I am not one of those laughing salad women. I get really frustrated when I ask around for good, healthful meals and everyone points me toward chicken or tuna salad. One, I don’t see how lettuce dripping in some kind of mayonnaise sauce is healthful. Two, salad is a side, a single course in what ought to be a daily banquet of good taste, varied texture, and plenty of nutrients. A bowl comprised primarily of lettuce is not enough nutrition to sustain me. Also, I think salad dressing is gross 9 times out of 10, and since I’m a pescetarian, I find it difficult to get enough energy from lettuce, grated parmesan, and croutons.
Guys, come on. This is an obnoxious way to eat. Lettuce with some sauce on it and some other stuff thrown on the side is not a meal.
[Before I go on, can I just offer both a trigger warning for discussion of emotional eating and suggest that if you suspect you have problems with disordered thoughts about eating, you seek assistance from a professional physician or therapist very soon? From one disordered eater to another, my best wishes and warmest hopes for everyone’s well being.]
“Salad-as-a-meal” is my biggest problem with dieting. I know: it should be the unhealthy mentality that temporary diet lifestyles and the cultures that spring up around them can impose on the person who engages in them. That’s definitely my second biggest problem with dieting. But my first is salad-as-a-meal. So many people think that if they have a cup of yogurt and some fruit for breakfast, and then a salad for lunch and for dinner, then it’s cool, they’re all set: they are dieting. But they aren’t! They’re missing out! And I am far too big a fan of food to engage in such a spartan restriction on the variety I usually celebrate.
But, come on! Do we as a culture lack imagination about how to eat healthfully? Why do we unanimously default to Caesar salad and yogurt for “diet” food? What crappy glossy mag force fed us the bland, cardboard-flavored idea that our tastebuds (and nutrition) had to suffer in order for us to live healthful, energized, balanced lives?
Look. I’m not even talking about losing weight here. Whether or not you want to lose weight is your business. What I am talking about is the fact that, as natural omnivores, we humans are genetically geared to crave variety in our diets, because only with variety will we find all of the vitamins, nutrients, protein, and carbohydrates necessary to fuel our body’s physical and mental energy. Whether your diet becomes monotonously geared toward the all-salad end of the spectrum or the all-pop tarts end of the spectrum (or that weird Atkins-fueled alien appendage growth on the spectrum that is All Meat!), if you deny yourself the variety of flavor, texture, smell, and content that your body craves, you are going to wind up nutritionally bereft. And probably cranky.
I have a few solutions for correcting my own faulty mentality about how to eat healthily. They’re not fool proof, and they aren’t universal, because everyone’s body is different and many people have individual intolerances to various food substances that they should be aware of and sensitive to when making food choices. But, in general, this is what works for me:
First, variety is not just the spice, it’s the essence of life. While I don’t trust the food pyramid’s serving suggestions, I do like that they’ve broken things into food groups so I can keep a vague eye on whether or not I’m getting stuff from each one in on a regular basis. I should have some grains, some dairy, some meat/nut/bean (protein), some fruit, some vegetables, and yes, even some fat, in my diet every day.
Second, major in your minors. Since I am personally notoriously bad at getting enough protein or vegetables in my diet, I try to make at least the “main” course of each meal (except breakfast, but that’s another story) something from one of those. That doesn’t mean salad! Because we know how I feel about salad as a meal. But it does mean stuff like stuffed tomatoes, mushrooms, or peppers, stir fry, sweet potato medallions, ratatouille, and vegetable stew. These are all vegetable-heavy main courses that are still more filling, flavorful, nutritious, and energizing than a bowl full of lettuce. And many of them guarantee that you’ll hit some other food groups along the way, too.
Third, hit the reset button in the morning with carbohydrates. When considering breakfast, I try to remember that this is the meal that is going to jump start my metabolism (which is not just a buzz word for weight loss but is the process of your body turning food energy into mental and physical energy). For that reason, carbohydrates are important here. Whether I’m in a hurry and I have something like fruit and an English muffin (they sell whole grain ones but I think those taste a little sour, to be honest), or have a little more time to make oatmeal or the like, I still try to remember that my body needs some quick start-the-day fuel and carbohydrates do a fantastic job of kicking your metabolism into gear.
Fourth, if I’m craving it, I should eat it. My reason for this is twofold. One: studies demonstrate that our cravings often point to a nutritional imbalance in our lives, and yielding to the craving – presuming we show some sensitivity in reading them – will help keep our bodies in the nutrition they need. Two: I am wary of any food program that creates positive or negative emotional responses to food. It’s food. It’s delicious. And I have to keep eating it if I want to stay alive. If I want a specific food, I should eat some of it, so I don’t have some weirdly religious denial sensation about that food, and just making it a rule that I eat what my wise body wants when my body wants it absolves me of crappy guilt feelings, too.
Fifth, don’t starve, and don’t stuff. You’ll feel crappy either way. Eat slowly not so you can eat less than others in the same amount of time, but so you can listen to what your wise body tells you about your food. Generally, my body is smart. It knows I can eat three or four veggie corn dogs in one meal and feel fine (they’re made of nothing but soy and happiness, I swear), but that I only need about 3″ square of lasagna to feel the same fullness. If you’re making yourself uncomfortably hungry or uncomfortably full, then adjust. Don’t punish yourself, don’t wrap yourself up into an unnecessary shame spiral, just listen to your wise body.
Finally, learn the difference between your wise body and your emotions. As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve had some problems with disordered eating in my past and have been lucky enough to have good teachers who have helped me to learn the difference between a physical craving and an emotional one. I get nervous about talking about food in terms of punishment and reward, because what I’m talking about when I use those terms is my life force. We can’t punish ourselves by withholding our life force, and we can’t reward ourselves with life force, either. It’s just something we have to have, regardless of whether we perceive ourselves as good or bad. I call it my “wise body” because it tends to know more than my active mind or my emotions together know about what I need to eat next. I know, it sounds like something Eve Ensler would say.
I’m okay with that.
Anyway, these are the guidelines that have worked best for me. At absolutely any size, what are the thoughts and personal guidelines that have helped you to be your most healthful? What are the healthful meals – full of variety, nutrition, and delicious flavor – that you’ve enjoyed the most?