When I tell people I’m a nutritionist, they assume I’m a vegetarian who’s chowing down on whole grains and low fat fare. That I’m watching every bite they’re taking and judging their choices. The inevitable jokes about me critiquing their entree selection or their “splurge” at the party. Want to know why that’s not true?
As a fellow human, I’m not perfect. No judgements. Not perfectly gluten free or perfectly sticking to any one plan all the time. I sometimes eat junk food. I have knowingly ingested corn syrup in the past year (past few months, even). I don’t put unreasonable pressure on myself to avoid genetically modified food 100 percent of the time. And as long as we’re being perfectly honest, I get irritated with the “paleo perfection” espoused online. Or any perfection when it comes to what you’re eating (with one caveat explained below).
To be clear, I don’t sit around eating Doritos. I’m not a vegetarian, and I don’t eat low fat (on purpose). I’m sometimes paleo, focusing on meat and plenty of vegetables if I feel my body needs that. Sometimes I’ll go a day or more without meat. I live by the 80-20 rule, and the rule that our body’s needs change all the time, so our diets must be fluid to meet our needs.
What’s the 80-20 rule? 80 percent of the time, I am eating good, clean whole foods that I prepare myself so I know exactly how they’re sourced and what goes into them. You can click here for an example of what I eat in a typical day. My meals are always gluten and dairy free and 50 percent veggies. Usually grain free, though I enjoy rice and quinoa occasionally.
Even though I’m not gluten sensitive, I don’t have gluten-based meals (such as pizza or pasta) because I believe the science that tells us gluten is inflammatory. Too much dairy gives me zits, and I’m sensitive to casein. So my 20 percent is a bite of pizza (though once or twice yearly I will absolutely have a a few slices of a bonafide real gluten and dairy-filled pie), a split dessert, a pot sticker when I go out for dim sum (one of my favorite meals), french fries or sweet potato fries, a bite of lasagne, or whatever else my gluten-eating boyfriend is having. So while my 20 percent won’t involve a gluten and dairy-based meal on a weekly basis, I won’t deny myself a bite of something here and there. I LOVE sweet potato fries, so I often have those when I’m out (or make them at home!).
While I stick to high quality dark chocolate, sometimes I eat candy (gasp). Or a warm chocolate chip cookie from a bakery. Not often since there are so many amazing paleo and healthier treats that don’t include chemicals. The point I’m making here is these items are not the norm for me.
Here’s the thing: Junk food isn’t a staple in my life because it doesn’t make me feel good. I’ve eaten fast food three times in the past 10 years (and you know what, it’s never good!). The Standard America Diet of sandwiches, pasta, processed convenience foods, diet soda and corn syrup is linked with myriad health problems such as diabetes, weight gain, high blood pressure, inflammation. When I fuel myself with clean protein and organic veggies, I feel awesome. I don’t lament that I’m giving up McDonald’s and junk food because I celebrate what I get in return: good health and great energy levels. And honestly, the longer you go without that stuff, the worse it tastes, trust me (I experiment every few years to make sure).
How I Stay on Track
- I focus my energies on what I’m gaining rather than what I’m giving up
- I have a bite of things I don’t regularly eat every once in a while…. just because. And that way I don’t obsess about it.
- 80 percent of the time my diet is clean and balanced in what works for my particular physiology. 20 percent of the time, I splurge (usually on a dessert that may contain gluten and/or dairy)
- I food journal so I know exactly what works for me
- My diet is chock full of superfoods. On any given day I could be including spirulina, green juice, turmeric, coconut oil, bone broth, gelatin, chia seeds, various healing herbal teas and tinctures, and always dark chocolate. These booster foods infuse the body with healing nutrients, and that makes me feel good.
- If I do fall off the wagon hard (happens rarely these days, but it does happen!), I simply move on, maybe do a mini-cleanse to hit the reset button, and make sure I eat extra clean. Yes, you CAN start over tomorrow.
There is a caveat here (sorry). I am not working to heal any major health issues. I don’t have autoimmune disease or major digestive issues like IBS or Crohn’s. These folks do have to be super strict, especially in the beginning, to reduce inflammation and heal the body. I recommend that people with chronic conditions stick strictly to their plan, whether it’s gluten free, an autoimmune protocol or a low FODMAP diet, because even their 20 percent could result in drastic set-backs. But it is possible to loosen the reins once you heal!
I know personally if I get on the gluten and sugar train for too many days in a row, I feel terrible: irritable, inflamed, bloated. Knowing how those foods make me feel helps me avoid going down that path.
Now I’d like to hear from you. How do you stay on track with what you’re eating?
Mary Vance is a Certified Nutrition Consultant and author specializing in digestive health. She combines a science-based approach with natural therapies to rebalance the body. In addition to her 1:1 coaching, she offers courses to help you heal your gut and improve your health. Mary lives in San Francisco and Lake Tahoe in Northern California. Read more about her coaching practice here and her background here.