Recently, a friend asked me if I limit carbs. I told her I don’t limit carbohydrates, protein or fat. I made that mistake when I first got into nutrition and I don’t plan on doing that again.
Of course, my experience was with demonizing fat in the nineties. Like most people, my initial diet change resulted in a nutrient-dense diet. I ate lots of fruits and vegetables and lean proteins. I felt good and discovered the world of nutrition. But over time my diet turned white with lots of bagels, breast meat chicken, fat-free frozen yogurt. and lots of beer (it was college!). This got me thinking about how I eat now, which is very different.
What helped me was reframing the way I approach food. Not only did I find a more sustainable way to eat, my diet was more enjoyable and nutritious. And I did it by moving from a singular focus (eat low fat) to centering on three key areas.
1. Up the Nutrition Where I Can
Instead of focusing on macronutrients to avoid, I look for ways to maximize the nutrient density of food where I can. Per calorie, foods that are nutrient dense have more nutrition such as fiber, vitamins and minerals etc. So I choose quality carbs, proteins, and fats more often than not. These are foods that do a better job of nourishing the body like whole grains, lean protein sources, and fats such as olive oil, nuts and fatty fish. And of course, I maximize plant foods where I can by including fruits, vegetables and beans/legumes.
I experiment a lot and there is trial and error. For example, I tried making pasta sauce with a variety of vegetables. The taste and appearance wasn’t great so I decided to stick with tomatoes (but will sometimes throw a carrot in). I’ve found plain yogurt is an excellent replacement for mayo and sour cream. When I make a homemade honey mustard sauce, I simply use yogurt, honey and mustard — tastes great. And I add a bit of yogurt in my guacamole. I’ve been meaning to try this tomato soup recipe which uses cashews instead of cream. If it doesn’t taste good, I may consider using cream or try half cream and half cashews.
But I can only up the nutrition to a certain point because taste and enjoyment also guide me.
2. Maximize Enjoyment/Taste
One of the problems with the nutrition movement over the last several decades is it almost always leaves enjoyment out of the equation. This is how I was when I started out — I followed low fat blindly and never considered my own food preferences (the thinking was if I like it too much, it must be bad). An enjoyment eating mindset allows something very important in eating well: autonomy. When we suppress our true desires it never works because those desires always fight their way to the surface. There is both a positive and negative way to view food enjoyment, and I go with the positive. In How to Raise a Mindful Eater I put it this way:
We have a narrative in society that portrays pleasure of eating as a problem. A study in the journal Appetite describes this as “visceral eating pleasure,” something that must be controlled or suppressed even at the cost of a person’s well-being….On the flip side is “epicurean eating pleasure,” which views pleasure and eating as one in the same with moderation and well-being. This type of eating focuses on the sensory aspect of food and evaluation of food’s meaning that is largely in people’s control.
This is why I am slow to warm up to food trends that tell me I can’t eat foods I enjoy, and wait until the science is more clear. And even when I do decide some food needs to take a backseat, I cut back instead of eliminate.
3. How Food Makes Me Feel
When I first discovered nutrition, I liked how eating well made me feel in terms of energy, but never thought much about feelings of hunger and fullness. These are the two “feeling factors” I focus on: energy and satiety. Hunger and fullness guide how much I eat and I seek foods that keep me full longer. I also want the food I eat to give me lasting energy to be active and accomplish tasks.
This also helps me determine how much to eat of certain foods. For example, we have a goodie drawer in our pantry. This is the place for chocolate, sweets or leftover candy. Sometimes this drawer is full, like after the holidays, and other times it’s close-to empty. This is where we go when it’s time to fill that sweet craving. But these foods are not our main source of nourishment because that’s not what they are good at. If we were to pick from these foods all day, it would leave us feeling lethargic. So it makes sense to have these items less often, but enjoy them we do! (There’s also ice cream in the fridge).
It has been empowering to be able to listen and give my body what it needs. In How to Raise a Mindful Eater I call this an internal approach to eating versus the more common external approach.
The Three Eating Factors Bring Satisfaction
I am the most satisfied when these three factors are in play. Knowing food is nourishing, tasty, and does a good job of filling me up is best. Just a nutritious meal with enjoyment doesn’t do it for me. A super-rich meal lacking in nutrition is ultimately less satisfying, in my opinion. So I seek to infuse these three factors in my family’s everyday meals as much as I can.
I’m teaching my kids about these three factors, too. It terms of nutrition, I subtly encourage them to consider nutritional balance at meals (this one takes time and being pushy doesn’t work). While they know what they like where taste is concerned, I also teach them that taste is a learned skill like learning to play an instrument or a sport. In fact, some of the best foods and drinks in life are acquired tastes (as I sip my coffee I learned about in my first office job). With meal structure, kids know when they’ve had enough and are full, but I keep reminding them so they continue to rely on internal vs. external factors. I also encourage them see the connection between eating and how they feel. Especially when it comes to what matters to them, like dance for Big A and sports for Little D.
It’s More of a Mindset than Rules
I look back to my low fat eating days and realize how limiting it was. The way I eat now is not really about rules but a way of looking at food — a mindset — that brings me what I desire most: nourishment and enjoyment. I don’t have to give up carbs, sugar, or anything. And I’ve gained so much more.
Want to improve your family’s relationship with food? Check out my book How to Raise a Mindful Eater