“Balance” seems to be the thing that everyone is looking for and few can find. We talk about balance in many facets of life – work, home, family, projects, food, exercise, etc. – and liken finding it to finding the end of a rainbow. “Balance” is difficult to conceptualize because it’s not defined and it looks different for everyone.
Many people think about food in a very dichotomous, black-or-white sort of way: “Potato chips are so bad;” “I’m being good and getting a salad;” “I was bad last night and ate two brownies.” This kind of talk – talk that assigns moral value to food or the eater – indicates to me that a person might have some work to do with their relationship with food. When a person values health and nutrition but comes to realize that the dieting cycle, food restriction, and talking negatively about food and themselves is problematic, it’s natural to go looking for balance. A “balanced” approach to food is a common topic that my clients will talk about, but so many struggle with this idea because there is no definition of “balance.” It’s abstract, elusive, and looks different for every person.
Most of us know what it’s like to feel out of balance. When we go weeks without moving our bodies or days without veggies, we don’t feel as vibrant. On the other hand, being rigid with workout regimens and meal schedules can put a damper on our social lives and the state of our relationships. Rigidity with meals can also backfire: many of my clients binge eat pizza or peanut butter after not “allowing” themselves to have those foods for several days or weeks. I know many people who follow a “diet” or “eat healthy” for a few days but find their choices are not sustainable and they quickly fall back into a routine that involves daily fast food runs. This confirms the importance of balance but also poses the question: how do we get there?
I like to use this description: Balance is the act of nourishing your body with the things it needs – macronutrients, vitamins, minerals, water – in appropriate and adequate amounts while also enjoying foods that nourish your soul. I believe that complete self-nourishment involves three things: 1) giving your body high-quality, nutritious foods because your body is your home and you care about its health and functioning, 2) honoring food cravings, even if those craved foods are not conventionally considered “healthy,” and 3) enjoyment of all food without guilt or self-depricating thoughts. It is important to recognize that “balance” for you might look different than “balance” for your friend, your sister, or your coach.
If you struggle with bouncing between “I’ve resolved to eat healthy” and “Screw it, I want to eat convenient things that taste good, ” try out these five tips for finding better balance with food:
- Be honest with yourself. Make a list of your favorite foods and make sure you include in your diet the ones that are most enjoyable for you. Try this exercise: Take 5 minutes to set aside judgments about food and yourself and make a list of all the foods you truly enjoy. Include things you love that provide lots of nutrients and things you love that just taste good. Make 3 columns labeled “1,” “2,” and “3” and divide the foods you wrote down between these columns based on how much you enjoy them, 1 being most enjoyed and 3 being less enjoyed. Find ways to work your “high priority” foods into your life in a reasonable way to help satisfy cravings while still enjoying foods that provide high-quality nutrition. For example, if you love chocolate and find yourself craving it daily, find a way to have chocolate daily. This doesn’t mean you have to eat a huge bowl of chocolate ice cream every day; maybe a ½ cup serving is enough to satisfy you. Or if you love creamy pasta, set aside one evening per week to cook and enjoy fetuccini alfredo with someone you like spending time with. I believe that when people consistently honor their cravings in some way instead of restricting, those cravings become less intense and easier to manage, it’s easier to continue eating a diet high in nutrient-dense foods, and it’s easier to practice healthy restraint when you aren’t hungry or aren’t experiencing a craving. So make room for what you like!
- Eat the real thing. There’s nothing worse than wanting chocolate cake but making the “healthy” choice and going for a piece of dark chocolate instead, and doing so might only intensify that chocolate craving. When a craving hits, eat a reasonable portion of what you really want (chocolate cake), then move on with your day. Remember that this “treat” is a small portion of your daily food intake, and you’ll have plenty of other opportunities to nourish yourself with foods high in nutritional value.
- Define it. Some people work best with a plan and might benefit from trying to better define what they want “balance” to look like in their own life. Many people use the 80/20 concept to define balance: 80% of your diet/calories consists of nutritious, sustaining foods, and the other 20% is for flexibility and fun. I don’t believe that 80/20 is a magical ratio, but perhaps using it as a starting point can help you find the ratio that works for your lifestyle. The important part is the basic concept: most of your diet should be nutritious foods, and there is a place for fun, tasty foods as well.
- Check your mindset. I’ve worked with many clients who are very self-critical of their food intake, and they stay focused on the cookie they ate yesterday rather than remembering the nutrient-rich breakfast they had this morning. Don’t get caught up in the indulgences and forget about the nutritious foods you’re giving yourself. If you suspect this is your pattern, a food log might help you keep all parts of your diet in mind.
- Cut yourself some slack. Over-eating at one meal or going “over” your definition of balance one day will not – I repeat, will NOT – make a difference in your life, your weight, or your health. The only difference it could make is in the way you think about yourself, and you have the power to fight against self-critical thoughts. Don’t go to extremes after over-indulging by ramping up exercise or restricting your food the next day. Also watch out for the “I’ve already blown it, so I might as well eat everything I want” mentality. No one ever found balance by taking any of those routes. Recognize what happened, mentally turn the page, and get back to your balanced, healthy lifestyle right away.
One of the most helpful things a person can do to to improve their relationship with food is to work with a dietitian who can help find better balance. If you’ve tried different techniques and you’re still struggling with the yo-yo dieting cycle, contact me!
What do you do in your own life to promote better balance? I’d love to hear your ideas – comment below!