On a summer’s evening, a month or so before I started nutrition school, my guy and I drove out to our favourite old-timey ice cream place. I ordered my usual – a hot caramel sundae with nuts – and since it had been a tough week, hell it had been a tough 30 years, I upgraded my sundae to a size medium even though it was always too much and left me with a stomach ache.
As I sat there eating the ice cream I didn’t even want, ashamed that I was once again overeating, I thought to myself, “when I’m a nutritionist I’ll finally have the perfect diet.”
Thinking back to that time I don’t even know what I thought the perfect diet would be. Was it vegan? Paleo? Completely organic? Surely it involved copious amounts of chia seeds.
Perhaps I thought having the perfect diet would mean never overeating or eating for emotional reasons, and certainly never eating anything that I had classified as “bad” like birthday cake from a grocery store or french fries or packaged foods.
The more I learned about nutrition and the powerful effect food has on the body, the more I wanted to achieve that perfect diet. But the more I reached for perfection, the harder it became to grasp. Just when I’d eliminated one offending food from my diet, I’d learn about something else I should be avoiding. Every Monday I would instate all kinds of food rules only to “break them” by the weekend, which left me feeling like a failure, spiraling into a shame cycle exacerbated by the feeling that I should “know better” than to ever eat sugar or gluten or dairy.
And now here I am. I am a nutritionist and the truth is, I don’t have the perfect diet.
What does my diet look like?
It’s not perfect and that’s no longer the target. It’s eating whatever I want to, whenever I want to. Most of the time that’s big salads and whole grains and smoothies, but it also includes chips and wine on a Friday night, a second helping of birthday cake at a party, pre-made hummus from the grocery store, and even the odd fast food breakfast sandwich if I’m feeling it. I still mostly avoid dairy as I am breastfeeding my daughter who is allergic to cow’s milk, but other than that I no longer have any rules about food.
Letting go of those old ideas of perfection isn’t easy, and it’s something I’m still working through. There are definitely days when I eat too many cookies because I’m anxious or sad or bored, but I’m learning to see it for what it is and just move the fuck on.
So after two years of nutrition school, a year and a half as a Registered Holistic Nutritionist, and 34 as a real life person who eats food, here are a few things I know about the Perfect Diet:
Nutrition science and food trends are always changing. One day a vegan diet is best and the next paleo is where it’s at. The one thing that everyone seems to agree on is the power of plants so I advocate for a plant-based diet — for myself, my family and my clients. Plant-based doesn’t have to mean meat-free, just that the majority of the food that you eat comes from vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, legumes, beans and whole grains. And when you are eating meat or fish, making sure that the bulk of your meal is still plant-y. (For more on this check out my girl Jessica Murnane’s One Part Plant Movement!)
Eat what makes you feel good
You know how you feel when you’ve had a big, hearty salad for lunch and when you’ve had a burger and fries. That’s not to say that the burger is bad, just that it has the potential to make you feel like shit.
Eating well isn’t about self-control, it’s about self-compassion.
To me feeling good means that it’s easy to get out of bed in the morning and I have a steady stream of energy throughout the day. My skin is clear without any eczema flare-ups and my digestion is ticking along without any nasty symptoms. Choosing to eat the foods that help me feel this way is a radical act of self-care.
Yet other times feeling good means just enjoying a meal with family and friends, regardless of what’s on the table!
What you do most of the time matters more than what you do once in a while
And on that note, if you’re eating mostly whole, plant-based foods the majority of the time there’s room for cake. And french fries. And hamburgers. And whatever else it is that you want to eat. A second helping of birthday cake, even if said cake came from Costco, is probably not going to single-handedly unravel your health.
Stress is the worst
An Uber driver once told me, “stress is a silent killer, and the first thing it kills is hope.”
And the second thing it kills is people. Studies have linked almost all major diseases to stress (just Google “[insert major disease] + stress”) so stressing about eating a perfect diet isn’t going to do you any favours. In fact, a recent study showed that stress can override the benefits of healthy eating.
How you eat is just as important as what you eat
One of the first things we learned in nutrition school was literally how to eat. You might think that sounds strange given that you learned to eat when you were a tiny baby, but I know from my own experience and what I see working with clients that many of us have a lot to learn about how to eat.
Eating your toddler’s leftovers while standing over the sink or shoving lunch into your mouth at your desk between conference calls is not the way to eat. When we are stressed it is literally impossible to digest your food because your body thinks it’s danger so who cares about digesting your lunch, it’s just trying to keep the lights on.
To properly digest your food you need to be relaxed and should be sitting at a table, focused on chewing, and in order to recognize and honour your hunger cues, you need to be tuned into the task at hand, not fiddling with a Smartphone or watching TV.
It’s not really about the food
In hindsight, my quest for the perfect diet wasn’t about food at all. It was simply the quest for perfection and to feed my Type A desire to be in control at all times. If I ate the perfect diet then I would have a perfect life and if I had a perfect life then I would finally be happy.
As the wonderful Rachel W. Cole asks, “what are you truly hunger for?”
For something so seemingly simple, food can be so very complicated. As a nutritionist I want to be someone who makes it easier for women to navigate how to eat and how to feel amazing – physically, mentally and emotionally, not more difficult. I am still learning what it means to eat in order to feel amazing on all fronts , but in the meantime, I’m happy to share with you what I know.