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Do you have to give up any foods to be really healthy?

I read in a fashion magazine recently the ‘secrets of super-healthy women’. Great headline, I thought. The trouble was, each of the ‘super healthy’ women had a different set of health secrets, and they seemed to contradict each other.

One was rabidly anti-sugar, to the point of avoiding most fruits. She also advocated eating butter and cream and coconut oil for energy. The second woman, though, didn’t eat any oil or fat and ate only fruit all morning. Another claimed to be a raw food vegan, apart from the occasions when she ate fish or steak. And the fourth said that the secret to her health and slimness was four coffees a day – not coffees she drank, but coffee enemas. By the end of the article I was confused, alarmed and angry. Because the lasting impression I was left with was not that I had learned the secret to being healthy. It was that in order to be healthy, you have to spend a great deal of time, money and effort. It seemed, in fact, that keeping oneself healthy was pretty much a full-time job. I felt like most women would read that and think: this sounds way too difficult for me. So why even try?

I’ve come to feel quite strongly about diets that restrict or ban certain foods. There are a lot of them about; it seems to be a bit of a theme at the moment. Whether it’s banning sugar or vegetable oil or meat or dairy or grains or coffee; there are so many theories around about what’s best, it can be super-confusing. And it also contributes to the impression – just like that magazine article – that to be healthy or to lose weight, you need to do something extreme. If you’re not giving something up, you might as well forget about it.

That really rubs me the wrong way. I know we are inclined as humans to look for simple solutions. I get that avoiding a food or a group of foods gives us something to focus on, and rules to follow so we can make choices according to the rules. But I think ultimately that approach messes with our heads, and actually forces us to go against our human nature. We are social animals, and we are also pleasure-seekers. If you think of food as something to be restricted, controlled and avoided, you suck all the pleasure out of it. If you’re avoiding one or many foods, how can you share an impromptu meal or accept a gift from a foodie friend? How can you ever stop thinking about food, and obsessing about what you ‘can’t’ have? How do you feel joy when eating?

It seems to me that if you have the discipline to follow a rigid set of dieting rules and avoid particular foods or food groups, you probably have the discipline to be able to eat small servings of a wide variety of healthy and interesting food every day. And you probably have the discipline to enjoy a little of whatever takes your fancy from time to time, and not go crazy or gain weight.

With that in mind, I’ve developed my own ‘rule’ – it’s a criteria for evaluating diets and diet books. Does the diet allow me to eat cheese and crackers, and/or chocolate chip cookies? If the answer to either of those is no, it’s not for me.

First published: May 2013



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