Why I’ve Given Up on Being Neurotic About Healthy Eating

Healthy EatingI like to think I’m a card-carrying advocate for “Put Only Healthy Stuff in Your Mouth.” I’ve tried to practice what I preach when it comes to breakfast on-the-go, desk-side snacks, food court temptations at the mall, healthy lunches, dinners and late-night fridge-raiding.

Some of my primary beliefs? Eat whole foods as often as you possibly can. Avoid processed foods and anything you suspect may have been deep-fried. Fresh fruit is wonderful, but make a play for more vegetables in your meals for all those protective antioxidants and other nutrients.

My mantra (or “dictatorship,” as my husband sometimes complains) includes staying away from red meat—except for a fantastic steak on rare occasion—and opting for more plant-based protein, like tofu, beansand more beans.

In fact, for the past couple of years, I’ve come to realize I’ve been obsessing about finding alternative ways to get sufficient protein, without falling back on meat and poultry. I was devastated when I thought I’d landed an amazing vegetarian burger recipe with kidney beans. It was time-consuming to prepare but sounded delicious. They turned out a little soggy and unexplainably bland. I was on the brink of tears.

I have a go-to lunch salad that a friend told me about years ago and I still love. Basic black beans with feta, red or yellow bell peppers, and sliced green olives dressed with olive oil and a little balsamic or red wine vinegar, sea salt and whatever fresh herb I have on hand. Earlier this year, I went for a month, making a batch weekly and eating it for lunch each workday. That’s a lot of bean salad.

But beans are not for everybody. I tended to be discreetly gassy most afternoons.

I have my five-year-old son following a similar regimen, with a fast-food burger and lollipop on the menu at rare times, but when I took him to see his pediatrician, we had an interesting conversation.

He asked me if I was vegetarian. I said I used to be, but no longer, although I try to have a lot of plant proteins. He said most North Americans do not have the constitution for a diet that doesn’t include some animal flesh, and I should give my son some quality beef and pork, in addition to the hummus he was eating regularly. Hummus, if you haven’t tried it, is made from chickpeas with tahini, garlic and lemon. In other words, it’s beans.

He said that while other cultures have generations of experience with a diet of vegetarian staples, my meat-and-potato heritage deserves some acknowledgement when it comes to my dietary habits. Duly noted.

I’m going to take his advice, continuing to eat small portions to avoid any creeping weight, but adding in some quality red meat and more fish for my family.

To be honest, I’ve been more stressed than usual, and more tired and cranky. Is that so surprising for any working mom? Maybe not, but I think my determination to eat well has made me neurotic about healthy eating.

Nutritional deficiencies for people avoiding animal protein are real dangers: Vitamin B12, omega 3s, iron and zinc deficiencies are all possible, and could be making me more fatigued and run-down than I realize.

I’m stressed. I may be subjecting myself to more stress by trying to avoid poor food and eating more than my body really needs. Studies have shown the stress of dieting can be enough to prevent an eating regime from delivering results. Too much of the “fight or flight” stress hormone, cortisol, can weaken your immune system, increase your blood pressure and lead to that harmful abdominal fat that puts you at risk for heart attack and stroke.

So I’m sure the stress of trying to eat right to achieve glowing good health can cause stress-related illness and disease. The irony, right?

New research by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine has found that not coping well with stress sets you up for insomnia—something that I suffer from on and off. Lack of proper sleep, in turn, has been linked to weight gain, heart disease and compromised immunity.

I’ve gone overboard with my good intentions. Now I’m making an effort to change my ways, eating more animal protein and less empty calorie sweets (that I often devour in moments of stress). Author and food purist Michael Pollen says it best: Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.

Yes, everything in moderation. My family will be happier, too.

Tomiyama, A.J., et al, “Low calorie dieting increases cortisol,” Psychosomatic Medicine, May 2010; doi: 10.1097/PSY.0b013e3181d9523c.
Pillai, V., et al., “Moderators and Mediators of the Relationship Between Stress and Insomnia: Stressor Chronicity, Cognitive Intrusion, and Coping,” SLEEP 2014; doi: 10.5665/sleep.3838.