We grow up learning a lot of food rules that we believe as fact. Maybe you’ve experienced some form of self-prescribed dieting, or you depended on rules to make healthy decisions (I know I certainly have). You try your best to eat healthy because you know you’re supposed to. But imagine a different approach to healthy eating, one that isn’t focused on numbers, news, or the latest diet trend. Instead, imagine knowing your body so well you know what it needs and feel guilt-free eating what it wants. The truth is that a lot of those food rules we have always believed as fact are stopping us from achieving true health and food freedom. Here are eight of them that we’re completely getting rid of (and three that we’re living by instead).
1. Some foods are “good” and some foods are “bad”
Every food is predefined into labels of “good” and “bad” by our culture. We grow up understanding that a stalk of celery is a “good” food, a slice of pizza is a “bad” food, and there is always an “evil” nutrient we turn into a public enemy (like carbs, saturated fats, or sugar). However, when we put a moral value on foods, what’s meant to nourish us becomes associated with guilt. Of course, some foods have more nutritional value than others. A plate of spinach will provide your body with more nutrients than a Twinkie, but you’re not “bad” when you do want to eat a Twinkie. Rid yourself of food guilt and listen to your body to decide what you need (not what you “should” or “shouldn’t” eat).
2. You should eat everything on your plate
As children, many of us were praised for joining the clean plate club and guilted if we didn’t. We had to sit at the table until we finished eating, or we were told wasting food was wrong. As well-intentioned as our parents may have been, this mentality sticks with us as adults. We base serving sizes off of what’s in front of us, instead of what our bodies need. Rather than eating a portion that someone else recommends (whether it’s your mom, a restaurant, or the recommendations on the box), eat until you’re satisfied. Newsflash: we’re not supposed to eat until we’re full, and certainly not until we’re “stuffed” (Thanksgiving dinner is the exception, of course). Eat slowly and mindfully, so you’re aware when you’re no longer enjoying your food and just eating out of habit because it’s in front of you.
3. Avoid fruits and white potatoes (they have too many carbs)
“Carb” is not a dirty word; it’s actually an important nutrient that the body needs for many crucial functions like energy. Even carbohydrates like potatoes and fruit are loaded with essential nutrients that will help the body to thrive. White potatoes (yes, the kind found in hash browns) are full of vitamin C, fiber, and contain more potassium than a banana. Fruits are one of the most plentiful sources of vitamins and minerals, and offer a wide range of health-boosting antioxidants. Bottom line: you should never be afraid of or avoid any whole foods from the earth. That’s what we’re meant to eat, and our bodies will respond accordingly.
4. Read the nutrition labels on everything you eat
You should absolutely be informed about everything you eat. I do believe everyone should know how to read a nutrition label (and if you don’t, HMU). We shouldn’t be tricked into believing a bowl of a certain cereal is a nutritious breakfast when it has more grams of sugar and artificial ingredients than a candy bar, so that part I stand by. However, the outdated food rule I’m thinking of actually comes from Mean Girls. Regina George asks the other Plastics what percentage fat is from the calories of a food she’s thinking of eating. Even though the line, “whatever, I’m getting cheese fries,” is iconic, this is when we should stop reading nutrition labels.
If you’re going to indulge, enjoy it without having to see how many calories or grams of fat it will cost. This just leads to more food guilt and an inability to be intuitive. Rather than reading every nutrition label to eat healthier, we should be aiming to eat more foods without a nutrition label at all. Stop worrying about the numbers, and start focusing on nutrients (but more on that below!).
5. You shouldn’t eat dessert every day
Life is short, so let them eat cake! (Yes, I did just combine two well-known sayings that make perfect sense together, thank you very much.) A lot of us have a sweet tooth, or for others, eating something sweet signals that the meal is over. And guess what: both are OK. If you crave dessert but don’t let yourself eat it, or if you eat it and then feel endlessly guilty afterward, this will only lead to bingeing and a bad relationship with food. If you want dessert, eat it (yes, even if that means every single day). The trick is to find things that satisfy your sweet tooth while also giving your body added benefits and better nutrients. Try nut butter and apple slices, dark chocolate, or meal-prep one of these delicious plant-based desserts for the week.
6. Have five small meals a day instead of three larger meals (or that you have to have three meals a day)
I first heard the advice to eat five small meals throughout the day when I was in high school. The suggestion came from a good place; you definitely shouldn’t wait to eat until you’re so hungry you feel weak (or worse, hangry). But thinking that multiple small meals a day would be better for me than three larger ones, I wouldn’t let myself eat as much as I wanted or wouldn’t feel hungry for my next meal if I did eat a “bigger” snack (AKA a small meal). My body was constantly confused and never really satisfied. Since then, I’ve learned that three meals work perfectly for me. I never feel the need to snack, and instead just eat enough filling, fiber-rich foods so I’m satisfied until the next meal.
My point is not that you should eat three meals a day. Many people don’t like to eat breakfast and prefer two meals a day. Other people feel best when they’re snacking throughout the day, and some people are more energized when eating five smaller meals. Instead of promoting one over the other, my point is that you should eat when you’re hungry. Find the amount, time, and method of eating that works best for your body and lifestyle.
7. You should resist cravings
I always recommend intuitive eating and listening to your body, but a lot of people will tell me that if they “listened to their body,” they would only eat boxed mac n’ cheese, pizza, Doritos, and cookies all day. Even if that’s what you think your body wants to eat, you’re listening to the ingrained food rules that have taught you certain foods are “off-limits” and, therefore, more attractive (it’s true for bad boys, and it’s true for food). But when you forget the aforementioned food rules and stop thinking cravings are the enemy, the truth is that you’ll crave a combo of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and yes, some “less nutritious” food here and there, which–believe it or not–is absolutely OK.
Your body is incredibly smart (I promise). Cravings are how your body is communicating with you that it needs something, not an attempt to sabotage your health goals. Whatever you’re craving, get creative and DIY an option that will be more nutritious and make your body feel better. Feeding cravings actually helps give more clarity to what our bodies need—because if we don’t feed them, they’ll only get stronger.
8. We need experts to tell us how to eat
If you feel overwhelmed by which diet to try or which expert to listen to, that’s not on accident. In order to sell you on limitless products and programs, you have to feel like your health is not in your control. The truth is that bodies are not one-size-fits-all, and therefore, there’s no one-size-fits-all diet. Every body is different, with individualized nutritional requirements. Just like we all have different personality traits, we all have different food needs. What works for one person (even if they are an “expert”) may not work for you. Get curious about nutrition, educate yourself on how to eat the best nourishment, and talk to your doctor about what diet and lifestyle is best for you, but listen to your body more than you listen to outside advice.
…and Three Rules We’re Living By
1. Count nutrients, not calories
When we count calories, we approach eating from a place of lack and deprivation. But when we’re aware of the nutrients that foods have and what those nutrients do for our bodies (give us energy, boost skin glow, reduce inflammation, etc.), we come from a place of abundance and nourishment. Focusing on eating more plants and whole foods filled with nutrients can also subconsciously crowd out processed and sugary foods (totally guilt-free). Think of adding more foods into your diet (like adding leafy greens to two meals a day or eating berries with breakfast), rather than subtracting foods (like no dairy, no processed foods, etc.).
2. Eat your colors
My entire wardrobe may only consist of neutrals, but when it comes to what’s on my plate, I like to load up on every color of the rainbow. The colors of plants come from the different phytochemical antioxidants they contain. Eating fruits and vegetables in a wide variety of colors ensures we’re getting a wider variety of antioxidants. If your meal is looking as monochrome as your stay-at-home #OOTD, add a little color with fruits and vegetables. For example, if you’re having pasta, throw in some cherry tomatoes (red) and kale (green). If your salad is just a lot of leafy greens and avocado, good for you for getting in your veggies, but consider adding in some sweet potato and purple cabbage for a wider variety of nutrients.
3. Make mealtime sacred
Many of us think we’re supposed to eat purely for health and are cursed by the pleasure aspect that comes with food (lust and gluttony, after all, are two of the seven deadly sins, and things I feel regularly when a truffle mac ‘n’ cheese is in front of me). “On-the-go” is a popular recipe trend, and a rise in fast food over the past 50 years is no coincidence: we want to eat as quickly as possible. But the truth is that we don’t just eat to survive. We eat for enjoyment, for social connection, for meaningful ritual, and these days, we often eat because we need a break (Find yourself stress snacking during work? Your body might be telling you to take a break).
I get it: sometimes busy mornings call for tossing back a smoothie, or you need to take your lunch on-the-go. But whenever you can, make your mealtime sacred. Turn off the TV, close the laptop (yes, that means taking a real lunch break), and actually enjoy the food you get to eat. Use mealtime as a mindfulness practice, a way to reconnect with loved ones, and a much-needed break.