FOOD IS GOOD: A Pitch for Better Eating without the Shame
What constitutes healthy eating? In over 2000 years of studying how food impacts the body, dating back to Hippocrates in 400 B.C., it is rather easy to note how diet fads, trends, and our study of nutrition has changed over time. From the discovery of liver’s healing properties to scurvy affecting seafaring people due to lack of vitamin C, our knowledge of nutrition has become deeper. Now though, with the keto-craze/carnivore/veganism/low-fat elimination diet trends ruling the realm - our questions and concerns have become more complex. I’m not arguing here that keto, carnivore, veganism, paleo, low-fat diet, or any other popular methods are inherently BAD but rather the way we humans interpret this plethora of information and misinformation causes an unhealthy relationship with the food which gives us vitality. Some people would say healthy eating means consuming the right foods, others would say eating the right amount of food, and I would say whatever reduces stress and works best for one’s lifestyle.
Our cultural paradigm in relation to food and nutrition proves a toxic one when you consider the prevalence of anorexia, bulimia, body dysmorphia, and in less severe circumstances an aversion to food deemed “bad” by whichever fitness or diet expert’s YouTube channel or blog one chooses to frequent. On the flip side of the same coin - obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and many of the other disorders affiliated with “all-cause mortality” (meaning all ways our lifespan is reduced) are related to an over consumption of food. It seems the “healthy medium” has been overlooked and cast aside in our black-and-white society. I am no different. I too have fallen prey to the vast expanse of information and misinformation on the internet so if you are reading this and thinking, “What does this family therapist know about nutrition?”- not only would you be absolutely justified in your skepticism, you would also be a fellow member of the misled community keen on finding the “right” answers to your nutrition questions. I personally have oscillated between being called “tubby” in middle school to unhealthily losing 30 pounds in ONE MONTH because I believed the body-builder mantra of “chicken and broccoli bro.” My unhealthy relationship with food necessitated an aim to strike a healthy balance, and share it with anyone who’d care to listen.
Many health “gurus” on the internet seeking to suck the sap out of our bank accounts are looking to capitalize off the quick buck they can make from selling their ideas and products on their Patreon channel. Hippocrates is rolling in his grave at some of these pseudo-doctors not bound by his oath to uphold a certain ethics when considering the health of the masses. I want to make a pitch based on an idea that was proposed to me in an article lately to move away from treating food as “pathological” and towards a wholesome approach, this meaning to give the livelihood back to food as it was intended for us to use. This idea is all too imperative in our age of increasing morbidity due to obesity, Type-II Diabetes, heart disease, eating disorders, and analysis paralysis in reference to nutrition for me not to disseminate.
The Ways Food is Pathologized & Mythologized
People currently believe that many foods possess either a magical or contrarily a sinister quality which ultimately creates a thin veil of mystique around what healthy eating “should” be considered. This contributes to much confusion and anxiety among people trying to figure out how to optimize their diet or remove anything deemed as poisonous by pop-culture 2 pseudoscientific Instagram influencers and stand alone dieticians looking to make a dollar or two off a good marketing scheme. I put quotations around “should” before because when it comes to food (as may be the case with many other things) a certain amount of shame and blame has been noted in my field of mental health as a “tyranny of shoulds.” The tyranny befalls many of us when in an innocent and hopeful search for self improvement. This happens when people possess an internal voice telling them all of the things that they should be doing rather than accepting that they are doing enough by aiming towards better health. One usually develops this variety of internal dialogue if coming from a family where parents doled criticism out frequently, even in the face of a child doing well. This influences these types of folks (myself included) by creating a self-critical perfectionism which inhibits the process of learning to eat a healthy, balanced diet without the shame. When the “shoulds” end up ruling the roost instead of ourselves, we are in for big trouble.
In the days of the keto-craze for example, carbohydrates (or “carbs”) have been most recently under attack by many Youtubers and certain online experts. For those reading who are unfamiliar, followers of the ketogenic diet assert it as the healthy alternative to a modern American diet in the form of a high-fat, moderate protein, and low carb (in some cases no-carb) substitution. The ketogenic diet gains its name from how the body depletes its glycogen stores in the muscle tissue and ends up utilizing “ketones” which are energy producers that come from fat. Essentially this means using fat as fuel. This can support some in losing weight because the water weight that we hold from having carbs is first depleted, and following this - excess body fat can hence be burned as fuel more efficiently. Interestingly enough, it appears the same driver of weight loss is found with the ketogenic diet over time as compared to any other diet- a simple calories in vs. calories out equation. Ironically, it was only 50 years ago when fat was the culprit under attack by nutritionists and health experts as causing high cholesterol and other health ailments.
That being said there is a place for a ketogenic diet. The support it can give those with epilepsy in reducing seizures, relieving symptoms of some autoimmune disorders, acting as a kickstart to a weight loss program, or intermittently implementing for a shock to the system proves the diet as not all doom and gloom. Positive arguments can be made about this and any diet. There are drawbacks similarly. When certain foods are theologically demonized (in this case carb-based foods), this tyranny of shoulds comes back to haunt the majority of us seeking healthy, balanced, sustainable, and realistic answers. 3
Why Food is Good
As I noted before, food has been pathologized in our culture to a point where we focus on the need to eliminate certain foods from our diet rather than integrate certain foods into our diet. When I speak about “pathologizing” food, I’m referencing an overall systemic model of pathology used in medicine, research, and health overall. The model of pathology deals with a focus on disease, disorder, and negativity in reference to health. When using the model of pathology as a springboard for how to design one’s nutrition, a few of the problems I’ve spoken of can arise more readily. This type of model creates a disdain or resistance from elements of food’s nutritious value (such as fat and carbs) that we need in order to move through the world. Obviously there are certain foods that are better than others due to their nutrient profiles and preparation process, still I want to be careful about how these things are discussed in a preferable model of wellness rather than a model of pathology. When considering a model of wellness there lies a different approach to nutrition and discourse. Wellness references a positive state of mind, body, spirit, and acts as a springboard to promote better health. The focus shifts to preventative care, healthy habits, and lifestyle improvement and a more positive approach to health rather than a model of disease and pathology or a reactive state of care. This, a model of wellness, lends itself to more constructive growth for the integrated person and provides a wholesome frame in guiding our journeys of health. Two main aspects of the food we eat contribute to our wellness as people, and both must be held in equal esteem.
1. We Need the Nutrients First and foremost - we need food to meet our basic biological needs to survive. There are needs on two levels of nutrients that need to be addressed as important: macronutrients and micronutrients. As far as macronutrients are concerned there are three categories: carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. Carbs serve a few functions such as giving the brain and body energy when converted to glucose, supporting in recovery from exercise, and delivering nutrients to cells in the body. Many arguments about carbs and their necessity in the diet are debated, yet no matter how you slice it, carbs exist in just about every food you have and for the purposes of this article, they are not the devil as the keto-fanatics would typically posit. Fats also have a place in the basic functions of the body: they operate as a second fuel source once glucose has been depleted, they carry 4 vital nutrients, and support healthy joint functioning. Fats at one time were also considered “bad” by prior health experts as they contribute to high cholesterol. Interestingly there are two types of cholesterol: HDL and LDL of which nutritionists at the time were unaware. Good cholesterol comes from HDL (this you want high) and bad cholesterol comes from LDL (this you want low). Again, fats are a vital macronutrient and in 2020 they do not also need to be treated as bad and cancelled by the culture. Finally, there’s protein which almost no one seems to take issue with - especially the bodybuilders and athletes. Proteins operate as the building blocks of muscle tissue and support multiple other functions among several vital organs in the body. Similarly, protein in circumstances when there exists a deficiency in fats or glucose can convert into energy through a process called gluconeogenesis in order to support the body’s energy requirements. Micronutrients on the other hand complicate nutrition to a certain extent so I will only cover the basics. We’ve learned (some) more in recent years about which micronutrients are among the most important such as electrolytes, vitamins, phytonutrients, carotenoids, and many others which are at the tip of our understanding of nutrition. As far as electrolytes are concerned, the most important are salt, potassium, chloride, bicarbonate, calcium, phosphate, magnesium, and zinc. The more one exercises, the more one needs to consume foods dense with these electrolytes to recover and fuel subsequent workouts. There are many vitamins that have been identified, yet the most important seem to be vitamin A, vitamin B (many different varieties of this), vitamin C, vitamin D, and vitamin K. The reasons are many that these vitamins are crucial to our health. It would take many more articles to assert how these vitamins impact our health, yet this still isn’t the only important aspect of our nutrition.
2. Enjoyment Let’s face it, FOOD TASTES GOOD. We should allow ourselves to eat food that satisfies more than just meeting our ATP (cellular energy) requirements. It also meets the need for relieving stress on some level. It takes a substantial amount of cognitive energy, willpower, and masochism to force-feed one’s self with the blandest, tasteless options consistently. Even the most stringent dieters will require lemon, garlic, herbs, spices, oils, or even sauce to liven their food as something worth savoring. Interestingly enough, enjoyment obviously does not mean a free-for-all on the foods that we typically consider tasty. Overly sugary or salty foods are a part of this spectrum of enjoyment more closely linked with addiction rather than enjoyment. The difference is subtle but important. We crave sugary foods because our body recognizes the energy potential 5 located within pure glucose (sugar). We crave saltier foods because our body notices sodium as a necessary nutrient for neurological processes, proper cellular hydration as an electrolyte (meaning good balance of water in body’s cells versus in blood), and as a driver for using the muscles in the body. This means they are necessary but need to be considered in balance just as with the macronutrients. That being said, anyone reading this article knows it’s likely a better option to balance with healthy meals while only snacking or eating an unhealthy meal once in a while. McDonald’s tastes great to many, yet isn’t something that makes the body feel good after eating it seven days in a row. Chicken, Broccoli, and rice seven days in a row doesn’t make the mind feel good similarly. Moderation, balance, mindfulness around how we feel about certain foods (physically and emotionally) must be considered when contemplating what your diet consists of.
The Author’s Recommendation
I’ll note once more in the article that although I study this extensively, I am by no means a nutritionist, dietician, medical professional, or expert on this subject. However, I am confident in stating that as far as mental health relates to food, I have some expertise in this arena. This is why ultimately I am pro-food, pro-flexibility, and pro-whatever the heck is going to work for you as a diet. Matter of factly, unless you are partaking in training for a race, bodybuilding show, powerlifting meet, or any other sport related activity you should ditch the “diet” and stick to what some call a “live it” that will work more as a lifestyle for continual physical and mental health rather than a temporary purge of unwanted weight. With that being said, I believe there are certain diets or preferably “live its” which reduce the amount of eliminative factors of day to day eating and promote the food-positive factors of nutrition.
Credit for this magnificent idea for a diet/live it goes to Stan Efferding an IFBB bodybuilding professional as well as a record-holding power lifter keen on simplifying the process of nutrition for those interested in health and nutrition. With that, he obviously competes in bodybuilding and powerlifting - yet this can work for anyone looking to sustain health primarily as well.
Stan’s diet has two basic principles, handle the micronutrients horizontally (the baseline additive needs of nutrition) to cover your base needs and the macronutrients vertically (ie. increasing or decreasing calories by adding or removing quality sources of healthy protein, fat, and carbs) to cover the needs of losing, maintaining, or gaining weight depending upon your goals. When I first came across this nutrition plan around six 6 months ago at the advent of the pandemic I found a happy medium for what I’d been looking for to balance health needs, fitness desires, and mental wellness associated with eating what will fuel my body and brain without the diet fatigue. Stan’s diet prefers red meat and white rice upon the vertical axis for adding protein, fat, and carbs into the equation. Red meat is preferred because of its high density of nutrients useful for athletes both at a micro and macro level, while white rice is chosen because it digests easily and acts as a carbohydrate which can fuel the body and aid recovery from training. This does not mean these are the only two options for the vertical axis. If you are vegan and prefer not to eat meat: peas, hemp, flaxseed, chickpeas, black beans, and other legumes are very high in protein. Maybe you don’t like white rice: brown rice and sweet potatoes prove a useful substitute as well. On the horizontal axis Stan includes oranges, eggs, sweet potatoes, bell peppers, onions, carrots, salmon, spinach, grass fed butter, Greek yogurt, cranberries, chicken stock, and salt as important for meeting vitamin and mineral requirements. This also does not mean those are the only ways to meet these requirements, it’s just one very holistic suggestion.
Here is an example of what the vertical diet could look like:
As you can gather, the goal here is to INCLUDE certain foods in one’s diet rather than focusing on eliminating others. I’ll say for myself I enjoy bagels, locks, and cream cheese in the morning with a little arugula. I use Dave’s good bagels because they’re high in protein, but I know bread doesn’t always prove to be so helpful for keeping off all excess fat - sue me for it. The stress relief that gives in the morning before starting a day of work acts as something that helps me maintain mental sanity as I put on some muscle by eating a lot of beef and rice (quite boring I must say). So instead of canning the whole eating healthy and exercising thing, take this proposal into consideration when looking at becoming a better version of yourself. A version of yourself that doesn’t shame, doesn’t become paralyzed, and doesn’t quit working towards a fitness or health goal will contribute to feeling good like you SHOULD - now go take a walk around the neighborhood.