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Defining healthy, pt. 1

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.

Or “unhealthy.”

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.

Just food.

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.

38 thoughts on “Defining healthy, pt. 1 Leave a comment

  1. Hi Laura, I think this was a great follow up post to unhealthy last week! I love your remark that healthy is a personal definition. For me, the essentials to my healthy eating are making sure that I get enough natural calcium (since I’m allergic to dairy) and avoid gluten (since I have celiac disease). Otherwise, I just live in a world of moderation. Sure, if I only ate chocolate for a day that would be unhealthy. However, our health is influenced by things beyond food (exercise, stress, etc.). For me, following a “health nut” diet or a strict diet of foods that are considered to be healthy would be so stressful that I’m pretty sure it would be detrimental to my health! (Although I’m sure it works for some, especially those who thrive off of it). While I’m certainly not a role model, I think making sure I get some nutritional value is key, but a fixation on food is in fact unhealthy for me. Instead, I choose to focus on whether I can go out for a run and do all the things I enjoy. 🙂

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    • I think you are a role model – your attitude is amazing, and so positive! It’s something I love to see – I love your attitude!

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  2. I really love this quote by Tom Stoppard: A healthy attitude is contagious but don’t wait to catch it from others. Be a carrier.
    …a carrier = a messenger and that’s what you are doing, according to me. You are a great messenger, an inspiration for a healthier life. 🙂
    Healthy is also a personal choice but role models help us finding the way!

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    • =) Ditto.

      I was just thinking last night that there are a few people that I’ve met through blogging that I feel really close to despite (or maybe because of) the digital divide (like you). It’s a pretty awesome thing.

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  3. Interesting…and you’re right, it is completely and utterly an individual and personal choice. My food choices have been judged many times, usually by people who deem me as mega healthy and deem themselves unhealthy and therefore try and pick apart what I eat to make themselves feel better. Like you, I’ve had my food journey and I’ve found what I like and how I want to eat the hard way, but it’s only for me. It’s personal choices, just for me, and choices that make me happy and make me feel good. I don’t impose my choices on anyone else whatsoever, so why should I be judged?? Sorry, got a bit tasty there!!! Be happy honey, that’s all that matters xx

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  4. Sometimes when people start focusing on healthy eating, I think they look past the mental health aspects. No, jelly beans aren’t full of vitamins and protein, but they gave you a much needed mental/productivity boost. The way we feel emotionally impacts our health, too. So by not stressing too much over food, I think you are making a healthy choice….whether that choice involves jelly beans or soy beans or both is your business.

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  5. Thanks for this and the previous post. Moderation is needed in all areas of life – not just with consumption of ‘unhealthy’ foods, but with stressed and anxious behaviors like worrying about diet quality. So, I definitely hear you on that, and that’s why even though I try to make ‘healthy’ foods in life and for my blog, I avoid the labels and the guilt as much as I can. I’m firmly in the camp who would eat the Jelly Beans without remorse! But, I’m also not willing to undervalue the fact that making healthy diet changes can truly transform lives. It’s just that healthy diet changes need to come along with a healthy attitude in order to really work!

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    • I think you are so right – and I’ve seen the power of shifting a diet that is so positive for others! But that doesn’t mean they are better than someone else (or even perfect) – to me, it’s all about gradients of gray, and we have to figure out what works best for each of us!

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  6. I’ve spent my whole life with blergh thoughts about food and body image. I’m trying to lose body fat now but I’m choosing not to do a strict ‘healthy vs unhealthy’ thing because when I do, the guilt creeps in and once you let guilt it, it often triggers so much more negativity towards yourself. Sure, there are foods I consider unhealthy for me but I’m not going to avoid them completely, because to put it simply, I love such a wide variety of food. I just take more care now with what I eat, but I’m choosing to enjoy a meal out where I might eat the foods I’m choosing not to eat at home. For eg I’m not cooking with rice or oil but when I go out to Loving Hut here you can bet I’m going to get the tofu puffs with veg curry on white rice, or the vegan southern fried chicken with vegan mayo. I think for me, unhealthy is when my mental health suffers. And sure, it’s suffering because I’ve put on a little weight and my jeans don’t fit… but it also suffers when I restrict myself too much (and I ultimately end up eating all the stuff I put on the no-no list!) So now, with the benefit of hindsight, I can work out exactly what I want to eat but I take in to account where and when. I could say I didn’t go very well this week with my weight loss because I put on weight according to the scales but a) I don’t care what the scales say anymore and b) I thoroughly enjoyed everything I ate when I went out for meals 🙂

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    • I definitely understand what you are saying – and complete restriction is so bad for me right now. It leads me down a path I don’t want to go down. I think we have to practice so much self-love and say “there are more important things than these jeans” even when part of us feels like there isn’t. I wish I knew the solution to eliminating those feelings! I don’t, but I think it starts here.

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  7. I couldn’t tell if this sent or not but I guess not (I left a long comment from my phone but the app is so sketchy sometimes). Anyways-

    I really like your perspective on this. I think defining healthy is all about how you define it. For some people, they need to lose weight but for some people they need to gain weight…some just want to maintain our weight or train for a long distance race.

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    • Thank you so much – I think the blog world can be so good, but that’s eliminated when we feel judged. As much as we might feel like we’ve got things exactly right, it can only ever be for ourselves, since that’s the only “people” we can know for sure!

      Oh, and hate when my phone blocks my comments. So aggravating!

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  8. I hate that others judge people for their foods. When I was vegan for Lent, people I know “in real life” judged me for that, but as soon as I ate a food that wasn’t vegan, they judged me for changing my eating habits. Just let me be, people! I do sometimes feel guilt about eating “junk” but then I realize that I loved eating it at the time, and get past it. Love your thoughts on it! I totally agree. Jelly beans for dinner sounds perfect to me!

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    • I really hate that people felt like they could judge you either way, especially for something so personal. I think it’s called schadenfreude when people take pleasure in other people’s pain, and I almost feel like that is what happened there, that they were just waiting to pounce when you weren’t “perfect.” I think it was so brave to go vegan and publicize your goals – that take courage and we should embrace each other’s goals, not judge them either way. There are people that I simply don’t talk about ultra-running with because they’ll tell me outright that they think it’s stupid and that I’m hurting myself – and there were people who, after my DNF, told me that it was dumb that I quit. Maybe they’re right, but at the end of the day, it’s my choice and if they love me (or even like me) they’ll support my dreams and support me when I fail.

      Oh, and I think you are awesome, no matter what you eat.

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  9. I judge myself so hard for my food choices sometimes. I burned a lot of calories last weekend and as a result I ate EVERYTHING. Seriously I was so hungry and I just didn’t care. That said, I love food. I love sweets. I don’t eat them all the time, but I do eat them. My diet is very much anything in moderation, making healthier choices when I can, but not beating myself up over it if I have a giant slice of pie. I have healthy days and not so healthy days and it works for me. I hope that no one would define me by that.

    I also love jelly beans and I’m kind of glad that Easter is over so that my jelly bean consumption can go back to a more normal level.

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    • I blame Easter for my jelly bean love resurgence. I have back-up bags for my back-up bags, which I bought in the post-Easter sales. It’s a little extreme, but I feel confident I won’t run out tomorrow. Or next year. =)

      I think moderation is so right – and that we define what moderation means. Sometimes, it means only eating dessert for one meal that day, but sometimes it means running less (or sleeping more). It’s personal. I’m still learning how not to judge myself, and it makes it worse when I feel like others are judging me too!

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  10. I so agree with all of this. Healthy can be so many different things. I eat healthy but I still indulge and I tend to over eat. I know so many people who are sticklers for every single thing they put in their mouth and the would not consider what I eat to be healthy. It’s all relative. I think you are very healthy and sometimes I feel guilty posting meat laden recipes. But I also know you don’t expect everyone to be vegan. Funny how healthy can be such an individualized thing. Great post!

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    • It’s funny how we think about these things – I worried that people would see my jelly beans and think I wasn’t healthy (and guess what, some people did) but at the end of the day, it is me, and I can’t control how someone else feels about what I do, think, or eat. I promise to never judge meat recipes (and when I say I think they look good, I mean it)! We all have to do what we think is best for us in that moment. After I was diagnosed with Celiac’s disease, I stopped being vegetarian completely because it was so hard to have all of these foods that I thought were “off limits.” And eventually (and naturally) I stopped eating meat and dairy and found that I felt better that way. But in terms of who I am, it’s the same as I was when I ate meat. Food does not make or break a person’s worth.

      And sometimes, I crave a burger like woah.

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  11. The other day, I asked Matt for a “healthy snack,” and he asked me, “What do you mean? What is a healthy snack?” I had a really hard time thinking of how to explain what I meant and ended up going with “something that isn’t cookies or ice cream.” (I had ice cream anyway. 😉 ) I think I’ve grown up arbitrarily thinking some foods are healthy and others are not. E.g., I have this impression that pretzels are less healthy than celery, but I couldn’t tell you why, since they both have nutritional value.

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    • I definitely grew up with an arbitrary definition of “good” and “bad” food too – and this came from my mother, who I think influenced me in good and bad ways in regards to health. And although I’ve read so much about good fats, I still have a hard time eating avocados sometimes because I know they are high in fat and calories. I don’t know that I’ll ever break that definition or the knee-jerk reaction that some food is good and other food is bad.

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  12. You did a great job covering a challenging topic! I sometimes avoid talking about food with certain people because they think they know it all when it comes to “healthy” food or believe there is only one right way to eat. I think because I make an intention to eat (my version of) healthily, people assume that I will ALWAYS eat foods that are healthy. For one, my version of healthy may not be the same as theirs. And two, I may chose to eat something that I don’t believe is healthy because I like it. One person I know has made suggestions for how I should eat some special carb free bread…and I kindly try to say that I am perfectly content eating the whole wheat bread that I like (not to mention its about $7 cheaper than the carb-free one). Also, I try to balance my food choices with our food budget…we just can’t afford to only buy organic, or gluten free, or whatever else is supposed to be good for you. I try to focus on buying foods with natural ingredients, but they are not always the cheaper option. I somehow lost my train of thought with all that, but I will be continuing to think over this difficult topic and I look forward to reading part 2!

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    • I think you make so many good choices – first, that if we are “healthy” that means that we will always be “healthy” as defined, which to me, means that we will always deprive ourselves (if we are living with the typical definition of healthy eating. Sometimes non-nutrition-filled foods can be healthy in other ways. Second, this so-called healthy food can be really expensive (gluten-free especially)! It’s like when people like to tell me I should always eat organic. I mean, I WISH I could, but I also wish money fell from the sky as often as it rains. It doesn’t, and just like with balancing nutrition-rich food/with some comfort foods, I have to balance my budget and lifestyle with what I eat.

      Thank you so your support – and thoughts! I’m really glad that we are opening the dialogue on this!

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  13. So far, I am agreeing with you. I loved the line about giving food too much power. It’s just food. I’ve had an up and down relationship with food and I’m happy to say I now (usually) see it as just food. It’s been a long road to here but this is a good place. I’m so glad to have found you ! I can’t wait for part 2.

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    • I’m glad that you are in a good place – I think I am getting there, but I still have a bit to goal! Also, I wanted your to know I checked out your blog – but couldn’t comment (my fault, I never know my wordpress username). Sorry about your ankle, but it sounds like you are being really positive!

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  14. For me, I do what makes me feel good. Gummy Bears are my weakness and on long runs instead of healthier alternatives, I chose gummy bears. Why? Because I am running 10, 15, 20 number of miles and I can do what I want. If eating gummy bears or jelly beans or kale gives you the energy to get out there and conquer what you need to – power to you! I also hate that I get judged because I am a runner or because I am on weight watchers so, if one afternoon I have a cookie you would swear the world has fallen out of orbit. People have too much time on their hands to judge what others are eating. Enjoy your jelly beans – I just hope you don’t get like the popcorn flavored ones – that I will have to judge on 😛

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    • Oh no… I once bought a bag of just the popcorn flavored ones I like them so much… 🙂

      Thank you so much for your comment – and I’m sorry that people feel like it’s okay to behave that way! I noticed the same thing when I was losing weight, and while some people were supportive, others felt like they should lecture, and then there were some I felt were actively waiting for me to fail! We are strong and others have no right to judge!

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  15. Great post! Do I ever feel like my food choices are being judged? Heck yeah – all the time – I’m vegan! And since I’m not a twig … currently a size 6-8 because I haven’t been exercising much, usually a size 4-6, I get all these “vegans are supposed to be skinny” comments … “you must eat really unhealthy, like a lot of french fries, since you’re not a size 2.” I’ve even been told that for a normal person I’m slim, but for a vegan person I’m fat. I haven’t had a cold for over a year, but if I sneeze from allergies it’s “oh your diet is so unhealthy.” And then there are all these bozos who faint when they see me eat bread because for some reason they equate gluten-free with vegan. Erk!

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    • That’s a horrible thing to say to somebody – but no matter what size vegan, you’re an amazing person because of who you are, not your pant size!

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  16. Laura, I really really love this post!
    Sure I might be in the “HLB” category, but I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve rolled my eyes SO FAR back in my head because I’ve read the phrase “eating clean” for the ten thousandth time that day. Sorry. Not happening. I’m gonna grab my diet Coke and cookie and sit in the corner and ENJOY them 🙂

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    • Oh me too!! Sometimes I really have to restrain myself because I know I used to blithely throw those words around tool!

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  17. I’d like to give you a metaphorical (actually, scrap that, a real!) medal for this post. I truly believe we would all be so much better off, and dare I say it healthier, if we could stop viewing certain foods as ‘healthy’ and others as not. The foods that agree with me may not agree with everyone else; and what we need on a given day is not necessarily the same as what we need next week. If your blood sugar is low, jellybeans might be the best idea anyway 🙂 And if it isn’t? Food isn’t just about molecular particles; it is social and fun and should be those things.

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