Lighten up for National Nutrition Month

NNM2013March is National Nutrition Month, and the official tagline is “Your way every day.”  It’s meant to encourage personalized healthy eating styles, but I’m afraid it’s going to be interpreted as “eat whatever you want”.   I have a different message: Lighten up.

Lighten Up can have several meanings, but my main intent is that you stop obsessing and worrying about food choices.  Eating shouldn’t be work.  The message that every food choice involves careful examination of labels, fussing about murky nutrition and health claims and big doses of confusion and guilt is just wrong.  Strident black-and-white admonitions about what you should or should not eat clearly aren’t helpful.  Frequently they’re wrong (see: eggs) and counterproductive.  The end result is that people are now burned out by the onslaught of negative alarmist messages and tune it all out.

Meanwhile, the sensible and moderate messages* are mocked by food perfectionists for insufficient nutritional purity.  I recently met another of those strident orthorexics, whose conversation is all about foods avoided, recitation of memorized grams of sugar and calories and shrill warnings about “bad” foods and bad ingredients.   For people like this, nutrition is an evangelical religion, an endless dedication to diet purity.  The belief is that food is inherently bad, dangerous, evil and tempting.  The pure of diet are constantly on guard against nutritional boogie men like additives, corn syrup, salt, fat, GMOs, pesticides and lately gluten.  They’re proud to resist temptation while sneering at people who don’t.  Their diet purity may — or may not — given them an edge in health, but it sure makes for boring conversation.

Hence Lighten Up, as in forget about making perfect food choices.  Diet perfection isn’t possible or necessary for health.  Food should be enjoyed.  If your choices are 90% healthy, that’s wonderful, and you have room for indulgences.  Even the official USDA MyPlate guidelines make room for what are called empty calories.  Don’t let the perfectionist messages turn food into your enemy, a source of constant anxiety, stress and guilt.

Lighten Up can also apply to the calories in the foods you choose.  Did you know most of our added sugar calories come from soft drinks and baked dessert items like pastries, cookies and cakes.  If your diet depends on those items, lighten up by switching to more vegetables, fruit, legumes, grains.  And lightening your calorie load can help lighten up your weight, which will improve health and disease risks.

Take away message: Lighten Up, for National Nutrition Month and beyond:

  1. your food attitude
  2. your calories
  3. your weight

*eat more plant foods, restrict added sugars, cut back on high fat meats, eat fewer processed foods, eat balanced meals, etc.

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