Redefining Healthy Eating: It’s Not What You Think


This post is part of Healthy Weight Week. This week is meant to help change the conversation around weight during the third week in January. That’s when New Year diets, cleanses, and “new you” efforts start to fall by the wayside because they’re, well, impossible to sustain.

Join us all week for a look at how you can put the fundamental elements of healthy living in place in your life for the long term.

Welcome to a liberating approach free of food fears, punishing exercise and negative thoughts about your body! Welcome to life!

Whether you’re on Facebook, Twitter, Huffington Post or the gazillions of other media outlets that love to talk about what you should eat, you’re likely seeing lots of articles these days about the dangers of sugar.

On the other hand, fat is the new healthy eating darling, even though it was verboten a few years ago.

Grains waver between being sugar under another name or a food that’s critical to your health.

Bacon is a “bad” food but if you like it, go for it. Just eat blueberries every day to prevent the cancer bacon might cause. But maybe acai berries would be a better choice.

Confused? You’re not alone.

When we ask women we work with to define “healthy eating”, their answers reflect all the hype about healthy eating and the confusion that goes along with it.

But commonly, they also reflect the belief that healthy eating is about diet rules. Rules that we as a population learned from the over 60+ years that dieting has been in vogue.

You know those rules: Eat lots of fruits and vegetables. Skip the desserts. Go low-carb. Always eat small portions.

Even people who say they don’t diet try to live by them. Yet the all-too-common outcome is the belief that healthy eating is bland, boring and restrictive. No wonder so many people struggle with it.

Eating “Healthy” to Control Weight Usually Causes Weight Gain

A new year provides the perfect example of the problem with this way of looking at healthy eating. After a few weeks (days?) of “healthy” eating, it gets boring and leads to craving “forbidden” foods – the ones that contain sugar, usually.

Eventually you succumb to the craving and indulge – and likely overindulge, because the mindset becomes, “well I’ve already blown it so I might as well eat the whole thing,” or, “I am going to eat it all now because tomorrow I’m going to be good again.”

The worst part is, rarely can you even enjoy the food you’ve decided to indulge in because you are so overcome with guilt and shame about the choice you just made, how you’ve failed again, and how you just don’t seem to have the willpower to “eat right.”

Sometimes (often?), you just throw your hands up and say, “I give up,” because it all just seems SO hard.

So What’s a Real Definition for Truly “Healthy Eating”?

The hyper focus on “good” and “bad” foods, and the typical misunderstanding of healthy eating, neglects to include one KEY FUNCTION of eating – PLEASURE!

Of course, it’s important to include lots of whole, nutritious foods in our diet. But it’s equally important to include foods that we enjoy!

So, we encourage you to think about healthy eating as a way to feel good. And that means to aim to balance eating for health with eating for pleasure. That is, include foods that contain the fuel and nutrients your body needs without sacrificing eating enjoyment.

Here’s our definition: Healthy Eating is Pleasurable Eating that Feels Good in the Moment and Afterward.

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7 Tips for Truly Healthy & Mindful Eating

1 Tune into your internal hunger and satiety cues

When you find yourself wanting to eat, first check in and assess your hunger level. This will help you to determine if you want to eat because you are physically hungry or some other factor is in play.

If it is physical hunger, knowing how hungry you feel will also help you to determine the amount of food you may need in order to feel satisfied. For example, are you hungry for a snack, or do you need a whole meal?

If you are not physically hungry, but still want to eat, this is good information that something else is triggering that desire (e.g., are you feeling emotional, or just passing by the bakery). You can then further explore your options for resolving that situation (which may still include eating!).

 2 Consider what you want to eat

Take the time to evaluate your food options and decide what food(s) would best satisfy you.

What would taste the best to you?

What would be most effective for satisfying your hunger level?

Is there anything you feel like you haven’t gotten enough of lately?

How will the foods you are considering make you feel? 

The key here is giving yourself permission to eat whatever you want, and allowing yourself the space to decide what will meet your needs and help you feel your best without being bound by rules and restrictions.

3 Find balance in your meals

Your body can tell you what it needs to feel best if you know how to listen. But many of us aren’t there right now because of all the “healthy” eating we’ve been attempting that has thrown our body out of balance.

If that’s you, consider including a source of carbohydrate, fiber, protein, and fat at most meals. You can do this by including a fruit or vegetable, starchy food such as potatoes, rice or bread, and protein food such as fish, poultry, meat, or legumes. Meals that include these nutrients can help stabilize out-of-balance appetite regulatory systems.

The Green Mountain Guide to Supportive Eating provides a template that can help you practice this way of eating. Notice that there is a space for fun foods, because foods eaten solely for the purpose of pleasure are part of a balanced diet and fit into a health-supportive eating plan.

That said, this is not a rigid prescription for how to eat.

It provides just enough structure to help those of us who feel completely overwhelmed with the idea of healthy eating to get started. But there’s plenty of flexibility to adapt it to meet our individual needs.

4 Eat a variety of foods

Variety means choosing plenty of different foods from within each food group.

From a nutrition perspective: This helps ensure you get a wide variety of nutrients. We encourage you to eat from the rainbow because different colored fruits and vegetables contain different nutrients.

From a satisfaction perspective: Variety helps prevent boredom. If we don’t enjoy the foods we’re eating, we’re left wanting something more at the end of a meal, even if we aren’t physically hungry.

This can lead to eating more than you really need.

Tip: If you find that your diet is fairly monotonous, try experimenting 1-2 new foods, recipes, or ingredients each week. This way, you can begin to expand your list of food selections without stepping too far outside of your comfort zone.

5 Remain present throughout the eating process

Make each eating occasion a full sensory experience – appreciate the colors, textures, flavors, and aromas of each dish.

As you take each bite, focus on how the food feels and tastes in your mouth. Chew slowly and thoughtfully. Allow yourself to completely savor the current bite before deciding what bite will be next. It can help to put your fork or spoon down between bites.

About halfway through your meal, pause to re-check your hunger level. How do you feel? How much more food do you need to feel satisfied? Sometimes this will mean going back for seconds and sometimes it will mean leaving food on your plate.

Then, check in at the end of the meal and again 5-10 minutes later.

By frequently tuning into your body’s hunger cues, you will begin to understand how you feel when you’ve had enough food to be satisfied.

Slowing your pace of eating and assessing your hunger level frequently also allows you to more easily register feelings of fullness before eating to the point of being too full.

Moreover, you’re likely to feel more satisfied, even if you consume less food, because you savored each bite.

Remember, even the most mindful eater sometimes eats mindlessly. This isn’t about being perfect but about practicing. Eventually, it becomes second nature to eat this way most of the time.

6 Eat in moderation (but not the way you think)

Instead of thinking of moderation in terms of setting limits on how much you can have, think about it in terms of giving yourself permission to include foods that, perhaps, in the past you have not.

Therefore, moderation is not about restriction. It’s about embracing an all-foods-fit mindset and not depriving yourself of any food that brings you true pleasure.

7 Enjoy!

Enjoyment isn’t just about pleasure. It also relaxes the body and that helps you digest, absorb and metabolize the nutrients you do get from healthy eating. It’s about getting the biggest bang for your buck.

As you continue this new year, remember that the healthiest diet for you is the one that you truly enjoy both while you are eating and after you get up from the table. You don’t feel bored or deprived with your food, and you feel energized and ready to meet the rest of your day or night.

Food is one of the greatest pleasures of life and pleasure is good medicine!

Stay tuned for the rest of Healthy Weight Week!

Visit our Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to find and share memes, videos, and infographics. Also, be sure to check back here each day this week for blog posts about components of achieving and sustaining your healthy weight.

What’s one thing you can practice today to eat in a truly healthy and mindful way?

3 responses to “Redefining Healthy Eating: It’s Not What You Think”

  1. Have you seen the Lean Cuisine “diet” filter for Google Chrome? I think it’s just one more way to make the word a negative. Ugh! I hate the January food talk and all the negatives that go with it. Why can’t we just eat to live? I think that’s what a “healthy diet” is all about.

  2. Karen says:

    All of this information is like drinking out of a firehouse! I think I will start by concentrating on one thing each week as I develop new habits. Integrate them one at a time.

    • Shiri Macri says:

      Sounds like a really good idea, Karen. Some people like to jump into everything, and others like to go one step at a time. It sounds like you know yourself, and one step at a time is the right way for you. And this can be a great way to develop good habits.
      Wishing you well

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About the Author

Dana Notte, MS, RD, CD

Dana has dedicated her career to helping individuals establish a balanced and healthy relationship with food. She has extensive training and experience in coaching for behavior change, mindful eating, and motivational interviewing. Dana has spent years leading group-based behavior change classes, developing and leading interactive workshops for worksite wellness programs, and providing nutrition counseling to individuals struggling with eating, weight, and chronic health conditions. Her practice style is client-centered, compassionate and empowering, with the goal of helping individuals develop the confidence to achieve their health and wellness goals. Dana is the Nutrition Lead at Green Mountain at Fox Run.

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