From a young age, many of us have been inundated with warnings about eating too much food. Women, in particular, are constantly bombarded from all directions with ‘tips’ on how to eat less. Whether it be avoiding certain foods, finding ways to feel more full before a meal, eating low-fat or low-carb, or myriad other strategies, the message is clear: less is more. And when we’re constantly told to avoid food, it is far too easy to become afraid of is. But there is a critical message that so many of us miss.
Food is not the enemy.
It took me a long time to realize this, and it is probably the biggest change I underwent when I started following a plant-based diet.
I think one of the biggest problems I have with calorie counting is that food becomes demonized. For the most part, people who count calories do so because they want to eat fewer of them. I know this was the case for me for a very long time. Ultimately, this ends up with attempts to eat as little food as possible, and creates a negative connotation with food in general. Far too often, this negative association with food follows us throughout our lives, impacting our interactions with food and with other people, and creating psychological turmoil as we try to work out exactly what to eat and how much.
Food is not bad. Not even remotely. It is amazing, enjoyable, nourishing, and life-giving. When we count calories with the express purpose of limiting intake, we run the risk of overriding all these positive aspects of food and creating negative perceptions of an amazing thing. Not only that, but if you’re anything like me, restricting food just leads to obsessing over all the things you “can’t” or “shouldn’t” eat.
Food is your friend. Really, truly, it is wonderful. It provides micronutrients and macronutrients that allow your body to function as it’s supposed to. Without enough food, our organs don’t operate as they’re supposed to, our bones weaken, our immune systems falter, and we lose our vitality. Eating a sufficient amount of food promotes metabolism, which is vital to the functioning of every cell in our body.
I think most of us know this, but it can be so challenging to start to undo the messaging we have been exposed to for so long. It can help to start by trying to avoid further exposure to such messaging, and to increase exposure to body-positive and pro-food messaging instead. More and more, there are popular diets that urge people to stop counting calories and focus instead on food quality.
Because of this, many of us follow diets or ways of eating that promote the consumption of large amounts of nourishing food. However, many common diets and ways of eatings demonize certain foods and cause us to fear those foods. Paleo helped me overcome some fears of food as a whole, but I was still afraid of non-paleo foods and would rarely touch dairy-free ice cream or even many types of fruit. I “knew” that I would never again get to eat a corn tortilla taco with beans or a comforting bowl of oatmeal. I would refuse to go to lunch with friends if the chosen restaurant only had vegetarian options because I was legitimately afraid of eating a meal without meat.
This way of thinking was immensely detrimental to my health. And I see it all the time. People ascribing to a way of eating in search of health (or thinness), and developing a fear of all foods that don’t fit into that dietary bucket. I have no problem at all with being selective about food choices. It is important to eat nutritionally dense food that promote health and to avoid processed sugar and refined oils. But that doesn’t have to mean developing a fear of certain foods. I feel pretty strongly that the stress associated with being afraid of foods is far worse from a health perspective than is occasionally eating foods that are not particularly healthful.
I say this coming from what is traditionally seen as a very restrictive way of eating. Plant-based diets are often viewed as very limiting, as animal products are so prevalent in most of the foods we are exposed to. On the contrary, I feel far more free in my food choices than I ever did on a paleo diet or previously. And that is because my food choices are not based on fear. I am more open to eating foods that aren’t ‘ideal’ or particularly nutrient dense if that’s what I want to eat. When I don’t feel like cooking, I’ll eat some gluten free toast with sunflower seed butter and jam for dinner. I would never have done that while following a paleo diet (because grains, omega-6’s, sugar). Doing so would have triggered a huge stress response, and I now know that it’s far better for me to eat a dinner than isn’t ‘ideal’ than to worry about what I’m eating.
I know that my experience is unique to me, and I don’t believe that one single way of eating is best in terms of opening a person up to moving through life without food fears. Others will have positive experiences following ways of eating that aren’t plant-based. Maybe paleo is freeing for you, or perhaps you do best following no template at all. But I do think that it can be valuable to distance yourself from dogmatic viewpoints, especially if you choose to ascribe to a way of eating that comes built-in with a passionate community. Do what works best for you, even if that means deviating from what others in the community (especially leaders in those communities) tell you is best.
So go forth and enjoy your food. Eat as much as your body needs, and try not to worry if some of that comes in the form of coconut milk ice cream or a homemade cookie. I’ve heard it said that it’s better to eat a little too much than to not eat enough, and I couldn’t agree more. Our bodies require energy to keep us healthy and do all the amazing, complex things they do. Food provides that energy, and fearing food comes at a huge cost, both psychologically and physically.