I care a lot about the food I put into my body.
I firmly believe that what we consume has a direct impact on our quality of life: our food literally constructs the cells that create our body, fuels our ability to do the things we love, and offers us a sense of connection that’s hard to find through other mediums. Because of this belief, I have worked long and hard to find what foods make me feel good and what foods don’t, and make an effort to eat the things that make me feel and perform my best. I strive to choose ingredients that come from a sustainable and responsible source, I try to cook all of my own meals, and I make decisions that I feel are best for my lifestyle.
However, there is one thing I never try to be: perfect.
Because I care about my impact on the environment and have a strong compassion for animal welfare, I make it a priority to source grass-fed or pasture-raised animals, preferably from local farms. Because the research I’ve done on pesticide-treated and non-local produce has left a foul taste in my mouth, I attempt to source from farmers in my area and buy organic as much as I can. Because I have been appalled by the studies done on the effects of sugar consumption on our mental and physical health, I choose to focus on whole, nutrient-dense foods over desserts and treats.
But I absolutely refuse to be dogmatic about these beliefs.
Sometimes I buy conventional eggs, because that is what is available. Sometimes I buy organic chicken that’s probably been raised in a cage and fed GMO corn feed its entire life, because I ran into the grocery store after work and couldn’t make it to the farmer’s market. Sometimes I buy conventional produce that’s not in season, because that’s what I’d like to make for dinner. Sometimes I eat chocolate and enjoy it.
I do this because how we eat is just as important as what we eat. I am beyond excited to be living in a time with such a great emphasis on health. I feel like every time I turn a corner in a grocery store there’s a brand-new organic section, a new local purveyor being showcased, or more processed products being phased out of production. It’s becoming more and more common to care about your health and where your food is coming from. It’s a cultural shift that, I believe, is a result of people getting fed up with feeling bad and realizing how great it is to feel good. But with this recent trend towards healthful eating has come an underlying and sinister problem: people are getting obsessed with being perfect when it comes to getting healthy.
A large part of this is how we emotionally project onto our food. If we eat “clean” we feel pure, good, and worthy of self-love. If we eat “dirty” we feel bad, naughty, and worthy of judgement. A slice of cake is naughty, a kale salad is holy. This kind of projection can lead to a toxic relationship with our food and the way we eat- if we eat something that doesn’t meet our standards of “good”, we must reconcile with “good” behaviors and foods to an extreme that becomes unhealthy, oftentimes in the forms of overexercise and restriction.
Consider this scenario:
You’re at a birthday party. You’re a healthy person. You eat organic foods, you haven’t had fast food in who-knows-how-long, and you’re exercising regularly. It’s become a lifestyle at this point, your friends always comment on how they wish they could eat like you do, and you’ve come to identify yourself as “the healthy one.” Someone places a slice of cake in front of you, and you’re torn. You like the taste of cake, as most people do, but you also classify cake as an unhealthy food. If you indulge in the cake and participate in the festivities, you know that you’ll be forced to deal with what comes afterward- the compulsion to run a little bit further in your workout the next day, skimping on your next meal “to make up for it”, and thinking about that one slice of cake with far too much guilt that it deserves. If you don’t eat the cake, you’ll feel left out, boring, and stingy.
Many of us have been there, to some extent. For those of us who have struggled with disordered eating, it’s a more extreme emotional response and resulting cycle. But even the average person has some sense of food-connotation: feeling bad when they eat poorly, feeling better when they eat well. It’s become pervasive in our culture. How often do you hear someone say they’ll “be bad” and indulge in dessert? How often do you hear someone refuse dessert because “they’re being good”?
We use this kind of language all the time, and hardly bat an eye at the emotional power it holds over us.
I am not here to debate the science of the nutritional value of food. It’s indisputable that a kale salad has more nutrients and vitamins than a slice of cake. But how good something is for you is a contextual issue. When I was struggling with my eating disorder, here’s what a kale salad represented to me: a sense of control, being “good”, and feeling worthy of self-love. Cake represented being out of control, being “bad”, and not being worthy of caring for myself.
Here’s what I would have learned if I had eaten the damn cake: what you eat does not reflect your self-worth.
In fact, as an anorexic, it would have been healthier for me to eat a slice of cake and conquer that fear than it would have been to stick to the kale salad that made me feel safe and in control. Physically, sure, my body could have used the nutrients of the kale at the time where I was severely calorically deprived, but mentally? It wouldn’t have done a thing for me.
It took a lot of time and conscious effort to step outside of the black-and-white mentality of being a healthy person. I associated health with purity: I went vegan because a life without any meat, dairy, eggs, honey, or refined sugars seemed as pure as it could get. If I were to eat anything else, I felt tainted and impure to the point where I fought back with more restriction in an effort to make up for the sins I had committed. I wanted to squeeze my diet and my lifestyle into the narrow box of health and fitness that I had created in my head: more exercise, more restrictions, more strictness.
It got to the point where I had restricted beyond what was feasible to survive on. I was exercising for hours a day, compulsively, with no joy for the movement. I was eating next to nothing, maybe one small meal a day, with no excitement or mindfulness for the food. I was exhausted, isolated, and, frankly, far unhealthier than I would ever be if I ate cake every day.
Today, I have found that it’s about balance.
When you step outside of the “good/bad” mentality and become aware of the way you project onto your food, you are able to find the diet and lifestyle that best serves you. I broke down my mental barriers that fat, meat, and animal products were “bad” and found that introducing them into my diet brought me huge advances in my health and the way that I felt. I broke down the idea that I had to eat less and count calories in order to look healthy and began eating enough to fuel and nourish my body. I stopped eating foods that were actually making me sick just because I associated them as “pure” foods. I learned that I could eat treats not be an unhealthy or undisciplined person.
I began to ask myself: what value will this bring me?
Eating dessert at 10 PM because I’m bored and standing in the light of my fridge and chocolate sounds good will not bring me much value nutritionally or mentally. Sharing a dessert with a friend made with love from whole ingredients will bring me the value of connection and gratitude. Eating until I’m sick and bloated just because food is there will not benefit my body or my mental state. Eating until I am full and satiated, even if that means more than usual or more than I used to will bring me the value of being strong and capable enough to do the activities that I love to do. Pounding away endless miles on the treadmill to see the calorie-counter tick up another hundred, arbitrary points will not do my body any good or do anything for my mental state other than set another standard for me to attempt to top the next day. Running a race to prove to myself that I am recovered, healthy, and capable now will bring me the value of happiness and security in what my body can do, rather than what it looks like.
Foods are not “good” or “bad”, they will simply offer you different values at different times in your life.
I refuse to create stress around my lifestyle. I find joy in preparing and sourcing healthy foods- it’s become a big part of who I am and I’ve found a legitimate passion in food and cooking. But I know that, especially as I prepare to take on dorm life in college, I will not always be able to do things “perfectly”. I might not always have access to 100% perfectly sourced organic food. I might sometimes have to eat the unstable vegetable oils I choose to not cook with in my home. I might have to compromise eating the favorite foods I like to eat every day. But instead of becoming stressed, compulsive, or obsessive about these normal obstacles of life, I will choose to do the best that I can. I can still choose whole, nourishing foods. I still have to ability to ask questions and choose not to eat things I know will not make me feel good. I still will be a healthy, mindful person who is doing the best that they can.
You can eat as purely as you want: if you feel guilty or obsessive about your food choices, they are not healthy choices for you.
Prioritize what is important to you. Make educated, passionate decisions about your health and lifestyle. Do not be afraid to be different, or to accept that your version of healthy is different from someone else’s version of healthy. Do the best that you can, without allowing perfect to be the enemy of good. Embrace once-in-a-lifetime opportunities and acknowledge that food represents a lot more than just calories and nutrients: it represents culture, connection, and joy.
Your wellbeing encompasses both your physical and mental health. And sometimes, the healthy choice is to eat the damn cake.