My Problem with "Healthy Eating"

As a Registered Dietitian, it might come as a surprise that I despise the phrase “healthy eating”. That’s what I went to school for right? To learn how to eat healthy? Partly, I suppose. But what I and so many other anti-diet dietitians help people accomplish is more than just healthy eating patterns. It’s a healthy relationship to food, which is so so much more than just eating your fruits and vegetables. 

One of the main problems is that the word “healthy” has come to mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people. And a lot of that has been co-opted by wellness culture- the idea that health can be found in green juice, smoothie bowls and power yoga classes (while wearing $150 Lululemon leggings). And while I inherently have no problem with green juice, smoothie bowls or power yoga classes, it’s essential to acknowledge that health is so much more than that (and also the assumption that everyone has access to these things is extremely classist/ableist but that is a post for another time). Health is more than being vegan or Paleo or raw vegan or whatever the diet du jour is. Health is more than attending $30 fitness classes.

Building a healthy relationship with food means not only eating foods that are nourishing but also allowing flexibility and ease into our meal times- and addressing underlying problems that might be affecting our ability to do that.

It’s important to recognize that health is multi-faceted and includes mental, emotional and spiritual health in addition to physical health. Your smoothie bowl isn’t going to do diddly-squat if you’re living in a constant state of self-hatred. Your beet juice isn’t going to help you if you’re living with anxiety and/or depression and/or other mental illness. Your avocado toast isn’t going to do you any good if you’re filled with guilt, shame and anxiety while you eat it. Building a healthy relationship with food means not only eating foods that are nourishing but also allowing flexibility and ease into our meal times- and addressing underlying problems that might be affecting our ability to do that.

It’s also worth considering that health looks wildly different to different people depending on where they are in their lives. For instance, when someone is in recovery from disordered eating, it’s important to incorporate calorie-dense foods as well as foods that were restricted during the eating disorder (hopefully with support from an ED dietitian/therapist/other treatment team members). This could include butter and pop-tarts and ice cream sundaes and French fries – foods that aren’t necessarily considered “healthy” by our society’s standards. But by legalizing all foods, people in recovery make huge strides towards their own health.

Similarly, when someone has a suppressed immune system, the dietary recommendations are to avoid fresh fruits & vegetables. In this case, it’s imperative to that person’s health to avoid them- but that doesn’t mean I would say that fresh fruits & vegetables are unhealthy across the board. If someone’s allergic to peanuts, then an apple & peanut butter wouldn’t be a healthy snack for them; but for someone without an allergy, then it could be a great choice. With certain medications, it’s imperative that you avoid grapefruit juice to avoid drug-nutrient interactions- but that doesn’t mean that grapefruit juice is “unhealthy”. I could go on and on.

It's also worth noting this goes beyond just the physical conditions (didn’t you see that coming?) You don’t need a physical condition as an “excuse” to eat or not eat something. You might be craving a chocolate milkshake one day- and guess what? That might be the best decision for you so that you satisfy that craving and don’t spend the rest of the day obsessing about if you should get a milkshake/why you didn’t get a milkshake/what you’re going to eat instead/how you’re going to fulfill that craving. Maybe you’ve had a hard day emotionally and the one thing that comforted you when you were younger was a box of Kraft mac n’ cheese.  Eating a bowl of mac n’ cheese might be exactly what you need to sooth yourself- and there is nothing wrong with that. The bottom line is there is no one way to eat healthy- and we have to stop pretending like there is.

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The term “healthy eating” has become so loaded and so skewed that I find it easiest to avoid the term altogether. The idea of “health” is so individualized and dependent on so many factors in a person’s life including stress, sleep, mental health, socioeconomic factors, etc, etc. My goal- and the goal of many other HAES professionals- is to help you find your definition of health by taking all those things (and more) into consideration, not prescribe you some blanket diet/lifestyle that doesn’t resonate with you at all. The healthiest way to eat is what makes you feel satisfied and fulfilled mentally, physically and emotionally- and don’t let any perfect Instagram photo tell you otherwise.

If you’re ready to take the steps towards food freedom and work with an anti-diet dietitian to find your version of healthy eating, check out my coaching page here or sign up for my introductory food freedom series.