Why striving for dietary perfection isn’t necessary and how it can backfire.
A few weeks back, I did a podcast on whether the benefits of eating fish are cancelled out if the fish is deep-fried. I concluded that it didn’t make sense to eat fried fish from fast food restaurants solely for the health benefits—but that it would be OK to enjoy a fish fry occasionally just because you like them.
At least one listener was horrified by this. “I'm shocked that a nutritionist would tell people that it's OK to indulge in trans fats every once and a while,” Britni wrote. “While I often hear health professionals advocate ‘everything in moderation,’ I disagree. You wouldn't smoke crack in moderation, would you? You’ve lost me as a listener!”
As you might imagine, this comment launched a rather spirited discussion on the Nutrition Diva webpage. Most of the commenters seemed to feel that my disgruntled listener was being unnecessarily rigid. Many said that striving for dietary perfection might even do more harm than good. >
Lisa commented, “Trying to live by absolutes and black and white rules, I believe, sets most of us up for failure and disappointment. I think it's very important to have up-to-date information about the food we eat, but I also think it's important to have a reasonable and forgiving attitude with how we apply that information.”
Beth added, “I envy folks who can be really clean about their diets. For me, trying to achieve that level of perfection creates more problems than it solves.”
One or two commenters even brought up the issue of orthorexia, a disorder where people become so obsessed with the purity of their diet that it starts to interfere with their ability to function. For more on orthorexia, check out this recent radio interview I did on WYPR in Baltimore.
Every Step is a Step Worth Taking
There may be some things in life that are all-or-nothing, but a healthy lifestyle isn’t one of them. It doesn’t make sense to abandon your resolve to exercise regularly just because you miss a workout. Nor does it make sense to give up on eating healthy because you occasionally succumb to the temptation to order French fries. As I’ve said before, it doesn’t matter where you are on the spectrum: every step toward a healthy lifestyle is a step worth taking.
I loved this comment from Julie: “A nutritionist once gave me a ‘yes-and-no’ list but I didn't follow it because it wasn't tailored to me. I discovered for myself that making small changes toward healthier options led to more small changes toward even healthier options, and that's when my life changed.”
A Zero Tolerance Policy Isn’t Necessary
I’m aware that there are diet gurus out there who take a much harder line—those who have a zero-tolerance policy on things like refined sugar, white flour, trans fats, additives, processed foods, or whatever foods or ingredients they deem to be evil. Not only is this somewhat unrealistic (and perhaps even counter-productive) but I don’t think it’s biologically necessary.
When I say that it’s OK to eat non-organic foods or fried fish every once in a while, I'm certainly not saying that pesticides or trans fats are good for you. But the body has a remarkable capacity to cope with small, occasional exposures to substances which, if eaten in greater quantity or frequency, would definitely cause problems.
Eating Well in the Real World
Still, if trans fats or refined sugars are bad for you, why not strive to ban them entirely? Because this is real life. For most humans, food is not only nourishment but also history, culture, community, creativity, and pleasure. Sometimes, you may choose to eat something not because it’s good for you but because you love it. Or because someone made it for you. Or because it’s the least of the available evils. As obesity expert Dr. Yoni Freedhoff said to me the other day, “The goal is not to eat a perfect diet but to live the healthiest lives we can enjoy living.”
Joining the discussion on fried fish, Lisa added, “Almost everything that brings us happiness can cause harm if done to excess. You can try to live a life of complete abstinence, but even if you succeed, what have you achieved? A life without harm...but without any life!”
Let’s try to remember how this business of eating healthy fits into the big picture. Obviously, the purity of your diet is not a measure of your virtue or worth as a human being. It’s also not a guarantee of eternal wellness. It’s not an end unto itself. It's simply a means for keeping our bodies (and planet) as healthy as we can so that we can live our lives to the fullest. Obviously, if you feel that you can't live a full life without consuming a gallon of ice cream every night, we have a problem. But if a full life includes indulging a non-organic cupcake (or a fish fry!) on your birthday, I'm OK with that. And if that disqualifies me in your eyes as a reputable source, I guess I'll have to be OK with that too.
The Evils of Moderation?
Long term readers and listeners know that I am neither a purist nor a perfectionist about diet and it was certainly affirming to read so many comments from folks who seem to be in sync with me on that. Then again, it’s a self-selecting crowd. Those looking for nutrition hard-liners have probably long since moved on to stricter pastures. And just to be fair to Britni, I do think that there are a couple of ways in which the “moderation in all things” mantra can go awry. And that’ll be the topic of NEXT week’s show!
Keep in Touch
If you have a suggestion for a future show topic or would like to find out about having me speak at your conference or event, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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