Oh January, we meet again. The diet Gods are high heralding, and amidst the dark, the cold and fact that most of us are a little out of pocket, we’re feeling vulnerable to the post-Christmas blues. And when we want to feel a little bit more in control, food and exercise become low hanging fruit.
As a registered associate nutritionist (ANutr), I am certainly not averse to people wanting to take positive actions in support of their own health, and this is a crucially important part of my everyday job. However, I am all too aware that “health” has been somewhat hijacked, and that the pursuit of health can backfire hard, leaving those vulnerable at increased risk of disordered eating, eating disorders and a myriad of long-term health consequences.
Has “health” been hijacked?
If you’re looking to social media for a definition of “health”, you will likely be met by a strong and skinny, London-based twenty something who lives in lycra, loves yoga, and enjoys a diet of predominantly plant-based foods. Whilst none of these are strictly “bad”, where does it leave those who are in different bodies shapes and sizes, socioeconomic classes, ethnicities, LGBTQ communities and those who don’t like yoga or enjoy the odd steak?
The World Health Organisation defines health is a state of complete physical, mental and social wellbeing and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity. Whilst the negative Nancy in me feels the “completeness” of this definition renders it somewhat untenable for the majority of us (unless of course you live in a world of rainbows, unicorns and beautiful days), I do like how it accounts for the mental and social aspects of health, so often overlooked.
What is “healthy” eating?
Is it eating according to our favourite influencer? The government guidelines? Magazines? Or is it following the latest trends of vegan, sugar free, keto or intermittent fasting? One thing we can perhaps all agree on, is that “healthy” eating is confusing.
Amongst credible registered nutritionists and dieticians (those with at least a university qualification and held to ethical standards by governing bodies), there’s some consensus on basic nutrition principles, the majority of which make up the UK’s Eat Well guidelines:
- Enjoy plenty of fruits and veggies (about five portions per day).
- Drink six to eight glasses of water a day, or 1.5-2L
- Include protein rich foods from a range of plant and animal sources.
- Include carbohydrate rich foods, including starchy carbs and wholegrains.
- Use predominantly monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats like olive oil, rapeseed oil and fats from nuts, avocados and oily fish (that’s predominantly, not never eat saturated fat).
- Include foods rich in calcium, the best source of which is dairy. Other sources include sesame seeds, tahini, fish with small bones and fortified milks.
- Aim for 30g fibre per day. To put it into perspective an average bowl of porridge with a banana and peanut butter will contain about 8g.
Yet, whilst guidelines exist, they are just guidelines. They are not a one size fits all and following them like a gold star student does not necessarily equate to exemplary health. In fact, many people with seemingly “perfect” plates are living far from complete states of physical, mental and social well-being.
So, what should
we do? Well, what if I was interested in what “healthy” eating would look and feel like for YOU this January? That rather than offering you a plan or a list of foods to include, reduce or eliminate, I invited you to reflect on your own innate wisdom, where you are right now at this particular time, and what steps you might like to take in the spirit of your wellbeing when it comes to food?
Would it look like slashing food groups like dairy, or like ditching Veganuary or intermittent fasting? Might it actually look like increasing carbohydrates (beige foods) to increase fibre consumption, including more calcium rich foods, or eating a little bit more to help meet your energy and nutrient needs?
And most importantly, what if it’s not the finer details of our plates that need addressing in our pursuit of wellbeing, but how we think and feel about food, exercise and our bodies? Perhaps, “healthy” eating might be about working towards less stress, guilt, anxiety and fear around food – after all none of these are good for our wellbeing.
The truth is “healthy” eating this January will look totally different for every single one of us. It’s about considering our own unique starting point, circumstances and innate wisdom in making steps towards “health” or “health goals”, rather than seeking to follow external rules on what we should and shouldn’t eat. By default, most of us will most likely gravitate back to meals with some carbohydrate, protein, fat and fruits and veggies, as well as fun foods. Biologically, this is what our body needs to function optimally.
I’m certainly not advising you live off doughnuts and ice cream (you probably wouldn’t feel too good). But it’s ok to enjoy your greens with a knob of butter and salt, to rely on some handy processed foods (who has time to make their own hummus), to add in more social eating occasions with friends and family to strengthen connections, or add in more play foods – the ones you eat just because you enjoy them – to feed the soul.
Whilst the pursuit of this may look like loosening the reins a bit, or what might be considered as “letting ourselves go”, our complete state of physical, mental and social well-being, or at least as close to it as we can get, requires us to consider our unique needs and the mutual importance of our relationship to food, as well as what’s actually on our plates.
Our “health” is unique, and it’s certainly a whole lot more complicated than food and eating. But, when it does come to setting intentions for “healthy” eating this January, I invite you to consider a broad definition of health and your relationship to food.
Isa Robinson is a Registered Associate Nutritionist (ANutr) and qualified Nutritional Therapist (BANT, CNHC) with a special interest in disordered eating, food anxieties, body image and nutrition for mental health. You can find out more about her work here.