Are you really what you eat?

In my Utopian nutritional universe, each of us would enjoy healthful, tasty, calorically appropriate meals as a regular part of our daily lives, with occasional splurges on delicious but less-healthful foods. Our overall eating pattern would be healthful, and we would feel nourished, energized and never deprived.
Unfortunately, few people eat this way effortlessly. We don’t eat for physical nourishment most of the time and celebration or indulgence a fraction of the time. That’s because we eat for so many reasons that shouldn’t even be food-related: Stress, emotions, boredom…you know the drill. Or, we don’t have the time or skills to prepare a meal (although, sometimes we just think we don’t have those things), so we start relying on less-healthful fast food and other prepared convenience foods.
On top of all that, we often know that we are not eating in a way that is supporting our health, so we start to feel guilty when we eat chips instead of an apple, or a burger instead of salmon and veggies. If we know we could benefit from losing weight, the bad feelings often intensify when we eat bad food.
“Wait,” you say. “I thought there were no ‘good foods’ and ‘bad foods.”
This was something I touched on a few weeks ago in my Seattle Times column. The whole “good food, bad food” concept is a good idea that’s been gradually twisted into something it shouldn’t be. My feeling is that the concept began because people were beating themselves up about their food choices. No one should beat themselves up over food. If you know you could be making better choices, then put your mental energy into figuring out what you need to do to make healthier choices. Don’t waste that mental energy on self-flagellation. You’re a human being, and human beings are not perfect creatures…nor should they be defined by what they eat.
Ideally,  no food should make you feel good about yourself or bad about yourself, in a mental/emotional/psychological sense. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t label foods as “good” or “bad” in terms of whether they are “good for your health” or “bad for your health.” Let’s face it…a leafy green salad does more for your body than a bowl of ice cream does. But even that notion has a qualifier: Amounts. “Bad” foods don’t really become bad for your health unless you eat too many of them. It comes back to our overall eating pattern. If you eat healthy food most of the time, and have an occasional pastry or cupcake, you still have a healthy, balanced diet. If you eat a lot of leafy greens, you can have an occasional order of French fries and feel free to really enjoy them, instead of thinking “I shouldn’t be eating this” with every bite.
You may have come across references to the “90-10” or “80-20” rule. The idea is that if 80-90 percent of your diet is made up of healthful foods that are rich in nutrients without being too high in calories, that you can do whatever the heck you want with the other 10-20 percent. If you are already in good health and aren’t trying to lose weight, then 80-20 is probably good. If you are trying to improve your health through diet,  or are trying to shed some excess weight, then 90-10 might help you meet your goals. To quote Bethenny Frankel, “You can have it all. Just not all at once.”