to 10% of your daily calories) makes life a heck of a lot more pleasant and your body function more efficiently. When you focus on whole foods and eliminate the added sugars, you can easily stay within those limits. At which point a carrot, full of fibre and antioxidants along with the sugar, is a “good” source.
In In Defense of Foods, Michael Pollan shares another great example from psychologist Paul Rozin.
From a list of foods, study participants were asked to consider which food item from a given list they would choose to have on a desert island (along with water). Participants chose bananas, spinach, corn, alfalfa sprouts or peaches over hot dogs or milk chocolate.
However, on that desert island, that hot dog might be your only source of protein for a few days, the chocolate will keep your blood sugar happy and your mind alert. Of all of the above, they would increase your chance of survival.
And then we get into the actual enjoyment of good food.
How well will your body take in and use the nutrients of a healthy bowl of steel-cut oats and ground flax if the texture grosses you out and you can barely swallow, let alone chew it? If you pinch your nose to get through the steamed kale, is it possible your cells will be pinched on the inside?
In Chinese tradition, when the shen (your spirit) tastes the food or herbs in your mouth, that is the first stage of your organism’s ability to take it in.
If you prefer physiological facts, think about your parasympathetic nervous system. You know the relaxation response, that is, the part of you in charge of “rest and digest.”
Call to mind the most delicious thing you’ve eaten this week. (Seriously, do it!)
Remember taking that first bite – how buttery or complex or pungent it was – what happens in your body? As you imagine the flavours expanding in your mouth, don’t your shoulders drop? Do you maybe let out a big sigh and fall back in your chair ever so slightly? You’ve relaxed – engaged the PNS – improved your digestion by simply savouring your meal.
Now repeat the exercise with the last thing you ate out of righteousness. I’ll bet you feel a little more tense from that one.
Which brings up the question, is food “good” because of its nutrient profile or because it tastes good?
Engaging your taste buds also attunes you to the fact that tasting “bad” may mean that a food has gone bad; mouldy or rancid or rotten. It may be telling you that the food in question is actually bad for you in some other way. Try eating a fast-food burger slowly, savouring every bite. How does it actually taste?
Feeling bad – physically, mentally or emotionally – after eating a particular food is another way your body tells you to steer clear. This is your individual decision, regardless of how nutritious the actual food.
Do I have a solution to offer you for maintaining good eating habits?
I prefer to think that you have the solution by listening to your body through practices such as
* Mindful eating – slow, deliberate and seasoned with gratitude. This extends to mindful planning, grocery shopping and cooking. As they say, most of healthy eating is in the prep.
* Engage the relaxation response throughout your day, with breathing exercises, meditation or generally loosening the strictures on your image of what the “perfect” (yes, that one’s relative too) meal, or the “perfect” life, need be.
* Forgive yourself when you’ve been “bad”, knowing you can start again at the next meal. Beating yourself up for your less than “perfect” choices does you more harm in the long run that the junk food.
* Take responsibility for your choices. Stay away from stuff you know is “bad” for you (see above). If, however, you choose to go ahead, know that it may involve consequences on one level or another. YOU have the power of choice over the food you put in your mouth, not the other way around!
* Step back and explore your emotional state before you go back for that second helping of [insert “bad” choice].
Rather than a grey zone, I prefer to think of healthy eating habits as a full-spectrum. Not black & white, but exploding with colour. Just like all the best food.
The word “healthy” comes from the same root as “whole”. By letting your whole self be a part of the action – the “good” bits and the “bad” bits of you – you are feeding yourself from a place of fulfillment. You fill yourself with more than parcels of nutrients (or junk) and will be more satisfied and healthier for it.
Which part of your eating habits do you consider “bad” and what do you do to make it better? When you offer your thoughts in the comments, you open the possibilities for others.
Share this post with any friends struggling with getting control of their eating habits by using any (or all!) of the pretty green buttons.