There Is No Such Thing As A Perfect Diet
Updated: Apr 22
And so trying to attain such a non-existent thing is futile.
Even though the media and "wellness" influencers have built their instagram empires on "helping" you achieve a perfect diet, turns out it is not only impossible to achieve said "perfect diet" but that it doesn't exist in the first place. We have absolutely no evidence that eating only "clean" foods will help you live a healthier life or prevent you from getting sick or developing disease. (I'm using quotation marks to denote terms that are widely accepted as true but are total bs). What we do know, is that having unrealistic expectations for yourself and trying like hell to strictly follow a diet (which, lets be clear, "clean eating" is definitely a diet when followed to a T) is more likely to cause feelings of failure, rebound eating, damaged body image, and weight gain. I'm not saying weight gain is bad, just that a lot of folks who decide to follow strict food rules do so to lose weight. And when their bodies get sick of being hungry, they retaliate by increasing hunger and desire for food, out of control eating, resulting in weight gain. A relentless and painful cycle.
One major thought process in charge here is the idea that your food choices can, and should, be perfect. This goal is unattainable for many reasons.
First, the thought process is flawed. Perfectionist goals about food and wellness in general, lead to what we call "dichotomous thinking", or black-and-white thinking. You'll recognize this type of thinking when something appears to have only two options - ALL or NOTHING, both of which are difficult to live with. For example, deciding you will not eat any sugar at all and not keep any in your house. The problem here isn't the sugar, but the "off limits" allure created with a strict NONE rule. In terms of dieting, this type of restriction can be maintained for a while, but not forever. Us humans have such a hard time with arbitrary rules. When something is withheld from us, eventually it ends up invading our thoughts constantly. "I can't eat sugar. I can't eat sugar. I can't eat sugar....", until eventually you decide you've had enough, and you eat sugar. And then you feel like you can't stop eating sugar, you feel like you're "addicted". But the problem isn't that you're a sugar addict, but that you were absolute in depriving yourself of it. So your body and mind rebounded by going overboard. As a side note, there is really no such thing as food addiction even though it is used constantly in the media and even in health literature.
Second, from a health and nutrition standpoint, there is NO NEED to have a "perfect" diet. There is no research that proves that eating all "clean" foods or completely avoiding processed food is better for your health. It is true that low fiber diets are correlated with higher risk of chronic disease, but you can still eat enough fiber and eat ice cream and white pasta. See my point? And isn't that a relief? You can be just as healthy if you allow yourself to eat cake and have pasta sometimes, thank goodness! If you're thinking - yeah, but I'll gain weight if I eat those foods, then this message is especially important for you. Actually, stressing and beating yourself up about your food choices is more harmful than any "junk" food. Here's some great research on flexible eating, and an article by Anti-Diet author Christy Harrison.
The antidote to this type of perfectionist thinking is going for the grey.
Find a place in between all or nothing. This will likely seem difficult at first, if you're used to the all or nothing mindset, and so many of us are these days. But if you continue to aim in between these two extremes, your body will eventually calm down and trust that you won't be starving or depriving it anymore and it will settle on, for example, an amount of sugar that feels healthy and fun and peaceful, so you don't need to have a rule that you cannot have it.
The same goes for all sorts of food. Pasta is a great example. A lot of folks come to me with strict rules about pasta and bread. They do not eat these foods because they are "bad" and will "make them fat". Often they've even convinced themselves they have a gluten intolerance or that eating these foods is addicting. I run them through these concepts: it is likely the "all or nothing" mindset has tricked you into believing you cannot be trusted around pasta. If you allow pasta back into your life, make it when you want, and enjoy it thoroughly, it looses it's glittery status and just becomes another food that you eat. Without the shame spiral, self loathing, and disappointment that come with aiming for unattainable food perfection, you may end up wanting pasta way less than you thought you did.
There is no better time to loosen up on your perfectionist thinking than right now, in the middle of this pandemic. Comfort foods are called comfort foods for a reason - they are comforting! It's okay to eat these things, to enjoy them, and to let them comfort you, no matter what they are. If you allow them to make you feel good, and then really sit with your feelings of being comforted, you are less likely to demonize this food choice, and rather appreciate it for what it is, and move on with your life. Once you let your perfectionist thinking go, you can make wiser food choices. You can combine things like pasta and kale and a can of beans to make an utterly delicious (and highly nutritious) meal. Nope, not using whole wheat pasta.
Speaking of, a favorite recipe of mine for when I bought kale but never used it, and all the other produce was gone, and going to the store seemed silly and irresponsible.
Pasta With Lentils And Kale
adapted from Epicurious
1 head kale (preferably lacinato, but the curly kind works too)
2 small-medium yellow onions, diced small
2 cups dried pasta - a small shape like penne works great, but anything will do
1/2 cup dried lentils - green or French lentils work best
salt, pepper, olive oil
Heat large sauté pan on medium-high and heat 3 tablespoons of olive oil. Add chopped onion and season with 1/2 teaspoon each of salt and pepper. Stir to coat. After 1 minute, reduce heat to low, cover, and cook for about 30 minutes. The caramelized onions are the key to this recipe, so don't skimp on timing if you can. While onion cooks, start lentils.
Add 1/2 cup lentils and 2 cups water to a small saucepan. Once water boils, reduce heat to low and cook until soft but not mushy, 15 - 20 minutes.
Heat water for pasta and add 1 teaspoon salt.
While lentils cook, prepare kale by removing ribs and chopping leaves into 2" pieces. You can cook kale and pasta at the same time, just pay attention to timing. Add pasta to boiling salted water, cook for 2 minutes, then add kale and cook until both are done. Drain and reserve about 1 cup of pasta water.
**Lacinato kale needs about 7 minutes in boiling water (curly kale needs a couple minutes more). Your pasta timing will depend on the type of pasta, but typically needs around 10 minutes for standard white pasta. You can also cook the kale for 7 minutes by itself, then remove with tongs, before cooking pasta.
Taste lentils, they should be soft but not mushy. When the lentils are done cooking, add 1/2 teaspoon of salt.
Once onions are nice and caramelized, add lentils along with lentil cooking liquid, kale, and pasta to the pan with the onions along with 1/3 cup reserved pasta water. Stir gently to combine, adding more water if necessary to keep things moist. Cook for a minute or two to finish cooking. Taste and adjust seasoning.
Serve sprinkled with fresh parmesan. Enjoy!
Do you have any pasta and bean recipes you love? As always, I'd love to hear from you. If you're having a hard time with feelings around food and body image and could use some support, reach out. I offer one-on-one virtual nutrition counseling sessions.