Quick note before we start: When I use the word diet in reference to the way in which one consumes food, I’m referring to the types of food that a person eats habitually, as opposed to the act of restricting food. Additionally, I hold no judgment whatsoever in regards to the way anyone eats. How one eats is no one’s business but their own, and I love seeing people eat in a way that makes them feel amazing no matter what label might be attached to that if it works for them. However, I had to put some of these thoughts down to voice my opinion on the power labels can have over us and when they can create a negative experience or relationship with food.
I’ve been thinking a lot about labels lately. Labels on food, labelling the way people eat with a particular name or trend, and the way these labels change how we view a particular food or even a person with a simple word or two. We are inundated daily with information about food and everyone has an opinion on the right and the wrong way to eat, prepare, cook and consume food. Using specific labels to describe the way one eats is a very personal choice, and there are many reasons why someone may choose a label for the way they eat, such as vegan, pescaratian, vegetarian, or paleo to name a handful.
This can be a very divisive issue for many, and these labels can provide a sense of structure for some people in the way they eat, or it could be for moral or health reasons. Regardless of the reason, there can be an ugly side to all these labels and that can include both misinformation and judgement of the way others eat. Let’s take a closer look at the various kinds of labels and what they can mean for you.
Watch for Marketing
Natural, organic or gluten-free listed on the label of a pre-packaged processed food does not mean it’s healthy. Yes, often organic ingredients are preferable in many instances, but using organic or gluten-free ingredients to make a packaged doughnut full of (also organic) preservatives is not the best choice to make, and it terms of your health, it isn’t going to give your body any more nutrition than the conventional doughnut next to it.
We also need to tread carefully when we see the term “natural” on food labels. Sometimes buzzwords are slapped on a label to make it sound more appealing according to the current popular trends. Many of these words are not tightly regulated and can be misleading to consumers trying to make healthy choices in the grocery store. It comes down to marketing, and the word “natural” is there to make it seem as though the food is quite literally bringer our meal and the way we eat closer to nature, banking on the fact that we know instinctively that this is best for our bodies, even when we don’t eat that way all the time. My general rule of thumb is that if the manufacturer had to label the food as “natural,” it’s obviously no longer in its’ whole and healthiest state to begin with and may not be the best choice.
Pre-packaged foods sometimes are totally fine of course, but not necessarily the best route to go for your digestion, hormonal health and overall wellness. I believe in whole, unprocessed foods, but I also believe it doing the best that you can and that sometimes a meal is going to need to be good enough on days when you run out of time to cook or grab something quickly on the go.
Surfing the Trends
In the past few years eating “clean” has become another mainstream phrase that is meant to guide us to eat in a more healthful manner and places focus on fresh, whole foods. While I support the general idea behind “clean” eating, I do not agree with using this kind of terminology to describe food, because the word itself implies automatic judgment. Does it mean that food locally sourced from a farmer but not legally certified organic is not worth eating? Or that the apple pie baked by your grandmother with sugar, flour, butter and lots of love is somehow dirty?
Many people measure foods with varying parameters on the scaling of “clean” food as well, which often results in a wide range of definitions and results. It’s entirely possible to be mindful of what we consume without mentally classifying food as clean. Because what is the other option? Eating food that we consider to be dirty?
Similarly, labels for various diets like vegan, paleo, Atkins and a wide range of other ways of eating do not necessarily equal health. Each of these types of diets might be a great fit for some people, but for others it might be the best choice for their healthiest self. We are all genetically unique individuals and therefore our bodies have differing requirements.
I used to work as a bartender while I was putting myself through university and even a few years afterwards for some extra money. There was a private event I was working one night, and the party wrapped up around 3am. As we were cleaning up and guests were leaving, the host invited us to take whatever we wanted of the remaining food. Since my girlfriends and I had last eaten around dinnertime hours prior, we were FAMISHED, so took advantage of the offer and helped ourselves.
At this stage in my life nutritionally, I ate relatively well most of the time but was still prone to significant junk-food binges anytime the oppourtunity presented itself and the food was readily available in front of me. As we were grabbing some food, I remember one of my girlfriends pointing to the plate of Oreos left behind and telling me that they were vegan. Despite being aware that Oreos were high in sugar and still not the healthiest food on the planet, somehow the label of vegan attached to them somehow made it seem in my head as though it gave me permission to eat an enormous pile of them that night, because hey, they’re vegan! (For the record, while Oreos technically have a vegan ingredient list, the manufacturers’ website mentions that there could be cross-contact with milk products)
To be clear, I’m in no way shaming or judging a vegan way of eating, or any other way you may or may not choose to eat. For some people, consuming a strict diet under a certain label might be the best act of self-care they can choose for their bodies and their health. Others might fare differently. There is no right or wrong way of eating, only what is best for you and makes you feel your absolute best.
Manage expectations of yourself and others
It bothers me when I see any particular way of eating being attacked, on social media or in person, and it can create an enormous amount of shame and stress around food. This is so unnecessary and hurtful, and many people already struggle to determine what to eat and what works the best for their bodies. Why are we making it even more difficult?
As Brene Brown says, shame cannot survive being spoken out loud. When we judge others, it’s usually a reflection of our own internal fears or insecurities.
We need to find a way to eat healthfully in a manner that works for us and for our bodies (#DesignYourOwnDiet), and to accept that as what our body requires. Continuing to eat a certain diet even if you don’t feel your best but because you are attached to the label is something that needs to change.
Just as I’m a big fan of embracing physical, emotional and mental imperfections, we also need to embrace that what our bodies need may not always be what our minds want.
I have news for you. A food being vegan does not mean it is healthy. This also applies to paleo. And vegetarian, pescatarian, gluten-free and any other label that applies to the way in which one eats.
To me, holistic nutrition and health is about creating optimal digestion and balance for each individual. This means that there are rarely black and white answers or guidelines that apply across the board. All of us are genetically unique and creating a plan to work with each individual is the key to success, because a good coach meets people where they are at. Be sure to get in touch if you would like to speak more about a free consultation!
This post is already getting lengthy, but I do plan on discussing the actual nutrition labels on packaged foods in the near future and how best to read them and determine what would be a good fit for you. I could go on about this stuff all day long!
I would love it if you would hashtag #DesignYourOwnDiet on social media. Show me what you are eating, what’s making you feel amazing and how you’re designing your plate without labels!