Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
I really didn’t want to write an article about nutrition. So many people stress out about eating healthy foods, and the statistics on eating disorders suggest that many people reading this article already spend a significant portion of their time and energy thinking about food, usually negatively.
But that doesn’t mean that silence is the best option either. If I write about the importance of sleep and exercise but omit the importance of nutrition, I’m not doing anyone any favors. In fact, as Lavon J. Dunne explains in the Nutrition Almanac:
“Optimal health and well-being require that carbohydrates, fats, proteins, vitamins, minerals, and other micronutrients be supplied to the body in adequate and balanced amounts. These macro- and micronutrients are vital for normal organ development and functioning, for cell reproduction, growth, and maintenance; for high energy and working efficiency; for resistance to infection and disease; and for the ability to repair bodily damage or injury.”
In other words, good nutrition is a key component of caring for ourselves, and one we should not ignore. As with exercise, sleep, and other self-care practices, there are four elements that can help us explore the role of nutrition and introduce good habits into our lives:
1) Understanding the benefits of good nutrition
2) Finding the right kind of foods
3) Celebrating small successes
4) Letting go of self-blame
1: Understanding the Benefits of Good Nutrition
If your knowledge of nutrition is anything like mine was, you may be aware of edicts such as, “Eat more vegetables. Make sure you’re getting enough protein! Drink orange juice so you don’t get sick. Avoid foods high in fat, sugar, salt, and anything else tasty…” But exactly how much meat should I be eating? If I don’t like orange juice, how else can I stay healthy? What’s all this about “good cholesterol” and “bad cholesterol”? A quick Google search reveals a plethora of popular diets, calorie counters, and vague explanations courtesy of MayoClinic.
But if you sift through the internet rubble, you can actually find some credible sources which highlight the importance of good nutrition. For example, the CDC has a network of easy-to-read fact pages. The Linus Pauling Institute at OSU has incredibly in-depth and fully-cited pages about the physiological function of various nutrients and foods. If you are somewhere between an average Joe and a biology major, like me, you can find a happy medium in the Nutrition Almanac quoted earlier, which can be found in full PDF form online (not the most recent edition, however). I particularly like it because it satisfies my curiosity about how certain nutrients affect my body on both a micro and a macro level.
All of these resources repeatedly mention the benefits of good nutrition: better overall health and lower chances of all sorts of illnesses — from heart disease to macular degeneration (eye disease). But it’s not just about what illnesses might afflict you down the road — what you eat each day can affect the ways you feel and function that same day. Take fructose, for example, which is found in fruits as well as in candy and sodas. Fructose is a simple carbohydrate (i.e. sugar) which your body can turn into energy. You might think that the source of the sugar doesn’t matter when you are at the coffee bar trying to find a burst of energy before your next class. But choosing fruit instead of candy will actually give you more sustained energy. Fruit also contains fiber, which slows the digestion of the sugars. (Fruit also contains vitamins and antioxidants which you need anyway.)
Once we educate ourselves about the benefits of good nutrition, we can start to make more informed food choices that are integral to our regimen of self-care.
2: Finding the Right Kind of Foods
Everyone’s bodies react to different foods in different ways. Reading nutrition manuals and exploring different diets won’t necessarily guide you to the perfect foods. It’s important to take into account how a given food makes you feel, physically as well as mentally and emotionally.
Right now, for instance, the delicious aftertaste of Pad Thai is tickling my tongue. With it, however, is a bloated feeling in my stomach and the beginnings of a headache. Does this mean I’ll never eat Pad Thai again? No. It was delicious. But might I be feeling a little better if I had eaten some fruit or vegetables? Probably. (I’d also probably be feeling better if I hadn’t eaten so much, but conquering my overeating habits is a bigger topic than I feel like tackling right now). So I’ll keep in mind how Pad Thai affects my body, and if I need to be feeling good for a job interview or an exam in the future, I’ll choose something different.
Similarly, anyone can take note of the ways they think, feel, and act after eating certain foods and start to make connections. Some people even keep food journals where they write down what they eat for each meal and how they feel in the few hours afterwards. I’ve never been that dedicated, but it’s definitely an option.
3: Celebrating Small Successes
About a year ago, I started taking some spinach from the salad bar with almost every meal. When I’m eating a Phoenix for breakfast, I’ll put some spinach in it to give it an extra crunch. I wrap my french fries in spinach leaves to keep my fingers from getting oily or salty. I mix spinach into my macaroni and occasionally even eat it raw. But guess what? I really don’t like spinach.
Then again, I don’t like the flavor of toothpaste, and I still brush my teeth. I don’t like the amount of time it takes to shower when I could be doing something else, but I still keep my body clean. So why should this aspect of self-care be any different? Dark green leafy vegetables are repeatedly touted as the best sources of vitamins, minerals, and more. Eventually, I decided I should be including some in my diet.
I started by keeping the ratio pretty small, putting one or two spinach leaves on my sandwich so I could barely taste it. Over time, I have actually become accustomed to it, and I no longer like the taste of some things without spinach. I rarely have a meal filled with whole grains and fruits and vegetables, but instead of getting lost in a spiral of self-blame, I try to congratulate myself on this small step I’ve taken.
4: Letting Go of Self-Blame
There is so much self-consciousness and self-blame surrounding eating habits, particularly among women. More than half of the Sharples conversations I have with friends involve food guilt at some point: “Oh you got a salad — and here I am with this plate full of french fries,” or, “I got ice cream at lunch — if I get it at dinner too I’ll feel really fat.” It’s easy to judge yourself for your food choices, or even to joke with your friend if their plate consists entirely of fried yellow and orange foods. But that doesn’t mean it’s right.
It’s okay to eat a giant bowl of ice cream if it makes you happy. And even if it doesn’t end up making you happy, it’s still okay. You are allowed second chances, and third chances, and fourth chances, and more. You are allowed them because you are a good person working to take care of yourself, and that’s some really hard work. Everyone messes up, but the people who accomplish their goals are the ones who re-apply themselves after every failure, no matter how big or small. So let go of the self-blame and take a deep breath. Remember that you are not alone, that one meal is not that important, and that tomorrow is a new day.
Featured image courtesy of www.metoffice.gov.uk