At times, I’ve put worrying about eating a so-called “healthy” diet at the bottom of my priority list. Especially when I was completing my dissertation and focusing on my job search, I had to choose what I would stress out about. I chose to let go of anxiety about craving something not in my “healthy” window but then feeling guilty after I ate. Instead, I gave myself permission to eat what I wanted without the requisite guilt that plagued me for a decade.
That decision, that focus, was healthy for me, even though it meant eating jelly beans while still avoiding meat products. For some folx, healthy means a vegan diet. For others, it means a paleo diet. For others, it means zero sugar. Others, gluten-free. And for some, it means staying within a certain calorie limit. I’m not saying that any of those definitions is wrong.
Despite my own convictions about what is the right way to eat for me, I cannot, will not, tell someone how they should eat. I think diet is a personal choice, and I’ll share mine with you, but I don’t ever want to be the reason that someone feels judged about what they eat.
At the end of the day, I think when we label food as “healthy” or “unhealthy” we are giving food way too much power. Labeling food like that becomes a value statement that equivalates with good and bad. And that labeling is way too easily internalized in ways that have plagued me for decades: eat good food, am good; eat bad food, am a failure, lack willpower, lazy, useless.
But it’s just food, y’all.
And I really like food. I love it. I love jelly beans and cake and ice cream. I love pizza. I also love kale and asparagus. I love green smoothies. I crave oranges like woah. I prefer soymilk to every other kind of milk (specifically, chocolate soymilk, full fat).
And when I crave soymilk, I drink it, despite what some say is SO VERY UNHEALTHY about it. I don’t drink it because I think those people are right or that they are wrong. I drink it because I like it. It is not healthy or unhealthy. It is soymilk, and in my coffee, it is divine.
I am obsessed with kale. Not because it’s the hot vegan super food that everyone says we should eat, but because when I steam it with a little garlic salt and Frank’s Red Hot, I think it’s the most delicious thing ever. Sure, it doesn’t hurt that it’s full of fiber, protein and uber vitamins and minerals, but if I didn’t like it, I wouldn’t eat it. Period.
I also love jelly beans. I think you’d be hard pressed to find someone who would call them healthy. They are full of sugar and fake things and have no nutritional value whatsoever. And that’s fine by me. I don’t eat them because they are healthy or unhealthy. I eat them because I think they are simply delicious. And, before (and during a long run) they provide an energy boost that I love. In fairness, I also don’t eat only jelly beans and nothing else, but even if I did, that doesn’t actually have anything to do with who I am as a human being.
I can’t even sit here and tell you to exercise moderation. Because one day, I ate a bag of jelly beans. That was not moderate. But it fueled me through a much needed writing binge and somehow, by the delicious power of sugar, helped to keep my stress at bay. I could have felt guilty, but I was too excited about the epic productivity. And the feeling of productivity is very healthy.
So how do we define what is healthy?
If eating vegetables helps you deal with stress better, then that is good. And “healthy.” I believe that my plant-based diet does that for me. But if eating what I want without guilt means that I don’t waste my energy thinking about how bad these foods are for me and developing anxiety about regaining all of the weight I’ve lost, that is very “healthy” for me.
Bottom line? “Healthy” is an entirely personal definition. It is not a value judgment, and it definitely should not transfer to how we view ourselves. Despite marketing, the panopticon guided by the beauty myth, social media, and what our dear aunt Myrtle tells us, food is fuel, connection, comfort, and damn delicious. But it isn’t good, bad, ugly, or healthy.