A Healthy Diet Doesn’t Have to Mean Giving Up the Food You Love

healthy_heart_foodsThese days, cutting a certain type food out of your diet is an ordinary occurrence. Whether they’re eliminating carbs after the holiday season, trying out a Paleo diet, or even giving up sweets for Lent, it feels like I always know at least one person who’s avoiding a category of food for a specific reason.

I get it—for some people, it can be beneficial to quit unhealthy foods cold turkey, whether that be for health-related reasons or weight loss. I also understand that depriving yourself of something you love and depend on is not enjoyable. For years, I struggled with disordered eating—I remember my middle school and high school years by recalling what I was or wasn’t eating at the time. I didn’t drink soda for two years, developed a list of “safe” foods, and at one point was mainly living off fruits, vegetables, and peanut butter sandwiches (my favorite meal, to this day). If you’ve ever given up a certain type of food before, you know that when the deadline is over or when you finally cave, you’re not just going to indulge in one chocolate or one piece of bread—you’re going to eat whatever you gave up like you haven’t tasted it in months (because you haven’t!).

My most memorable fast was when I didn’t eat cheese for six months. I didn’t supplement my vegan-esque diet with any necessary nutrients, of course, and I was miserable. But being miserable didn’t stop me. I was determined to prove to myself that I could give up a new type of food—and get even thinner. Because my motivation wasn’t health; it was about being skinny.

A few friends and my sisters would make casual comments, but they didn’t affect me. One of the few I can vividly recall is a friend reprimanding me at lunch for giving up cheese, telling me all the reasons avoiding it was bad for my health. My comeback was that she was wrong, that cheese is fattening. Most of all, I remember being happy that someone noticed and was concerned. I focused on the attention I received and pushed how hungry I was and how desperately I wanted to eat cheese to the back of my mind.

Depriving myself of food I enjoyed made me feel strong. Organizing my eating, creating new regimented rules, and giving myself more challenges to conquer was something I couldn’t quit. But once I started college, this all changed. A few nights in, my new friends politely questioned my small portions at dinner (two pieces of toast). I didn’t want them to think I had a problem, and so when I ate with them, I was forced me to confront (and eat) real portions of food. It didn’t take long before I was going back for seconds and thirds, trying (and liking!) new foods that were definitely not on my “safe” list. Naturally, I gained a bunch of weight. The freshman 15 was more like the freshman 30, which did nothing for my self-esteem. And over the next four years, my weight would fluctuate depending on my stress levels and courseload, but I never felt truly healthy. I’d be forcing myself to the gym because I was eating or drinking too much, or I’d lose weight because I was sleeping and eating so little due to school stress. I was bloated and disappointed in myself or shaky and worried about myself. It wasn’t until after college—thanks to a regular work and sleep schedule, plus less pressure to go out every night—that I was able to find a healthy balance between working, eating, exercising, and enjoying myself.

Now, I eat and exercise in moderation. In high school and college, I knew my eating habits were unhealthy. But it wasn’t until after graduating that I realized the constant cycle of deprivation followed by inevitable overindulgences wasn’t healthy, definitely wasn’t fun, and just isn’t realistic. This past year, I vowed to myself that I would never give up a type or category of food ever again. Sure, my eating habits have changed over the years. While studying in Paris, I ate like a French person and stopped snacking and drinking milk. I learned, much to my surprise and dismay, that I felt lighter and better not guzzling multiple glasses of milk each day. I used to drink at least one Diet Coke per day; now I rarely reach for one. But if I want a treat—a bag of Doritos, a tall glass of chocolate milk, or a mid-afternoon Diet Coke—I won’t deny myself. That’s the cool thing about living a moderate—but healthy—lifestyle. You can indulge, enjoy yourself, and reset, without mentally beating yourself up about it. And the same goes for exercise. I don’t run a mile for every piece of pizza I eat as punishment; I run because it makes me feel strong and healthy.

Does that mean I’m constantly eating a balanced diet? Not quite. Over the past year, I’ve realized more than a few times that all I’ve eaten over the past 48 hours are bread- and cheese-based meals. Yea, that’s embarassing to admit. But instead of taking drastic measures and shamefully skipping breakfast the next morning, I respond like a grown-up and eat some fruit and yogurt in the morning, a hearty salad for lunch, and life continues as usual.

That’s why it makes me so upset to hear family, friends, and acquaintances swear to give up whichever food they’ve deemed “evil” for however many months in order to drop pounds. I know firsthand that finding a happy medium between eating whatever you want and extremely restricting yourself isn’t easy. Sure, restricting might make you feel strong and powerful for a while. What it won’t do is make you instantly thin—or happy. And that “all or nothing” mentality we tend to hold ourselves to isn’t realistic when it comes to diet—it sets us up for failure. Once I began letting go of all of my self-enforced food rules, I started to understand that no matter what I eat —or don’t eat—my diet, body, and life will never be perfect. And that’s perfectly okay with me, just as long as it includes the occasional slice of cheesy New York pizza.

 

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