Picture from the Chihuly exhibit at the ROM; this piece is entitled Tumbleweeds, but for me elicited lightening, or a spark. An inspiration to spark change for 2017.
Congratulations on making it through the first week of 2017 (and a bit)! Nearly 51 of them left to accomplish your goals, get stuff done, screw it up, reinvent yourself, get lost, find your way again, make mistakes, get it right, find success, experience loss, travel, end relationships and start new ones, ignite new passions, flip the page. It’s all a bit exciting, isn’t it? Maybe a bit scary. Not knowing what lies ahead, where you will be at this time next year? All the while hoping that life doesn’t throw you a giant curveball. Bracing yourself for potential disaster or pain. But that fear hangs in the background for now – because January is for aspirations and renewal. As pretty much everyone else (whether they admit it or not), I too love January for its capacity to instill reflection and inspire purpose. I don’t arrive on January first with a list of resolutions, instead I form them over the first few weeks of the New Year. Emerging from a holiday induced stupor, I need a bit of time to get my bearings and spend some time thinking about how I want to shape the days, weeks and months ahead. This is a luxury granted to us living amidst material comfort, good health and relative affluence. I don’t want to squander it.
So how are you making out so far? Are you feeling panicked or energized? Hopeless or motivated? Astray or purposeful? It’s so easy to get overwhelmed under the barrage of resolutions flying at you every which way. Everywhere you turn, there they are – in conversations with friends, scrolling through social media, in every magazine and news outlet. And one common theme is health. Specifically the attainment of a healthy weight, a healthy diet, a healthy everything. I have to fully confess, as a dietitian I sometimes want to go into hibernation during this time, and perhaps I would if it weren’t for my own desires for a fresh start. But the seemingly endless posts about diets, detoxes and nutrition have me wondering when the collective paranoia of what we put on our plates reached this frenzied fever pitch. Everyone from doctors, to TV personalities to self proclaimed experts and celebrities are claiming that their diet is the one that will change your life around. You just need to avoid this, give up that, try this, banish that. Each nutrient or food coming under attack in turn, with grains and sugar getting the brunt of the scorn at the moment it seems. And if it’s not a food that’s getting publicly flogged, then it’s how we eat. Forget the advice to eat small meals throughout the day – oh so last millennium! If the hordes of (start air quotes) nutrition gurus (end air quotes) are to be believed, fasting is where it’s at. And the longer the better it seems; a study in willpower. Perhaps the biggest test of it being how long you can withstand a juice fast, because you know, detox. Forget a weekend, a week even, let’s go for a month! Umm, no thanks, I like to chew.
I know I am sounding incredibly disdainful and perhaps a touch irritable. But the thing is, all of this makes me sad. Sad that people shilling this ever-changing and increasingly more outrageous diet advice are preying on people’s vulnerabilities, all the while making A. Lot. Of. Money. Your buy-in buys them a very comfortable life. The weight loss industry in the US, including everything from diet soft drinks to supplements, diet books, apps and more is worth $60 billion. Let that sink in: $60,000,000,000 in one country alone. That is a lot of zeros.
It makes me even more distressed knowing that the majority of those who consume this advice are women. My comrades, my soul sisters. Strong, smart, amazing, beautiful humans. And not their fault – women have been spoon fed smoke and mirrors about what they should look like for far too long, inciting a quest to change what they see in the mirror. But that is a rant for another day. For now, let’s focus on this: there is no ideal, perfect diet. No ultimate way of eating. No supreme regime. In my books, there are only healthy eating patterns. That’s right patterns is the operative word. Patterns that change and mold and flex. They are not meant to be rigid and static. Your pattern will differ from mine and will suit your life.
Pulling from the dictionary, where a few definitions of what a pattern is reside, the one that I like in this instance is this: a combination of qualities, acts, tendencies, etc., forming a consistent or characteristic arrangement; anything fashioned or designed to serve as a model or guide for something to be made. In essence, a consistent model that allows for variety.
It’s a tough sell because this concept is not wrapped in a sexy, glossy package. No promises of enlightenment through discipline. But perhaps the promise of tamed anxiety and realization that you have the knowledge and skills within. So let’s take a collective, deep, steadying, cleansing breath and look at what healthy eating patterns might look like.
For starters, let’s just accept that there is no need for a punishing regimen for our bodies to detox. We have livers and kidneys who do the job just fine. Now onwards. Here are some healthy eating patterns to get you started, my Top Ten if you will:
- Eating more whole fruits and vegetables IS in fact a good thing – the more the better. If possible, at every meal and making up the majority of your plate. No argument from me here. Besides adding a whack load of vitamins and minerals, they add to our fibre intake which we are severely lacking in. Fibre is the nerdy, undervalued, introverted but quietly powerful superhero of the nutrient world – balancing blood sugar, keeping our gastrointestinal systems in tip top shape, taming cholesterol levels and more.
- Legumes like beans, peas, lentils and chickpeas as well us nuts, seeds and tofu are excellent sources of plant based protein that I encourage people to eat more of – supported by lots of evidence that reducing our intake of animal based protein is better for our health, our budget and the environment. Oh and again, hello fibre, our multitalented superhero friend!
- Skip the processed white grains for the most part. There are so many awesome whole grains waiting to grace your plate! Brown/red/black/wild rice, quinoa, millet, sorghum, farro, wheat berries, oatmeal, buckwheat, pot barley, amaranth, teff, spelt, kamut – it’s a whole new world opening up before you! And you guessed it – more fibre.
- Dispense with sugary and artificially sweetened drinks like pop and juice, sports drinks, sweetened lattes, diet soft drinks. Choose herbal teas and water – whether plain, carbonated or fruit infused. Go ahead and add lemon juice – it isn’t a magical cure for anything but it does taste good and might make you drink more.
- The grocery store is a minefield of ultra processed foods masquerading as healthy choices. Be wary of what food manufacturers claim on the front of the package. Read the ingredient list (its length not necessarily an indication of quality – my favourite brand of crackers has a super long list of ingredients but they are mostly whole grains and seeds) – look out for added sugars, artificial anything, food colouring, refined starches and so on. I often post reviews on my Facebook page of packaged foods that I think are great…and maybe ones that aren’t.
- Speaking of sugar – it’s not an all or nothing deal. It’s true that we consume too much. But instead of trying to banish it completely (umm can you really say you will never have birthday cake or ice cream with your kids??), look for sources of added sugar in your kitchens and replace with better options gradually – start with cereals, yogurt, granola bars, snacks marketed to children, drinks and so on.
- Take the time to feed yourself and your family well. Be consistent and reliable. This means taking the time to plan, shop and cook and making space and time for meals and snacks that you eat together at the table(whenever possible) without distractions. Be prepared so that you don’t skip meals or forget to feed yourself. It might mean giving up some things in order to make this a priority (yes I know Netflix tempts with endless opportunities for binge watching…but someone has to get dinner started!)
- Pay attention when you eat. Avoid TV, devices, toys or books during eating times. Make conversation with those around you. If you eat mostly on your own, it means having to adapt to being with yourself and your thoughts during mealtime. This is the only way to truly start getting to know your body and your hunger and fullness cues. We’ve been conditioned to ignore our inner voice on so many fronts. Distractions in our lives abound and so we are terrible at this (myself included) and often override our bodies – skipping meals when hungry or eating beyond fullness. Start listening.
- Enjoy your favourite foods at regular intervals. Denying yourself chocolate or restricting chips will only lead to preoccupation with those foods. We all know how that goes… Instead, have them every now and them, enjoy thoroughly and watch how they lose their power to control your food choices.
- Take pleasure in moving your body in ways that are appealing and enjoyable to you. If you have kids, move with them. If running is drudgery and the treadmill your nemesis, why the heck are you signing up for a 10km race? Find a yoga challenge or a hiking trek if that’s your thing instead. As with food, there is no perfect or ideal exercise.
Now these may be a good place to begin, but there are plenty of other things that you could do, or maybe are already doing, to start you off on good footing as you welcome 2017. The ULTIMATE goal is living a life that you can embrace for 365 days of the year and not just 7 or 30. In fact that’s the litmus test for any diet out there – if you can’t live it for a year it’s not worth starting in the first place. My happiest, most vibrant life includes a boat load of vegetables as well as homemade chocolate peanut butter pie – just in different proportions. It includes long hikes with friends, solitary yoga and punishing obstacle course races. Cupcakes, kale, hummus, wine by the bottle and Netflix too.
For 2017 my hope is that you make peace with food and permanently exile restrictive, demanding diets that zap your confidence, diminish your self-worth and wreak havoc on your health. Embrace vitality and give yourself permission to enjoy eating. Invest time in cooking for yourself or your families and relish new ingredients, recipes and cuisines. Happy New Year!