Happiest and Healthiest: The correct approach to food

Examining what, how and why we eat is essential in feeling healthy and satisfied

So far, my articles have focused on the portion of health that is devoted to movement and exercise, components that I firmly believe are essential to health as a whole. However, they are also just that: parts of a whole just as your muscles and lungs are only parts of what makes your body complete. Without a system through which the parts can function, the parts themselves are useless. That said, the quality of each component also helps to determine the quality of the holistic result. So now that we’ve discussed muscles and movement, what about that other pesky player: food?

The very idea of food is relative. For those for whom food is scarce, thoughts of restriction, calories and quality are unheard of. When access to food is no longer a problem, a myriad of questions and uncertainties can arise: how much to eat and what to eat, when to eat and when to restrain. Despite persistent hunger in the United States, our country as a whole is rich with food for ourselves and for other countries — we are the largest food exporter in the world.

And now, Vanderbilt. Within this foodie country of ours, our dining experience is (externally) praised and awarded for its excellence, not to mention its overabundance at certain annual food extravaganzas. In this whirlwind of consumption, it’s no wonder that we often have very negative relationships with food, whether the abuse results in overindulgence, over-restriction or just rumination: persistent, negative thoughts about food that may not alter behavior, but certainly worsen well-being.

Just as I offered a disclaimer for my previous articles on exercise, I will reiterate here that I am neither a personal trainer nor a dietitian and for those who have been clinically advised to gain or lose a significant amount of weight, these suggestions might not apply. I am, however, a junior at Vanderbilt who has endured my own fair share of body image issues and abnormal eating habits throughout high school and early college. I can say that I’ve seen the darkest tunnels of my relationship with food and emerged with a sense of control and retrospect that acknowledges that the journey will never quite be over. And with that, I hope this advice gives you some of that control as well — or, at least, a different perspective on how to think about food.

What to eat: This is perhaps the simplest and most difficult question to answer. The cliche answer (“Eat what makes you feel good!”) is just as true as it is frustrating. Veggies, chicken and rice will likely make your body feel good, but nothing more than veggies, chicken and rice might drive your willpower to the extreme. Similarly, nothing but conventional “junk” foods might light up the reward centers of your brain while leaving your body lethargic and your stomach unhappy. Additionally, people often seek the magic formula of how many calories (broken down into protein, carbs, fats and even grams of salt and sugar) are best to achieve this maximum “good feeling” and goal weight. While this magic formula boasts perfect results, I suggest using it as more of a fun fact. Formulas can offer good suggestions for a starting point, but bodies, and especially your personal happiness, do not follow the algorithm of that app on your phone. In short, eat what makes you feel good, but make sure that good feeling is genuine and sustainable. Change up your diet to find that sweet spot that leaves you energized, comfortably nourished and happy. Ask yourself if, barring sickness and other natural aging processes, you could keep up with your current schedule and feel good (“If I ate like I did today every day, my body and mind would feel ____”). If the answer is yes, then keep it up.

How to eat: No, I don’t mean elbows off the table. Any number of things could be discussed in this category, but I believe that the biggest player in how you eat is your own mindset. Your thoughts are powerful beings, and this is especially true when you are sitting down to a meal or selecting the food for your plate. No matter what you’re eating, be conscious of your thoughts and emotions and actively combat the negative self-talk.

There was a period in high school that every time I ate something that I had self-designated a “bad food,” I imagined an incredibly medically inaccurate scenario of the food flying through my body and landing right in my thighs. And I, quite honestly, hated myself for it. Every bite, every second of every meal was filled with self-loathing directly proportional to the amount of fat within the food in front of me. Naturally, I restricted myself just to the point that I was a little hungry all the time. Then, I thought, I was “being good.” Slip up, and I was “being bad.” I urge anyone reading this article to notice this behavior within yourself and take action against it. No, it’s not easy to recognize the unkind nature within yourself when it is directed at you. If you have trouble with this, agree to eat with a close friend and instead of keeping your thoughts to yourself, say them aloud and direct them toward another person. If you catch yourself balking at words that you would normally never say to someone else for the pain they would inflict, why are you saying them to yourself? The journey to eating happily is long for some, and I encourage you to reach out to friends or professionals if you truly find yourself struggling. For now, acknowledge the power of your thoughts and don’t be afraid to stand up to the negative ones.

Why to eat: For me, this category has been by far the most helpful in bettering my relationship with food. Through our perspective on campus, it is often easy to forget that we eat, first and foremost, for nourishment. Food and water literally keep us alive every day, a simple fact that is cast aside in a culture that views food as entertainment, as a means to a certain physique and, sometimes, as a distraction. Now, I hesitate to read nutrition labels for calories or saturated fat content, and instead read them for protein, vitamins, minerals and fiber. Research a little into where these nutrients go and food will take on a whole new meaning. You’ll think more about what parts of your body are benefiting from the food on your plate instead of what parts of your body may be harmed — and incidentally, these things go hand in hand. Why force yourself away from less healthy foods when you can instead happily pull yourself toward nutritious foods through an alternate mindset?

Here’s where movement comes in. We all know how uncomfortable it can be to feel physically exerted with low fuel or an excess of useless fuel. Believe that the function of your body is to function, and that the nutrients in your food allow this functioning to happen, and you will be increasingly grateful for your food and the gifts it gives you.

To close, I offer a quote from a registered dietitian and one of my many sources of inspiration from CHAARG, Alyssa Ardolino, RDN (on Instagram as @gratefully_nourished):

The problem with diet culture is that it assumes everyone would be better off emotionally, physically and mentally if they were smaller. It assumes everyone dislikes their bodies and wants to change them. It assumes that you can’t possibly be happy if you’re a size 6, 8, 10, 12 or larger. It assumes everyone is inherently and “rightfully” insecure about the way they look. But I like myself best when I’m not restricting or overexercising. I like myself best when I’m laughing and dancing and trying new foods and not worrying about what I look like. I think you might too if you tried it.”

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