By now you know there are all sorts of opinions about what you should or shouldn’t eat. It can be super confusing, right?
The problem lies in the approach — detail-fixated vs big picture. When we get too concerned about the details, we can miss how everything fits together. We run the risk of developing tunnel vision which could make us forget that food should be satisfying, hold meaning and bring us closer to people we love. In fact, I would argue that those are just as essential to health and wellness as the nutritional value of food.
But I get it, we like lists.
So I’ve put together a list of four foods which I believe you should eat regularly. In doing so, I hope to help you shift from a detail-fixated mindset to a big picture approach to food.
1. Foods you find satisfying
Too many of us run scared of feeling satisfied given we equate it with overeating or weight gain. I say it all the time: feeling full and satisfied from your meals is your solution. Not feeling full and satisfied is what leads to problematic behaviors.
You are physiologically and psychologically wired to receive satisfaction from food; it’s in your biology. You can only white knuckle restriction or lack of satisfaction for so long before you go looking for it. It has very little to do with self-control or willpower, two very misguided terms when it comes to describing our relationship with food.
So instead of avoiding satisfaction, embrace it. Eating with the intent to feel satisfied will naturally decrease over or under eating, since neither is satisfying (more like uncomfortable or painful). While you may assume the opposite, giving yourself permission to feel satisfied will likely help you feel more in charge of your food choices and more in tune with your body.
2. Foods your family eats
The goal for dinner is to eat all together, in part to model a healthy approach to food. Everyone can eat the same meal, although how much and what they choose from the meal may vary.
Too often parents are acting as short order cooks, which may create picky eaters, or are on diets which prevent them from eating dinner with their children. Instead, let’s model healthy behaviors for our kids and practice moderation, variety and balance while talking positively about our food and bodies (i.e. talking about how you are giving up carbs or avoiding the pie because you are afraid of weight gain is NOT positive or healthy).
Let your kids help you plan balanced meals with kid-friendly, fun, tasty and nutritious ingredients. Someday they are going to leave home and make their own food decisions and you have the opportunity to help them practice how to meet their nutritional needs in a positive, flexible and healthy way.
Kids or no kids, you’ll just benefit from having a flexible approach to food where you can travel, eat out, have family meals, attend social events and enjoy holiday meals without guilt, stress, anxiety or worry.
While we want to be mindful of hunger/fullness levels in general, we need to remember Vitamin Pleasure. I think the issue is that we mistake pleasure and satisfaction for numbing and distracting, which are very different. Eating for pleasure and satisfaction is enjoyable and leaves you feeling satisfied, content, balanced and energized. Eating to numb or distract is done quickly, usually without even tasting the food, and typically leaves you overly full, feeling unwell and remorseful.
So while food can (and should) be celebratory and hold memories, we can easily start craving comfort food after a long work day, when we remember how mom’s Chicken Pot Pie always hit the spot after a long day at school. I find nothing wrong with that — it’s good to feel excited about and connected with the food you eat — but if you’re using it to consistently distract from uncomfortable emotions or negative situations that need attention (and find it hard to listen to physical signs of fullness when doing so), it may be time for more tools in your emotional wellness tool belt.
4. Foods that make you feel good
Really, that’s the ultimate goal of eating, and I don’t think it is at odds with any of the points above. Food should be fuel for a full and satisfying life, and that’s best done with a flexible approach to food.
If, however, food gets in the way of doing that, eating habits may be out of balance. I would encourage you to evaluate if the food is doing what you want it to – is it leaving you feeling full, satisfied and energized for a few hours? Do you find yourself tired after eating? Do you still feel hungry and preoccupied with food?
A nutritious meal is one that is satisfying to eat and leaves you ready to take on the day. That will definitely look different for everyone and may take a little trial and error (and the help of a Registered Dietitian!). Get curious and practice listening to your body. There’s likely nothing you need to completely eliminate or focus too heavily on; aim to find your threshold and healthy tipping point with food. There’s a lot of wiggle room there so don’t feel like you need to find any “perfect” balance, just aim for a something that feels both nourishing and satisfying.
Choosing foods to eat can feel confusing, but I don’t think it has to be that way. Letting food just be food – satisfying, social and energizing – is surprisingly freeing.