These days it seems like everyone has a specific diet: Vegetarian (no meat), pescetarian (no meat except fish), vegan (no animal products), raw food (primarily uncooked food), low-carb (e.g., Atkins, South Beach), gluten-free (gluten is a protein found in many grains), lactose-free…. The list goes on and on. People become vehement in defending their food choices, often to the point of becoming preachy and judgmental (major turn-offs in my book). With all of these choices, what constitutes healthy eating?
People pick specific diets for a variety of reasons, many of which are not necessarily health. One might chose to be lactose-free or gluten-free due to a specific allergy, though it seems like people often believe that it is inherently healthier to be lactose- and gluten-free, which is not necessarily true. Other diets are chosen for ethical reasons (e.g., vegetarian, vegan) in an effort to have a more cruelty-free diet and consume less resources. However, choosing to be vegetarian or vegan does not necessarily mean one is eating healthier (e.g., you could subsist on bagels and pizza if you were vegetarian, it is hard to get all of the required nutrients as a vegan). Other people choose a diet because they are primarily interested in losing weight (e.g, Atkins, South Beach). While being overweight is not healthy, these diets are not necessarily healthy either (though the idea of a diet that lets you eat bacon is appealing to many people).
In the field of psychology, there are a number of eating disorders classified in the DSM-IV-IV (the diagnostic manual) including anorexia, bulemia, and body dysmorphic disorder. To provide a very simple definition of each, anorexia is the refusal to maintain a minimum body weight needed to be healthy. Bulimia can include both binge eating (eating vast quantities of food at a time) and purging (e.g., throwing up, use of laxatives, over-exercising) thought does not necessarily mean the individual is underweight. In body dysmorphic disorder, an individual is overly concerned with imagined deficits in their physical appearance. Binge eating disorder falls under the category of Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (NOS). Binge eating disorder includes similar binging as is found in bulimia but none of the purging behavior. An interesting additional disorder has been proposed recently: orthorexia. This was a term coined to describe people who have a fixation with healthy or righteous eating.
So does this mean that healthy eating is unhealthy? Recently, someone wrote an article for the Elephant Journal asking if cleansing is the new bulimia. What is a yogi to do?
Here’s how I choose to look at it. I see eating behavior as falling on a continuum ranging from healthy to disordered. Disordered eating is exemplified by the DSM diagnoses provided above. The person has an unhealthy fixation with food and/or body image and spends an inordinate amount of time worrying about it. Eventually this impacts relationships with other people (e.g., you don’t want to go out to social dinners, you’re embarassed of your weird eating habits, you’re too annoying and preachy about other people’s food).
So what is healthy eating? Sure, I think we can agree healthy eating should be balanced and nutritious and not have too many preservatives and include lots of fruit and vegetables. I’m not really talking about what makes something have nutritional merit as a diet. Rather, what makes someone a healthy eater? I believe it’s the opposite of disordered eating. This means that you enjoy eating, but not so much that you’re binging. You listen to your body. You eat in moderation, within moderation. Sometimes you splurge (within normal limits) and have that bacon cheeseburger with fries. Sometimes you eat comfort food (pizza, ice cream). You’re not restricting food intake obsessively. You generally try to make healthy choices but you don’t beat yourself up when you don’t. You can be flexible because you make good choices overall.
My guess would be this actually sometimes leads to weight loss because you are more in touch with what your body truly wants and needs.
Plus this means I’m justified in still eating chocolate and pizza :) Mmmm…. pizza…