What is Healthy?

     My last post touched on a topic beyond the scope of this blog and my book (non-hungry cravings); and in this post, I’ll address another broad topic that is not specific to bulimia/BED; but has many implications for binge eaters. That topic is: what does “healthy” eating mean?  

     First of all, I am not a nutrition expert, and I do not claim to have all the answers on what to eat to maintain optimal health. Like I said in my book, I’ve been recovered for a long time but I still don’t have what I’d call a perfect diet. I don’t think learning to eat an ideal diet is part of recovery, but instead it is a life improvement goal not specific to an eating disorder. I mentioned in the book that I had hoped to make more improvements to my diet in the future; and even since publishing it at the end of 2010, I believe I have. I don’t think I eat as many processed foods as when I was writing, I try to cook more, and the majority of what I eat is “real” food (although due to lack of money, the food I eat isn’t usually organic). I still would like to make more improvements in my family’s eating habits; but lately, I’ve come upon a stumbling block of trying to sort out what is healthy and what is not. 

     I sometimes feel that if you name any food, there is some expert who could label it unhealthy. We’ve all heard that sugar/processed foods aren’t healthy; that’s common knowledge by now (although I believe nothing should be labeled “bad” or “off limits” and everything in moderation is okay). However, there seems to be more and more foods being blacklisted based on some scientific study or anecdotal evidence. There are nutritional experts claiming that dairy, wheat, soy, meat, eggs, starches, fruit, anything that isn’t organic, certain oils and fats, coffee, and even all whole grains and legumes are detrimental to our health (more on whole grains/legumes and “paleo” eating in my next blog). To make matters even more confusing, there are usually experts on the other side saying those same foods are fine, or even very healthy for us. Then, expert opinions can change over time and new research can prove previous advice wrong.   

    I personally can get a bit overwhelmed by this, and I know I’m not alone.  I have had a few health-conscious friends and family members echo this same sentiment lately, which is why I thought I’d touch on this subject in my blog. I think ultimately, we all have to decide what foods/eating habits work for us, regardless of what the popular consensus is, or what the latest nutritional research claims to prove. I think it’s great to learn about nutrition, but I also think it’s important to keep in mind that nutrition is highly individual and what might be healthy for one person might not be for another, because of food sensitivities/allergies or other physiological factors. Also, nutrition is not the only factor that plays into health, and we shouldn’t ignore the other factors. Stress reduction, and proper sleep are two examples that come to mind. For some, going through all the extra trouble to ensure a perfectly healthy diet can cause so much stress that it offsets any benefits of the healthy eating. Not all of us can manage to always eat organic, gluten/lactose/dairy/soy-free, grassfed everything; and if we tried, it might just be more trouble than it would be worth. 

     I think doing the best you can, based on what you believe is healthy for you, without letting it cause too much added stress is ideal. I have a wonderful friend who went back to school to get a master’s degree in health education and always has great advice on this topic. She told me recently that she thinks “balancing nutrition with sanity” is a good approach.  I definitely agree that it’s important to have a balanced perspective when we try to sort through constantly changing and controversial nutritional advice.  

5 thoughts on “What is Healthy?

  1. “Balancing nutrition with sanity” – that is the most sensible thing I have heard all day! Trying to recover from bulimia and trump obsessiveness over food (nutrients, carbs etc.) can be difficult. For me personally, as someone who is passionate about whole-foods and organics – but still simultaneously struggles with binging and purging and the omnipresent desire to be thinner – the line and dichotomy between pursuing a healthy lifestyle (which voids grains and processed foods) and going on a regimented diet can become blurred pretty easily.

  2. Yes, I think it can definitely be a fine line for some people. Ultimately, being health-conscious is a good thing; but when it becomes an obsession and leads to overly restrictive dieting, it’s obviously unhealthy and can lead to and perpetuate eating disorders. However, I don’t think that bulimia recovery and being passionate about eating healthy have to be mutually exclusive, and I hope you can find the balance that works for you.

  3. Thanks for your wonderful book. I suffered from bulimia (with vomiting up to 5 times a day) for about 5 years. Having children forced me to stop, but I realized I wasn’t really recovered. I had urges all the time and “overate” instead of binged. What i thought was a passion of mine is really an obsession. I love reading diet books and trying new diets. I go back and forth between strict dieting and not caring at all and binging. I am going to use your tactics to get past my urges to binge, but how do i get away from the obsession of what is healthy and what new diet i can try. I also have 10 pounds of baby weight to lose, so I do need to “diet.”

  4. Hi, thanks for writing.

    In my book, I wrote that the advice I gave to myself after I stopped binge eating is the same advice I would give to anyone with any type of food issue: if the food issues I have don’t affect my life negatively, I don’t need to address them; but if my food hang-ups do affect my life negatively, I should change them. What you are describing sounds like a food issue that is affecting your life negatively and that you would definitely want to change.

    First of all, I don’t think there is anything wrong with being passionate about eating well, or trying to determine what is healthy and what is not, or making positive changes in what one eats on a daily basis. I don’t think changing eating habits to make them healthier is truly “dieting,” provided the individual is not denying her body of needed calories/nutrition, or being overly rigid/restrictive. However, when it becomes an obsession that takes over too much of the person’s life, then it’s not healthy.

    I think when people are truly focused on becoming healthier, it becomes an effort to nourish the body well, to feel better, to gain energy for living, to prevent disease. It ceases to be about how many pounds they can lose, what size jeans they can fit into, or how few calories they can eat. And, usually, if one focuses on becoming healthier (and they do need to lose weight) the weight will come off naturally. If it doesn’t, then maybe they should consider 1.)learning to accept their weight the way it is because it’s probably their natural, healthy weight; or 2.) looking into metabolic/hormonal issues that may be keeping the body at a higher-than-natural weight. I am not an expert on this; but I do know that stopping the binge eating can free you up to make healthy changes in your life.

    Furthermore, stopping the binge eating (or in your case, the cycle of dieting and overeating) may be all one needs to do to lose weight; and if you focus on that, you may find that your metabolism starts working the way it should and there is need to “try” to shed extra pounds.

    I am not against healthy weight loss, but I feel strongly that advice to simply restrict calories and eat low-fat/low-calorie food is a completely misguided and does more harm than good (especially in those susceptible to binge eating), and just doesn’t work in the long run. I believe that weight loss can be achieved in other ways – such as using healthy/enjoyable exercise, making small changes in lifestyle, and making some changes to the composition of one’s diet to make it healthier (without letting it become an obsession and still allowing for flexibility).

    The good news is that you don’t have to wait until you have a perfect diet or until you are the weight you want to be in order to stop binge eating. Also, if you think some of your desire to diet is in reaction to the overeating/binge eating, then once you quit, you may find that your desire to go on new diets decreases automatically.

    I hope this makes sense and answers your question well enough.

  5. Thanks for this blog! I’m a little late in finding it, but do so appreciate hearing your thoughts. As someone who can binge on carrots, I’m finding this whole school of thought so interesting.

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