I think that if I see another article about the Top Ten Foods that You Must Eat in order to have Perfect Health, I might just implode. Not really. But it does drive me nuts to see foods categorized into “good” and “bad,” as this perpetuates the myth that there is one more virtuous way to eat than another.
Yes, I am a registered dietitian, and a couple of decades ago I studied a lot of chemistry and anatomy and physiology. I know that some foods have more vitamins, minerals, and beneficial phytochemicals than others. I know that the more colorful plate of food is generally the most nutrient-dense. I’m not going to argue that encouraging us to get more fruits and veggies in our diets is wrong. However, encouraging people to believe that drinking a green smoothie each day makes up for erratic and unbalanced eating the rest of the week is a grave mistake. I have seen too many very intelligent people skip meals and feel low blood sugar crashes because they believed that drinking a smoothie was a substitute for listening to their body’s needs and preferences and hunger.
So, I really hate to burst your bubble, but here is the real deal about smoothies -- and quinoa -- and kale. They aren’t perfect foods. In fact, NO one food is perfect. Please please please give up that view. Our bodies need lots of different nutrients in order to be healthy.
So, full disclosure. I actually like quinoa -- and kale -- and frequently make smoothies of many types. My favorite has fresh grated ginger, chocolate (cacao), and almond milk in it. My children will catch me sneaking some spinach into their fruit smoothies, and they don’t even mind any more because they like the taste, if there are also plenty of sweet berries in there, too. Fruits, vegetables, legumes, coconut, whole grains, avocados.... Yes, these are all health-giving foods that may have disease-preventative qualities. What I worry about is the way that health-improving foods are given such rock star status that they start showing up all over the place.
For instance, we used to think that coconut oil was on the “bad” list and clogged our arteries. Then, a more recent bit of research indicated that coconut may be good for us. Now it’s showing up in everything from yogurt to bottled coconut water drinks. None of those foods are probably bad for us by themselves, but we don’t know what the effect of eating many coconut derivatives in one day might be. Many of these products are not coconut-the-way-nature-intended-it. I once did a diet assessment of a vegetarian client years ago and found out that she was eating seven different products with derivatives of soy in them in one day. (This is pretty easy to do with all of the soybean oil and added soy protein in many products.) Everything that she’d read was telling her that soy was super healthy, but I still cautioned her against so much processed soy.
We take nutritional advice to the extreme because moderation is not sexy. And because eating virtuously is one way we can feel better about ourselves -- and feel in control of our lives in an increasingly complex world.
But whenever we listen to the Top Ten Foods You Can’t Do Without and stop listening to our inner wisdom about what our bodies most need to eat in any given moment, we create a big disconnect between our bodies and the act of eating. We trust someone else’s advice for how we should eat over our own -- and we believe, erroneously, that there is a food prescription out there that everyone should follow.
Studies have shown that young children, over the course of a week and month (though not daily) will naturally choose a diet that is varied and complete nutritionally. When I ask my 8-year-old daughter why she didn’t eat a particular meal or snack, she says, “Because I didn’t like it,” looking at me like I must be crazy if I think that she’s going to eat anything that she doesn’t really like. She will also sometimes say, “I don’t like this, but I’m really hungry, so I’m eating it.” Her logic is pretty simple around food and it hasn’t been tainted by the “shoulds” and “should-nots” out there.
Somewhere along the line, though, we stop listening to the wisdom in our bodies that tells us things like, “I’m really in the mood for that soup,” “I feel like I need some grounding food,” or “I have a real taste for squash, but not tomatoes.” Sometimes our bodies crave unusual foods, like the pregnant semi-vegetarian who suddenly wants to eat meat much more often. (This is not unusual when she needs extra protein and iron to grow a baby.) Sometimes our bodies want to eat more food when we have been more active, especially if we are using new muscles. Women usually want to eat more at the end of their menstrual cycles when metabolism increases and they do actually require a bit more food. Ever wonder why you suddenly feel like you want to eat some fish? Or why a sandwich is more appealing than a salad some days, but not others?
Our bodies have lots of wisdom about what we need, as long as we listen. Setting up foods as “good” or “bad” -- or always choosing the “healthy” or “low-calorie” option overrides the body’s good judgement about what to eat. But maybe you are so out of practice with really listening to your body. Maybe you aren’t used to listening to hunger and don’t even know what your real food preferences are these days. You think you like a particular food, but you aren’t sure that you feel very good after eating it.
My first suggestion is to s...l...o...w... d...o...w...n... the process of eating. This is what eating mindfully looks like and many of us rarely eat this way. (I mindlessly eat lunch while I check email more than I’d like to admit.) Try this some time when you are alone and undistracted. That, in and of itself, could be a challenge!
- Pause before you prepare yourself a meal (if you have the choice) and ask yourself what you really want to eat. What textures, flavors, temperatures would be appealing? Try not to let your ideas about nutrition dictate your choices. You may have to get really quiet and still, if you aren’t used to this, in order to read your body’s signals here.
- Take in the visual appeal of the food and the smell before even taking a bite.
- Ask yourself how hungry you are for this food. Is it stomach hunger or is your mouth or mind hungry for it mainly?
- Think about where the food came from and all the people, animals, plants, sunshine, and rain that made the meal possible. Don’t just wolf down this miraculous dish! Try to cultivate and feel real gratitude for the food.
- Take a few slow bites and notice the flavor and texture and feel of the food in your mouth. Savor the pleasure of eating each bite.
- After several slow, enjoyable bites, ask yourself how hungry you still are for this food. Repeat the process above.
- Notice when you are getting full. What does that feel like in your body? How do you know when to stop? Notice the sensations.
This all may sound rather simplistic because it is. Regardless, many of us have lost the ability to eat this way -- in a way that is really in tune with our bodies. Eating feeds our souls and hearts more if done in this careful, nurturing way. Try it even with a few bites each day. You will see a difference in your relationship with food start to emerge. Many of my clients who practice mindfulness in their eating report that their souls and hearts feel more fed when they eat this way; they feel cared for. And if they are finding other ways to nourish themselves outside of meals -- with activities, people, and time to re-energize -- then food takes its place as just one of the many pleasures in their lives. Sometimes this can be a long process of healing, but it starts with trusting yourself -- and not the next Top Ten Perfect Foods list.
We are all perfectly imperfect. So is our food. Eat what you like. Eat what makes you feel good. In each very different moment. Pay careful attention to the wisdom of your very own body.