Talking with someone last week, they asked: how can we know whether we are eating healthily? This person’s point was about our perception of what we eat compared to those around us: that if we are surrounded by fitness professionals, we may judge ourselves more harshly than if we are surrounded by people less focused on healthy eating.
The question goes far deeper, though.
Firstly, there is the fact that our own perceptions are skewed by the situations we find ourselves in. If we have done exercise, for example, we are more likely to allow ourselves “a little treat” and not consider it “bad”. Or if we see a healthy item on a menu next to an unhealthy item, we actually misjudge the healthiness, or calorie load, of the “bad” item by up to 20%!
Secondly, it’s true that what is considered healthy is constantly changing. When it first came out, margarine was touted as the healthier option for your heart. Then, with studies on hydrogenated fats, many nutritionists advised eating butter instead. However, the debate is not yet over, as there are (as so often) more factors involved: the specific type of fat, even within a broader category such as omega-6 fats, or what the fat is being replaced by in your diet.
Likewise, some might argue that chocolate has gone from being “bad”, to being a superfood so long as you eat it either “dark” or, preferably, “raw”. The same happened with alcohol and then swapped around again. For a while it was said that while it may not be good for your liver if overimbibed, alcohol was shown to have positive health benefits in small measures, and be “healthier” than being teetotal! Now that advice seems to have changed again, saying no alcohol is ever good.
And of course, there’s the fact that fat was long demonized for weight gain and health risks, yet there is now evidence that sugar may be a far larger culprit on both counts.
Thirdly, there is the evidence that different diets suit different people. Some people say you should eat differently depending on your body type, others say you should base your diet on your blood type. While arguments against rigidly applying such diets are also strong, the fact of the matter is that there are a lot of factors to take into consideration when deciding what is a healthy diet for you.
If you are diabetic, or have a family history of cancer or heart disease, the recommendations for what you eat will be different. And many people try particular diets and, despite perhaps believing in them ethically, find they don’t work for them health-wise in the long term. For instance, a huge number of people embrace vegetarianism, often for years or decades, before deciding it really isn’t for them.
There are also cultural and religious factors to take into account. Eating against your beliefs is likely to stress you out, and stress affects how well you digest food, so this is a real health concern.
Amongst all this information, personal bias and different needs, how can you know how healthily you are eating?
The answer is that it’s impossible to have a truly objective and definitive answer to how healthily you are eating. The good news, though, is that eating with awareness will help in all of these situations. If you are concerned about your diet, keeping a journal can be really helpful. You might want to track more than just what you eat and when: note down things like how you were feeling before you ate, what exercise you did, how satisfying you found the food, and whether you were eating alone, in company, and how you feel about the people you were eating with. And these days there are also food journal apps.
If you want to take things to another level, then wellness coaching can be incredibly powerful. With its focus on exploring what works best for you, and having someone to help you stay accountable, as well as supporting you over any obstacles that come up, it combines lots of different tools for increasing your awareness and honouring your own needs and preferences.