Take a moment to ask yourself: What motivates me to eat well?
If your key motivators behind eating a healthy diet are weight control and/or weight loss, you are not alone. As a registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN), I notice the driving force behind many people’s desire to develop a healthier diet is typically weight-focused (oh and mine used to be too, once upon a time).
And I get it – we live in a society obsessed with appearance and often that comes with the glorification of thinness. We are often given messages that if we can just eat cleaner, exercise harder, shrink our bodies, be more muscular, get those washboard abs, then we are “good” and healthy. Truth is – health is much more than all of those things – and in my opinion, it’s none of those things. Actually, the fixation on those things is actually what is unhealthy.
So, I want to chat a bit about the often forgotten physical and mental health benefits of eating a balanced, varied diet that have absolutely nothing to do with your body size:
Our bodies need a consistent intake of meals and snacks that include all food groups to sustain stable blood sugar levels and energy, both for the brain and the body. Calories are energy, so, when we fall short of our required energy needs, we may feel fatigued, unfocused and probably a little bitchy (where my hangry peeps at?). And if we aren’t eating a diet full of grains (YES, carbs are completely necessary to maintaining optimal energy levels), dairy, proteins, fruits, veggies and fats, we run the risk of missing key nutrients that will affect our overall well-being.
For instance, niacin, which is a B vitamin found in foods like peanut butter, milk, eggs and whole grains, is important for optimal mental functioning, energy and digestion. Long story short, we need everything. And our bodies and brains do not want too much (even vegetables) or too little of anything.
And we all know getting good sleep plays a role in how we feel mentally and physically throughout the day. In fact, sleep deprivation can lead to depression and anxiety. It can also play a role in increased disease risk (including heart disease and diabetes). And eating consistent meals and snacks throughout the day, instead of skipping meals and eating more at night, can help to improve sleep.
Any sort of restrictive diet can really screw with your brain, and thus, your mood. In a nutshell: Your diet affects your neurotransmitter function. The three mood-regulating neurotransmitters are serotonin (AKA the “happiness hormone”), dopamine and norepinephrine (they are integral to healthy mental function and stable moods). All of these guys have dietary sources — amino acids called tryptophan and phenylanine.
First of all, calorie deficiency leads to overall reduction of these amino acids. And the sources of them include many foods that people tend to cut out because they think they should — cheese, other dairy products, eggs, meat, nuts, bacon.
Oh, and our nerves and brain cells are lined in fat, where our neurotransmitter receptors happen to be, so if there’s not enough fat in our diets, the neuros can’t function well.
3. Disease Risk
For years, nutrition research continues to show a link between eating a nutrient-dense diet and reduced disease reduction.
For instance, soluble fiber, found in foods like nuts, seeds and beans, has been shown to lower cholesterol which plays a role in reducing heart disease. And increasing unsaturated fat intake by eating foods like nuts, seeds, peanut butter, oils and avocados can lower the risk of heart disease and improve healthy (HDL) cholesterol levels.
Keep in mind, I am not suggesting food should replace necessary medications for certain conditions, but it can certainly be a beneficial complement.
Eating a healthy diet rich in the other kind of fiber — insoluble fiber — found in foods like veggies and whole grains, will help push food along in your digestive track. And, I mean who doesn’t want to poop on the reg?
So, when making daily food choices, remember your eating patterns play a significant role in several aspects of your health and overall well-being — mentally, emotionally and physically!
In my work as a non-diet dietitian, I don’t coach my clients to throw nutrition out the window. But if our drive to eat well is only coming from this place of wanting to be “good” based on societal expectations and to force our bodies to be somewhere they aren’t meant to be, then I feel like we are missing the point on the path to true health.
Instead, my hope is to help them (and you!) nourish themselves from a place of self-acceptance and self-care, and to develop an eating pattern that includes both nourishing and delicious foods to support overall mental, emotional and physical wellness.
In our society, where disordered eating messages are tossed around like frickin’ crazy and normalized, I think it’s easy to forget that nourishing our bodies adequately and pleasurably is what’s most important — not fixating on our size. This is the approach I take with clients, along with many other HAES (Health At Every Size) dietitians. If you are unfamiliar with HAES, check out this link to learn about this compassionate approach to wellness. It is a health-centered approach versus the traditional weight-centered approach to nutrition.
And I’ll end here with a list of evidence-based health outcomes of a HAES (or health-centered approach) from a presentation by Christy Harrison, a fellow dietitian who I admire very much and had the pleasure of seeing speak live at FNCE (the world’s biggest nutrition conference):
Lower blood pressure
More favorable lipid profile (or fat profile)
Increased physical activity
Lower levels of disordered eating
Better body image
Significantly higher retention rates than weight management approach
No weight cycling (increases and decreases in weight)
Greater resilience to weight stigma
I hope this post serves as a reminder of how important eating a varied and non-restrictive diet is for our energy, moods, disease risk, digestive systems, mental health, self-esteem, and so on. PLUS (and perhaps the most important factor), it is way more fun!
In true health,
PS. If you would like to develop a healthier relationship to food, visit my Work With Me page to learn more about my services and approach.