I’ve been thinking a lot about paths recently.
It first came up a few months ago as I sat in my therapist’s office. I was panicking about not being on track to graduate with my class and stressing about not having what I deemed the “typical college experience.” She looked at me for a moment, then declared I simply did not have to follow the same path as everyone else. While everyone else was sprinting around the track, it was okay that I was walking slowly around the outside, picking daisies on my way to the finish line.
And it came up again a week or so ago, as I stumbled across a new UNC organization’s Facebook page created to promote healthy eating in our community. Its profile picture showed a man standing with his hands on his hips on a road that diverged into two separate paths it was assumed the man was choosing between. On the right: a mountain of broccoli and lettuce and apples built atop a field of lush, green grass, emblazoned with promises of weight control! better mood! boosts energy! longevity! But the left offered only a wilted, sad lawn under a pile of greasy burgers, pizza and fries, along with weight gain, depression, tooth decay, early death.
I was shocked. And then just sad, because this isn’t what healthy eating is about.
A healthy relationship with food is not based around the diet mentality. It doesn’t rely on rigid rules, dangerous “all or nothing” thinking, or feelings of guilt and shame after eating. Diets and restrictive eating patterns can lead to pathological dieting behaviors which can further develop into partial or full-syndrome eating disorders, which are extremely prevalent in the college environment. Healthy eating is not marked by unforgiving ways of thinking about food.
A healthy relationship with food is not about putting foods into strict categories of “healthy” and “unhealthy” or “good” and “bad.” As we talk about often in Embody, foods do not have moral value. If you’ve been to one of the Embody trainings that I’ve lead, you’ve heard me say it: a donut is not inherently “bad.” It did not rob a bank or murder someone. And an apple is not inherently “good” – it didn’t win the Nobel Peace Prize and it doesn’t volunteer on the weekends. Foods are simply foods, and although some have more nutrients than others, all foods, in moderation, have a place within a healthy diet. Eating foods that you enjoy do not make you a bad person.
A healthy relationship with food is not “one size fits all.” There is no one option for healthy eating, and it doesn’t look like one particular eating pattern or food choice. It looks different for everyone, because every person’s health, body, life and preferences are as unique as they are. Others’ food choices should not be shamed or critiqued.
Sending these messages under the guise of “health” can be harmful to everyone, but especially harmful to individuals struggling with eating disorders, with a history of eating disorders, or who are genetically predisposed to eating disorders. Recent studies suggest as many as 1 in 5 to 1 in 4 students on a college campus could be struggling with an eating disorder – an alarmingly high amount. These messages could be very real and dangerous triggers for those individuals.
Rather, a healthy relationship with food is marked by flexibility, trust and balance. It is about pleasure and nourishment and joy. In our Embody trainings, we pull from therapist and dietitian Ellyn Satter’s definition of normal eating:
Normal eating is going to the table hungry and eating until you are satisfied. It is being able to choose food you like and eat it and truly get enough of it -not just stop eating because you think you should. Normal eating is being able to give some thought to your food selection so you get nutritious food, but not being so wary and restrictive that you miss out on enjoyable food. Normal eating is giving yourself permission to eat sometimes because you are happy, sad or bored, or just because it feels good. Normal eating is mostly three meals a day, or four or five, or it can be choosing to munch along the way. It is leaving some cookies on the plate because you know you can have some again tomorrow, or it is eating more now because they taste so wonderful. Normal eating is overeating at times, feeling stuffed and uncomfortable. And it can be undereating at times and wishing you had more. Normal eating is trusting your body to make up for your mistakes* in eating. Normal eating takes up some of your time and attention, but keeps its place as only one important area of your life.
In short, normal eating is flexible. It varies in response to your hunger, your schedule, your proximity to food and your feelings.
It is walking between those two paths, rather than choosing one over the other.
*While Embody agrees wholeheartedly with most of the definition, we don’t think the word “mistakes” is the most helpful, as it conveys a sense of guilt/shame associated with eating.