When Healthy Eating Isn’t Healthy: Letting Go of the ‘Perfect’ Diet
I stood in front of my fridge, eyeing the vegetable drawer. I was about 6 years old.
It was me versus a carton of mushrooms.
I remember very clearly thinking to myself, “I don’t want to eat that, but I’m going to teach myself to like it.”
At that young age, I was already aware of the importance of healthy eating and already semi-obsessed with the idea of mind over matter.
Today mushrooms are my favorite vegetable.
I have another memory of my adolescent self sitting at a booth in an Elephant Bar with a few friends from my junior high school dance team. A platter of fried food had just arrived on the table. I struggled against the urge to eat while the other girls dug in.
One of my fellow dancers turned to me and said, “Wow, you’re so good.”
I smiled awkwardly with a mixture of pride and embarrassment.
“If she only knew,” I thought.
The desire to be good is something that’s driven me since my earliest days. I couldn’t understand why no one seemed to agree on what it really took to be good.
I remember taking a Bible off of my parents’ bookshelf one day, thinking I might find some answers.
I opened it, read a few pages, and quickly understood why everyone was so confused. I had expected a neat list, not allegory.
Later on in my teen years, I decided to become a vegetarian. I had been a staunch adherent of the standard American diet for most of my upbringing, but ethical considerations and my newfound interest in yoga were quickly sweeping me toward change.
A year of vegetarianism turned into full-blown veganism. I thought I’d finally found the “right” way to eat. I was tight about my food choices, ready to debate food ethics at a moment’s notice, and frankly, pretty self-righteous.
I wasn’t that fun to hang out with.
Taking ‘healthy’ too far
I persisted in my veganism after finding out I was iron-deficient, reasoning that government standards for nutrition were likely skewed by the meat and dairy lobbies.
About 3 years into veganism, I accidentally ate a sauce with shrimp in it at a buffet. I had a full-blown panic attack, launching myself into a labyrinth of ethical and gastrointestinal what-ifs.
In yoga, I had picked up the idea of eating Sattvic, which translates from Sanskrit as “goodness” or “purity.” Unfortunately, my interpretation of this principle wasn’t a healthy one.
It also didn’t help that I was a philosophy major at the time. I was basically Chidi from “The Good Place,” the high-strung ethics professor who becomes completely paralyzed whenever he has to make a choice about what appear to be inconsequential things.
It wasn’t until I started seeking treatment for anxiety, a seemingly unrelated issue, that I realized something was up with my relationship to food.
With effective treatment, I felt like the whole world literally opened up to me. It had only been off-limits before because I was so focused on controlling, judging, and assessing everything I did.
I still chose to be vegan and eat healthy food simply because it aligned with my values (while happily supplementing with iron). The difference was there was no longer a sense of pressure that I had to get it “right” or of self-judgment, and no more anxiety attacks over what to eat.
Food felt joyful again.
Eventually, I went to Europe and decided to be “freegan,” or to accept any food I was offered. This was both to be gracious and respectful to my hosts from other cultures, but also to flex my newfound freedom in making conscious, ethical choices without self-torment.
Giving it a name
Not long after, I encountered the word “ orthorexia “ for the first time.
Orthorexia is a term first coined by American physician Steve Bratman in 1997. It comes from the Greek word “orthos,” or “right.”
When I learned this, alarm bells were going off in my head. I saw myself in this word.
If I’d never sought out treatment for anxiety, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to step outside of my obsession with making the “right” food choices and see it for what it was. To everyone, including myself, it just looked like I ate really, really healthy.
This is how healthy eating can hide an unhealthy pattern.
Orthorexia isn’t technically a diagnosable condition, though it’s starting to gain attention in the medical community. Not surprisingly, it often shows up in individuals who experience anxiety, perfectionism, and preoccupations with purity. *raises hand sheepishly*
As the years have worn on, I’ve loosened up my eating habits quite a bit.
After my pregnant body wouldn’t have it any other way, I started eating meat again. Eight years later, I’ve never felt better.
I also go out of my way to intentionally bring joy into my food choices with the strategies below.
Feed your inner child
Thanks to pregnancy cravings, I rediscovered foods I hadn’t eaten or even thought about since childhood. One of those was fried chicken tenders with honey mustard.
Every so often, I intentionally take my inner child on a food date (usually my actual child comes, too). We really make a big deal of it, go all out, and get exactly what we want, not what we should get.
For me, it’s very often chicken dipped in honey mustard, just like I used to get every time I ate out at a restaurant as a little girl. If I’m feeling fries, I go for those, too.
And I enjoy it, in all its deep-fried glory.
Ritualizing eating in this way isn’t just fun; it can also be healing. By not only giving yourself permission, but actually celebrating the food and your pleasure in it, it’s a reminder that we don’t have to be perfect and that food is about more than just nutrition.
The container of ritual creates a sense of appropriateness and sacredness. It also curbs the guilt that might come up from eating unhealthy foods in a less conscious or intentional way.
So find the food (or foods) that does it for you. Is it mac ’n’ cheese? Bagel bites? Whatever it is, make yourself a date to enjoy the heck out of it.
Savor what you eat
Sometimes when I’m busy, I can wolf down a meal and feel like I haven’t even eaten. Considering how delicious and awesome food is, it can be really disappointing.
It’s a habit I try to avoid if I can.
Instead, I make an effort to sit down with my food and spend at least 20 minutes savoring it. If I’m really on it, I’m cooking my food, too. That way I can smell it sizzling in the pan, see the colors swirling together, and make it a full-blown sensory experience.
At the same time, it’s not about making rules. It’s simply about finding the pleasure in a basic act that’s not only meant to be nourishing, but to be enjoyed.
Let others cook for you
While it might not show up on a nutrient-density profile, I firmly believe that eating food cooked by someone who loves you nourishes in a way that vitamins and minerals can’t.
Not only do you get to relax, smell the scents, and enjoy the anticipation of a home-cooked meal that you didn’t make (as a single mom, this is big), you get to receive the love and care that went into making that meal.
Best case scenario, you get to enjoy the meal with your loved one, or two, or three. It can be a friend, a significant other, a parent, or even your kiddo. “ Of course I love hot dogs and ketchup, sweetie! “
All that matters is that somebody loves you enough to cook for you.
There are positive sides to caring about what you eat. One of them is that you’re likely to be open-minded enough to try new things.
Eating as an exploration is a great way to break out of the confines of what you “should” eat. In this sense, eating can be a means of discovering new cultures and experiencing new flavors.
If you’re dining out, you can seek the most authentic cuisines in your area or have fun comparing different options. You may even be exposed to art and music from another culture at the same time.
I still care about the health and the ethical considerations of my food. But with all the information out there, care can easily become despair.
There’s always another news piece or investigative documentary about the state of our food supply, and it’s enough to make your head spin.
Eventually, I decided that I was going to keep it simple. In “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” writer Michael Pollan distills healthy eating into a short maxim: “Eat food, not much, mostly plants.”
When I notice I’m getting hung up on minutiae, I remember this little piece of advice.
We humans have to eat, and we’re all just doing our best. These three simple principles are a pithy way to remember what’s important about what we eat.
Revisit your values
A very wise friend once told me, “Standards are the objectification of your principles.”
I really needed to hear it.
What this means is that when your principles become codified, dogmatized, and inflexible, they’re no longer principles. They’re just rules.
We are creative, adaptable, ever-changing human beings. We aren’t meant to live by proscriptions.
As a philosophy student, I was always trained to re-examine the obvious and commonplace.
When we use this as a way to free ourselves from the confines of ideology instead of reinforcing binding, limiting beliefs, we’re allowing ourselves to be the dynamic human beings that we really are.
Food is love
Food goes beyond calories. It’s been the cornerstone of cultures and the focal point of celebrations since the advent of civilization and before.
It brings people together.
It touches on what it truly means to experience deep sustenance, the kind that involves all the senses — and even the heart.
When you make food a form of love, it’s hard to be bothered by doing it “right.”
This article was originally published on Healthline.com.