What does being healthy really mean? Is healthy running daily and eating a balanced diet? Is it practicing yoga, meditation and mindfulness while eating vegetarian? Is it swinging from one diet to another, trying to squeeze in a walk or two into a packed workweek? Is it weighing yourself daily making sure you stay within your range? Is it never eating out and eating all of your meals at home? Is it not drinking and banishing all adult beverages?
Twice a week I coach sixteen amazing young girls. I have the honor and privilege to be a coach for Girls on the Run this fall. The other coaches and I teach the girls valuable life lessons like how to be an independent thinker, positive body image, how to combat negative self-talk and even how to eat healthy and fuel our bodies appropriately. Just today it was said by a coach, “M&Ms are bad,” as she said that I couldn’t help but flinch. (SideBar Convo: This coach is an incredible mother, athlete and coach, one to whom I very much look up to. I actually requested to be on her team specifically because I admire her so much. Her statement today just got my wheels turning.) I feel we are not doing our girls justice by teaching them M&Ms and ice cream are ‘bad’ and lettuce and veggies are ‘good’. I’ve been to enough nutritionist appointments to know that you should never label a food ‘good’ or ‘bad’. In fact, one of the most effective exercises I ever did in treatment was during Nutrition Group. Our nutritionist handed out blank sheets of paper and instructed us to write down every “Food Rule” we ever had. These were the rules we lived and died by…these were the rules we (as eating disorder sufferers) deemed a ‘healthy’ lifestyle. We all spent a solid twenty minutes ferociously writing all of our ED rules. Papers were filling up by the minute and some girls took four and five pages front and back. I was no exception. Afterwards, we sat and dispelled every rule with our extraordinary nutritionist (whom, it should be noted, restored my faith in the profession. Prior to meeting her, I thought all nutritionists were full of shit.) Together we sat in the group room and broke down every rule and lie our disorders had us believe. Looking back now, I don’t know how I survived so long with such absurd rules. How did I convince myself that my rules were a ‘healthy’ way to live? I thought being healthy meant eating under a certain number of insanely low calories and working out everyday…and if I didn’t do that then I had failed at being ‘healthy’. Obviously, my standards of health were skewed and very distorted, but as I continue on my recovery journey I am discovering that our society’s ideas of health are also skewed and distorted.
Today, I find myself in the minority: I do not diet. I do not berate my body. I do not obsess about workouts. For me, healthy means balance. It means moderation. I don’t live in the black and white world of ‘good’ vs. ‘bad’ food. I can’t live in that world. It would be a slippery slope back into the grips of my eating disorder. In a weird way, I consider myself lucky for having the experience I’ve had. It gives me the upper hand on combating the thousands of negative, self-hate messages the media and society throw at me everyday. My eating disorder robbed me of all hunger cues, satiety signals and even what it felt like to crave a certain food. ED literally rendered me numb. It took me a year and a half of outpatient treatment, three months of residential treatment and a pregnancy to learn how to eat again. Treatment taught my body what it felt like to eat three meals and two snacks a day. It taught me what portion sizes actually look like, not what my distorted brain thought they looked like. Our passionate house chef showed us all what a joy it could be to cook and eat food. Her enthusiasm still seeps into my kitchen even today. When I returned home, my pregnancy taught me what it was like to not just crave food, but to actually give my body what it was telling me it needed. I suddenly realized that those ‘crazy’ nutritionists were right all along: If you allow your body to have what it truly wants then it will never lead you wrong. Some days it is burgers and fries and some days it is a big salad loaded with veggies. Some days it wants to run and move; other days your body needs rest and pampering. Your body never lies, but more often than not we are deaf to its call.
So what if we threw all diet rules and plans out the window? For the most part, we all know what is healthy and good for us. What if we just listened to our bodies and stopped depriving them of what they wanted? Now, I am not saying everyone go eat burgers and milkshakes…far from it. What I’m suggesting is that if you let yourself have that occasional milkshake then you won’t feel deprived. You won’t feel like you are stranded on the island of diet misfits. I’m saying this not because I’m some educated expert, I am saying this because I have lived it. I am living proof that listening to your body works.
I am well aware of the growing childhood obesity epidemic plaguing our country and I will be the first one to teach young ones about healthy eating and fueling our bodies appropriately. But we need to empower our young ones with all the information they need to learn how to eat…as well as what to eat. And that means a diet in balanced moderation. It means a world where we unplug, turn off the TVs and go outside with our kids. It means sitting down at a dinner table and talking about each other’s days. Healthy goes beyond food and drink…healthy encompasses all: body, mind and spirit. This is what I hope to pass on to my Girls on the Run team. My wish is that they cross the 5k finish line in December with confidence in their step, knowledge in their head and joy in their heart…because at the end of the day if your heart is happy isn’t that what real health is all about?