What is a “balanced” diet?
One of the things that irks me about the dietetics profession is how frequently food is labeled as ‘bad’, ‘good’, or even ‘super’. It can leave people with lots of mixed feelings about food and eating. Many popular diet plans applaud restricting food or even eliminating entire food groups. Often we’re led to believe that there is a definite ‘right’ way to eat and that we are unhealthy if we don’t follow it.
Last week I attended a wonderful roundtable discussion hosted by Nestle Nutrition. This event was attended by several other RDs including Dr. Lisa Young of NYU as well as several prominent scientists from Nestle. Our discussion began with this very topic: What is “balance” when it comes to food and nutrition? I thought I would take a few minutes to expand here on what I feel balanced eating means.
As an RD, of course I support a healthy eating pattern: a diet of fruits and veggies, whole grains, lean protein, and heart-healthy oils (olive, canola, etc.) And we can’t eat unlimited quantities of food all the time. But I think that there is room for some flexibility and I worry that with some of the rigid messages about “eating do’s and don’ts”, too many of us end up with feelings of guilt and uneasiness about food, and we lose a sense of ‘balance’. We may be eating healthy foods, but sometimes our relationship with those foods is anything but healthy.
I believe that part of healthy, balanced eating and normal eating is the enjoyment of food. It means feeling good about what you eat – even if it’s not a veggie or so-called ‘superfood’. It means listening to your body and allowing your taste buds to have a vote on what you eat.
Recently I came across a definition of normal eating from Ellyn Satter, a well-known RD and expert on children’s nutrition. She writes:
“Normal eating is going to the table hungry and eating until you are satisfied. It is being able to choose food you like and eat it and truly get enough of it—not just stop eating because you think you should. Normal eating is being able to give some thought to your food selection so you get nutritious food, but not being so wary and restrictive that you miss out on enjoyable food. Normal eating is giving yourself permission to eat sometimes because you are happy, sad or bored, or just because it feels good. Normal eating is mostly three meals a day, or four or five, or it can be choosing to munch along the way. It is leaving some cookies on the plate because you know you can have some again tomorrow, or it is eating more now because they taste so wonderful. Normal eating is overeating at times, feeling stuffed and uncomfortable. And it can be undereating at times and wishing you had more. Normal eating is trusting your body to make up for your mistakes in eating. Normal eating takes up some of your time and attention, but keeps its place as only one important area of your life.
In short, normal eating is flexible. It varies in response to your hunger, your schedule, your proximity to food and your feelings.”
I love this definition of normal eating and I feel that this description embodies what it means to be ‘balanced’ when it comes to food. Perhaps some RDs would disagree and find this too permissive, but I am a big proponent of this type of eating flexibility. Sure there are some people who follow a ‘rigid’ diet that eliminates all treats, sweets, and indulgences (think: deluxe cheeseburger). And that’s fine, as long as they are happy with their food. But in my observation, too many of folks are trying to be perfect (and not succeeding) and feeling not-so-good about food and about themselves as a result. When I look at other cultures, say French or Italian, they tend to have more of a permissive attitude toward food. At the same time (although overweight/obesity is growing in those countries) they do not have anything close to our rates of obesity, heart disease or diabetes. So maybe cutting yourself some slack next time you have a slice of cheesecake could be perfectly “normal”!
What do you think? What is YOUR definition of normal eating?