What I wish I’d known about healthy eating.
When I first started on my healthy eating journey, I was pretty clueless. In my defence, this was before I studied nutrition.
At some point after finishing high school, I started thinking about my future. I decided I wanted to start taking care of my body. In truth, I also wanted to look like several internet celebrities. In true Lucy fashion, it was all-or-nothing. I was going to be as healthy as humanly possible.
I signed myself up to the gym and tried an assortment of protein bars and shakes. They tasted like sand. I even tried to count ‘macros’ (macronutrients: carbs, protein & fat), but it felt robotic and unnatural. I didn’t feel great and my diet had become bland and repetitive. I wondered if this was actually doing me any good. Turns out, it wasn’t.
I went back to the internet for advice.
I read countless articles online about detoxification diets and foods that alkalize the body and cure chronic disease. I gave up the processed protein bars and started making elaborate salads. Incorporating a host of superfoods that I thought would take my health to the next level. Spending hours and hours shopping for and preparing the finest organic produce. I’ll admit, this particular shift in my diet – increasing my fruit and vegetable intake, did have some positives. My skin started glowing and I lost the weight I had gained during my gap year in Europe. But I spent a huge amount of time and money on food.
I thought “Wow, if fruit and vegetables can have this much of an impact on how I feel, imagine how I would feel if I was ONLY eating fruit and vegetables”.
I went gluten-free. I became a vegetarian, then vegan, followed by a stint of raw veganism. I tried juice fasts.
I read about how inflammatory the ‘deadly nightshade’ vegetables are. I read about how fruit is too high in sugar and should be avoided. It was all complete nonsense, of course. But I was young and uninformed, how could I know better?
During this time, I became miserable, weak and confused. I missed bread, though I wouldn’t admit it at the time. I felt tense and defensive, and started to avoid socialising. The worst part of it all; I felt like I spent ALL of my time thinking about food. It was impacting many areas of my life in a negative way.
I had no ability to critically analyse the information I was reading, nor any understanding of biochemistry or physiology. Everything I read seemed to be explained with scientific language by ‘nutritionists*’. These were individuals with no qualifications, citing anecdotal evidence or extremely dubious studies – if any research at all. *Please note: anyone can call themselves a nutritionist.
My first year of university was confronting. Many of the ideas I had about healthy eating were challenged. It was hard to argue with so many years of research and detailed journal articles, all supporting similar notions. I realised something fundamental. A healthy diet is very simple; whole foods, lots of fruit, vegetables, whole grains, fats, carbohydrates - all of it. Processed foods, red meat and alcohol in moderation.
The problem is that this kind of diet doesn’t sell books, make it to the front cover of magazines or go viral on Youtube. It’s too simple.
If healthy eating was that simple, we would all be doing it. Right?
Sadly, companies have formulated highly processed foods that mess with our innate ability to feel full after one serve. They trick us into overeating. Restaurants create irresistible dishes that keep you coming back for more. An excess of oils, salt and flavour enhancers.
Trillions of dollars have been spent marketing unhealthy foods. These marketing strategies have influenced our food choices since we were old enough to open our eyes. Supermarkets and food packaging have been cleverly designed so that we spend more money on packaged foods than we do on whole foods. These highly processed foods are cheaper to produce and last longer on supermarket shelves, much more profitable than whole foods.
Hence, unhealthy food has been made more accessible, attractive and affordable than ever before.
Meanwhile, we have been trying our best to manage the stress that comes with taking care of our families, studying, working and dealing with all of life’s challenges.
Somewhere along the line, we became unhealthy. This created a whole new business opportunity. A market for weight loss, health foods and supplements. A host of internet celebrities making endless promises with their special diet and fitness regimes.
I don’t blame anybody that struggles to eat well.
While evidence suggests we should be eating a diet that is simple, relaxed and versatile, it doesn’t have the attraction that a more radical or restrictive diet does. The extremeness and specificity of these diets give people the impression that they are finally being told the secret to health. The secret that will help shed kilograms and cure disease.
The important thing about a truly healthy diet, is that it’s sustainable and enjoyable. And it works. It really will prevent nutrient deficiencies and chronic disease. You will feel good eating this way and you will look good for it.
The difference between the advice that the internet frequently offers and an evidence-based healthy diet, is that there aren’t any restrictions. A healthy diet alleviates the guilt and pressure associated with an unhealthy eating pattern. It gives your food freedom.
Please, learn from my mistakes. Release yourself from the internet-advice/diet prison and enjoy a healthy, balanced, nutrient-dense diet. We all deserve better than some ploy to sell books.