We've all — in some unique form or fashion — expressed a desire to be "healthy." We've looked in the mirror and pinched an inch, grimacing. We've despaired over the tasty mozzarella sticks inexorably distracting us from the main menu. Maybe we've even vowed to go to the gym every day to burn calories for two hours until we resemble the toned gods and goddesses in advertisements. The paranoia doesn’t discriminate by gender or age. So, what's the big deal?
I believe the American public defines "healthy" as a look rather than a state of being, and that’s bad. We are widely misinformed by media and rumors about what constitutes healthy habits—both in eating and mindset about eating. I've watched enough loved ones' lives dissolve as they became enslaved to food—through self-starvation or overeating—that I must debunk cultural myths as often as I can. There should be freedom and enjoyment in our eating lifestyle as we stay within the boundaries of true health. Here's how.
The first and most important thing to understand is what parents and teachers like to tell their kindergarteners: You are special. They’re right! Every person has a unique body type and build, which means that nutritional needs differ accordingly. I recently met with a registered dietician in Norman, Oklahoma, Kimberly Davis, who was the first to explain to me that the “serving size” on food labels is not the recommended portion size for every person on Earth. Food needs, she said, depend on BMI, or body mass index: the measure of a person's weight as it relates to their height. This can be calculated using the online resource from the National Institutes of Health.
The aforementioned nutritionist had worked at the local college campus. I told her how the "perfect" bodies of so many sorority girls are discouraging to women who feel they can never achieve such a figure. She was quick to tell me how dangerous it is for people to idolize a particular body type as the paragon of health, since the natural petite form of one woman may be the body of starvation for another. Yikes.
That brings me to the second point; hopefully it's as exciting to you as it is to me! Eating right does not mean going hungry at any point during the day. Many people skip meals in order to achieve some illusion of balance, or to recompense for a large meal. This is actually counterproductive for both weight maintenance and weight loss. When the body is denied a meal, it makes up for its deprivation by slowing metabolism, or the rate at which the body breaks down food to create energy.
Kim recommended not going more than four hours without eating (except when you’re sleeping, of course). A convert to this regimen, I can personally attest that my focus, energy and — my husband gratefully agrees — mood improves significantly when my stomach is satisfied all day.
My third piece of advice is a shocker, and one that recently revolutionized my eating habits: there is not one type of food so “unhealthy” (like, carbohydrates or fats) that you should completely eradicate it from your diet.
Kim informed me that those inexplicable cravings we get for certain types of foods are our bodies' way of calling out for the particular kinds of nutrients they need. I once tried to cut all dietary fats from my meals in an effort to be "healthy," and it affected everything from my emotions to my complexion to my sleep. Naturally, we shouldn't just eat whatever we darn well please all the time. It's important to practice moderation. It's nice to know, however, that putting a tablespoon of cream cheese on my bagel isn't going to be the undoing of all my health goals. In fact, it just might help them along.
Fourth, and finally, exercise. Before those who tend toward the obsessive two-hour gym-habit, or those who fret because they know they'll never have a body like Megan Fox or Brad Pitt, take this and run with it (no pun intended), let me elaborate by returning to where I started. Exercise for health, not for looks. The handful of food and eating specialists I've spoken with recommend working out three to four times per week.
It is essential to think of health as a way to keep your body in its top condition for functioning, not as the means to a discouragingly impossible end. Hopefully, these four tips will create for you a different kind of mirror to evaluate yourself through, as they did me. Until we truly understand health, we’ll be trying to reach quickly-fading standards that can be detrimental and are, frankly, indigestible.