Food Anxiety: Should I Eat This?

Thanks to all of the conflicting information out there about proper nutrition the question ‘what would you like to eat?’ has become loaded, to say the least. It has become so loaded that the intense turmoil following such inquiries has become the subject of many hilarious internet memes. I won’t post any here since I have no idea who to credit but if you need a laugh search for the YouTube video ‘Every Time I Ask My Girl What She Wants to Eat’.

As one matures, and health and weight management becomes more of a priority, what was once a question that could be answered based on hunger, preference, and availability is now closely followed by an even more menacing question “should I eat this?”

It is at this juncture during the process of meal selection that food anxieties can take hold especially when considering food options that have been deemed as something ‘dirty’, ‘fattening’ or ‘junk’.  There is new pressure to the decision that is usually accompanied by fearful thoughts such as:

Am I allowed to eat this?

Is this toxic for my body?

Is this going to poke holes in my gut?

Is this going to make me fat?

If someone sees me eating this are they going to judge me?

Am I undedicated if I indulge in this?

Depending on the individual the need to make the right or healthy choice can be so strong that the fear of consuming anything that isn’t deemed as “clean” can push them to lose the plot entirely and avoid eating altogether. Or, some end up eating the foods that have been labeled as off-limits, whether due to cravings or lack of other options, and end up feeling so guilty that they compensate with extra exercise or purging the food via self-induced vomiting or laxative abuse. In less extreme cases their day is simply ruined, which is bad enough, and it may or may not result in an all out eating fest since all is lost anyways. All of this because someone convinced us that certain foods are ok and other foods are plain bad.

This is a lot of unnecessary fear and stress around something that should be an enjoyable experience, or at least a less exhausting one. We’ve all heard the reassuring expression, “everything in moderation” but even figuring out what embodies moderation can be a frustrating endeavor for those who, yet again, just want to get it right and eat the right foods. We’re so desperate to get the green light on our food choices yet it seems as though everywhere we turn there is a big red warning sign about every food imaginable.

What really is the right choice? As a coach, I am often asked this by clients who are eager to know what foods they should be eating in order to manage their weight. Since we base our nutritional programming off of calorie manipulation my answer is always some form of…

“No foods are inherently ‘off limits’ unless you are allergic to it. Throughout your day aim to include a variety of foods that are mostly nutritious and/or don’t put you over your daily calorie targets.”

Yes, this may be an over-simplification but these are the big picture guidelines that I feel are enough to steer an individual down the path towards comparatively effortless moderation, which can be liberating.  If you are not into calorie tracking this can be rephrased to…

“No foods are truly ‘off limits’ unless you are allergic to it. Throughout your day aim to include a variety of foods that are mostly nutritious while still making allowances for foods that you simply enjoy, within reason*.”

 *I understand that ‘within reason’ is subjective and so what I feel to be sensible reasoning will be outlined as you read on.

Whether health, performance, body composition, weight management, or a combination of the four is your priority, I honestly feel that managing one’s food selection within these basic guidelines can be enough to allow a person to live their life freely while simultaneously making progress towards his or her goals.

Over the years I have encountered countless forms of the question “should I eat this?” from clients, friends, and family members that I am a little embarrassed that it has taken me this long to put together an objective process of deliberation for those who need help filtering out the noise about their food choices. It is a process of deliberation that I developed gradually for myself as I learned more about nutrition and its complex, yet surprisingly straightforward, requirements. This process of deliberation focuses on what I feel are the essential questions to ponder when deciding “should I eat this?”, whether one is a casual dieter or competitive athlete, even in aesthetic sports such as bodybuilding. I have illustrated my approach in the flowchart below.

Should I Eat This

One can take things a step further by deliberating if the food in question will put your macronutrients in a favourable ratio but, quite frankly, I am of the opinion that so long as one is meeting the minimum requirements for protein and fats then you can afford to turn a blind eye to your macros when making your decision. It is really not the end of the world or your progress if you do. It’s also worth noting that I use the exact same deliberation process during times where I am not tracking calories and simply skip over the last question.

After years of agonizing over my need to flawlessly adhere to the perfect, healthy, diet I have come to believe that the only dietary perfection is balance. Though food science continues to bring forward new information on subtle tweaks that can be made to optimize one’s diet, those small tweaks should not take precedence over the big picture, especially when the goal is to repair your relationship with eating. Though this is not a substitute for professional guidance when dealing with intense food anxieties, I can say that when adopting this approach to managing my eating I made significant strides towards finding balance and a more objective perspective on food.

More from the Food Anxiety Series:

Food Anxiety: How the ‘Good Food/Bad Food’ Mentality Could Be Affecting Your Brain

Food Anxiety: How to Overcome My Food Anxiety?

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