It may seem that I am playing with semantics here, but healthy eating and eating healthily are not inextricably linked and not interchangeable. We can eat healthy foods in an unhealthy way and eat foods which are generally considered to be unhealthy in a healthy way. And it’s so personal, isn’t it? What is healthy for me may not be healthy for someone else.
Suppose that Person A eats the following meals in a day:
Porridge for breakfast
A chicken salad for lunch
Salmon and vegetables for dinner
And Person B eats the following meals in a day:
Sugar Puffs with full fat milk for breakfast
A Big Mac with Fries for lunch
A supermarket lasagne with garlic bread for supper
Conventional thinking on ‘healthy food’ would indicate that Person A is eating healthily and that Person B has an unhealthy diet. But consider the following qualifications to those food diaries:
Eats a large bowl of porridge because she made too much and doesn’t want to waste it – she also sprinkles sugar on each spoonful because she doesn’t actually like porridge but thinks it’s a healthy option for breakfast. On her way to work she also grabs a large spiced pumpkin latte because she can’t resist it when she passes by the coffee shop.
She eats the chicken salad because it’s one of the meals she used to have on her last diet – what she’d have really liked was a jacket potato with chilli. She gets bored halfway through and starts to browse the internet while she stuffs the rest of the salad in distractedly. Then she picks at nuts, oatcakes and carrot sticks all afternoon trying to fill the hole that gnaws away at her.
At dinner time she snatches fork-fulls in between putting the children to bed and talking to her mother on the phone and finishes up all the kids’ leftover fish fingers while washing up. Once it’s all quiet she eats 2 low-fat yoghurts…then inhales a packet of chocolate digestives she bought for the children and then a half a box of mince pies she bought for her inlaws.
Has got quite experienced at pouring out just enough Sugar Puffs to feel 100% satisfied for breakfast and will happily throw away any excess if she clocks that she’s less hungry on any particular day. She loves the richness of full fat milk and finds it very satisfying on cereal. She won’t think about food again until lunchtime.
Really fancies the Big Mac and fries this lunchtime. She focuses, enjoying every mouthful and stops when she’s satisfied, leaving a handful of the fries she’s not hungry for anymore. She doesn’t think about food again until the evening.
The supermarket lasagne and garlic bread is exactly what she wanted after a hard day at work – warming, strong flavoured, soft and crunchy and easy to fix. She eats to satisfaction, sitting down at her table with a candle and a glass of wine and thoroughly enjoys her meal. She won’t think about food again until breakfast the next morning when she might have a bowl of porridge, if that’s what she fancies….
I would argue that Person B is eating more healthily than Person A, even though she appears to be making less healthy food choices, because it’s not just about what we eat, but how and when and why. We could choose foods exclusively from an ‘approved’ list of healthy foods (approved by who?), but if we are eating it without wanting it in the first place, without focusing on it, without stopping when we are satisfied – we are not eating healthily.
If we are overeating, it’s not going to make much difference whether we overeat healthy food or junk food – we are still eating more than our body needs. And that’s not healthy.
If we are eating healthy foods without any reference to what our body wants to eat at that particular time, we are not giving our body what it wants and so that food is not actually healthy for us right then.
If we consistently ignore the act of eating, or eat ‘on the hoof’, we will miss the experience and it is unlikely that we will be able to catch the satisfied or full-up signal and we are more likely to over-eat.
If we eat foods just because we think they are healthy and not because we really enjoy eating them, we are more likely to eat something else afterwards as well to make up for the dissatisfaction, or we might again not focus on the eating and miss that all important satisfied signal, and up eating more than we need.
Eating healthy food and eating healthily are not mutually dependent, but neither are they mutually exclusive – the ultimate ideal might well be to marry the two – to eat the foods that we consider healthy and that support our body and that we enjoy and therefore eat them healthily, with focus and enjoyment and without overeating.
After half a life-time of yo-yo dieting, Gretel found Beyond Chocolate by chance and says she has never been more grateful. She decided to train as a Facilitator to learn more about herself and to help other women to get off the dieting treadmill. Gretel is a regular contributor to the Beyond Chocolate blog with thought provoking and practical guides to living a life Beyond Chocolate, that is when she’s not busy studying Ancient History and Mythology.