The Four Cornerstones of a Happy, Healthy Body Image: Healthy Eating

(Check out parts one and two if you need to catch up.)

Happy New Year! My husband and I don’t have any TV channels (just Netflix), so I miss out on most of the crazy ads at the end of the year advertising various products for weight loss, but this year we spent New Year’s Eve in a hotel and had the TV on for a while, so I was lucky (ahem) enough to see quite a few. As usual, I was frustrated and annoyed that our society spends so much time and effort focusing on body size and weight, instead of things that really matter to human happiness, such as building relationships, pursuing passions, job satisfaction, emotional health, mental health, or spiritual health.

I think one of the things that really gets me about these ads is that nearly all of them are trying to sell you a new “better” way to eat. Maybe it’s a new and different way to count calories, or selling you food that comes in a package and could be at home in a nuclear bomb shelter, but no matter what, the message always comes down to: the way you’re eating and what you’re eating are WRONG! You are BAD! Change your body NOW and be HAPPY!

You might find it odd then that I put healthy eating as a cornerstone of a happy, healthy body image, since I’m so against these various diets, but let me explain: Feeding your body enough food (you know, not starving it by feeding it 12 or 1500 calories a day) and giving your body food that helps it to stay healthy are very important to body image, because if you do those two things your body feels good. If your body feels good you can spend time pursuing whatever it is you were put on this earth to do. If you spend time doing that, as opposed to obsessing about weighing your oatmeal on a digital kitchen scale, your whole life feels better, and that includes the way you feel about your body. Body image isn’t much of an issue if you just take care of it and have other, better things to focus on, period.

Berries

But what is, exactly, healthy eating? That, my friend, is up to you. I’ve tried so many damn diets, you have no idea. These days I’m mostly vegetarian and I really do try to eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, eat mostly whole grains, watch my sugar intake, eat lots of beans and nuts, and just in general stay away from processed crap that isn’t found in nature. In the past I would keep trying to cut things out–flour, sugar, etc., etc. That made me freaking nuts, and put me on a roller coaster of restricting and binge eating, which is not good for self-care. I’m still a work in progress, really, but my goals are now all about peace and health, and if a goal that is about looking a certain way tries to sneak in, I do my best to nip it in the bud immediately.

What’s healthy eating look like for you? You might not know yet, and beware, there are a zillion crazes out there, and maybe one of them makes you feel good temporarily but be cautious: Could you eat this way for life? Would you want to? If you can’t answer yes to both of these questions, you’re on a diet and it ain’t gonna last. If you’re eating too few calories to support your lifestyle, you’re on a diet, and it ain’t gonna last. If you’re not eating a certain food or food group because you’re afraid they’ll cause you to gain weight, you’re on a diet, and it ain’t gonna last. Why not choose a moderate approach instead?

I know it’s tempting to start something new. I know how that allure of the “happiness” that weight loss will bring is strong. And I encourage you to improve your diet, again, because I do think you need to eat well to feel well, and you need to feel well to have a healthy body image, but be careful about how you go about it. Some ideas:

  • Don’t subtract foods, add foods. Instead of promising yourself you’ll stop eating all sugar for six months, try adding in an extra serving of fruit every day. Or, if you’re severely lacking in the fruits and veggies department, make it your goal to work up to eating at least five servings a day. Once you are eating more foods that support health, you’ll find you have less room for stuff that doesn’t make you feel good (for instance, if you start drinking a banana smoothie for dessert after dinner, or have an orange and some almonds for an afternoon snack, you’re less likely to eat as many cookies in the office break room.)
  • Don’t categorize a food as bad. There are definitely foods out there that don’t support good health, like those containing trans fats, for instance. Maybe you will get to a point where you want to throw these foods out and not keep them in your house anymore. However, when you start adding in rules about what you “shouldn’t” eat, you’re all the more tempted to eat it. If you’re allowed to eat chocolate every day, and don’t feel guilty about it, you’re not going to eat a ton of it. And if you do, you know what? You’ll feel kind of sick, but since the next day you don’t promise yourself you’ll never ever eat it again, you’re just going to eat it again when it sounds good, and maybe in smaller quantities, too.
  • Figure out what works for you. Some people really do have food allergies and sensitivities. Don’t jump on the bandwagon and give up gluten just because your favorite celebrity did, because you’re just setting up even more restrictions around food, which fuels the obsession, which does not equal a good body image or satisfying life.

Give healthy eating a whirl, just do it slowly and focus on adding good stuff, not calling stuff bad. Your body wants to be fed nourishing foods, and enough of them, not starved and/or forced to eat things that it doesn’t like.

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