I want to share my thoughts about one of the major misconceptions I hear about nutrition and health that I think it’s time we debunk: Health is not a linear path. The mental blueprint we develop of a cookie-cutter approach to health (diagnosis, treatment, cure) is not realistic. Ongoing wellness is a continually evolving experience which is often frustrating when we are looking for a specific positive outcome. In Western culture, our first approach is usually medical. We seek a physician’s advice; perhaps we incorporate alternative medicines; often we look to our friends and family for recommendations on which practitioners to trust. Each person’s goal will be slightly different, ranging from symptom management to total ‘cure’ to slowing the progression of something. Inevitably most people will experience a lot of trial-and-error with medication changes, second opinions, symptom management that improves or declines at different periods… and that is all part of the journey for overall health management.
Nutrition works the same way. The path from goal to outcome is very rarely straight. Maybe you want to lose weight; maybe you want to gain weight; maybe your blood sugar is difficult to control or you have a family history of heart disease that you are trying to stave off. Our inclination is to seek the most direct path from point A to point B, so we often turn to whatever diet seems the most promising. Sometimes the severe diets seem too overwhelming and we never make a change. Sometimes we decide we’re willing to count macros, eliminate entire food groups, drink ‘detox’ beverages, and google meal plans if we think it might get us the outcomes we are hoping for. The problem is that, inevitably, you’ll have days when those strict plans are not possible. You’ll get sick of drinking a shake for breakfast or avoiding your grandmother’s pasta or eating the same lunch five days a week. Maybe your triggers will be a bit stronger than usual — you’ll have an extra-stressful week at work or a sick child to take care of or a budget cut that will eliminate your gym membership. Whatever the cause, life will get messy and our food choices will become more complicated once again.
Our reaction at that moment is the deciding factor in our long term success.
I’ll say that again because it is the foundation of my entire practice: our reaction when life gets in the way (despite our best intentions) is the deciding factor in our long term success.
We can choose to give up. We can beat ourselves up over our decision to order take out instead of cook, skip yoga and binge a new show all weekend, stop carb counting during vacation, enjoy a late night bag of chips just because we want them. OR we can cut ourselves some slack and make a plan to move forward.
To focus on long-term quality nutrition, you have to make peace with your humanity. Eating is a social and emotional experience just as much as it is a necessity. Choose to improve your overall diet so that you can live an overall healthier life, whether that means weight changes or following a medically recommended diet. Aim to do that as much as possible, but recognize that you will not do it 100% of the time. Instead, find a personal degree of balance that will allow you to sustain your new healthy outlook for the long haul. Have the cake at a birthday party – but maybe skip the wine. Let Friday night be pizza night – but order a side salad for the table and eat one piece instead of two or three. Enjoy your late night chips after a particularly rough week, but don’t finish the bag. Or hey, maybe you DID have the wine and cake, three slices of pizza, and a bag of chips. These instances don’t derail your nutrition. They don’t stop you in your tracks. Just keep going. If you have a whole week or month or year where you stop caring about your nutrition at all, that’s okay. It’s life. Decide to keep going.
Maybe this sounds odd coming from a dietitian, but I’ve been down these same roads myself. It took a long time for me to realize that I would not always be able to ‘follow the rules’ so to speak despite my best intentions (I love to eat, and eating makes me feel good when life doesn’t, and that inherent emotional connection is not something you choose to just forget- it’s there and it’s very real). When I learned to shake off that feeling of defeat and approach each food choice as a blank slate, I found that I was able to sustain my healthy habits far longer. I would rather make 75% of the best choices I can for the rest of my life than 100% for a month or two and then give up.
This approach might look differently when you apply it. Maybe you are looking to make 90% ‘ideal’ choices and that’s a sustainable balance for you. Maybe choosing the healthier foods 50% of the time would be a huge change for you. Both are great goals if you’re making positive changes that you will be able to maintain. Whether you are looking to start with strict parameters and a drastic overhaul to break some bad habits or would prefer to gradually ease into healthier choices so that they become your new norm, you can do so while being mindful of what’s best for your body. In the long-run balance tends to be the best kept secret to sustainability. You will likely find that you can keep your new choices going much longer when you take that approach.
If you leave this website or my practice with one message and one message only, I hope it’s this: do the best you can as much as you possibly can, and when you hit a road bump, just keep going.
If this sounds like a philosophy that might work for you as well, contact me about nutrition counseling.