What would you classify your diet as? Is it primarily meat? Red meat? Plants? Are you a pescatarian? Vegetarian? Vegan? Eat-anything-arian? Or maybe you don’t really pay attention to the food you’re consuming and that’s okay too!
I grew up with this idea that a meal wasn’t a meal if it didn’t have some type of meat on the plate. Whether it be lunchmeat or leftovers for lunch or a piece of steak or (my least favourite) porkchop for dinner – a meal had to have meat. Now this is nothing against my parents, they did an incredible job at making sure us kids always had a well-balanced diet and plenty of food in the cupboards. But like most North American’s I think we have been taught this notion for many years, that it isn’t a meal if there isn’t a slab of flesh on the plate – and that couldn’t be farther from the truth.
When I first moved out of the house I remember the (somewhat scary) feeling of being able to buy anything and everything I ever wanted to eat. I could live on nothing but cereal and fruit gushers or indulge in a full bag of candies if I wanted to and had no one to tell me otherwise. All the sudden I had this sense of power and responsibility. Now as I made my way through the overwhelming-ness that is the grocery store I realized I had no idea what I wanted to eat, now that I had all this responsibility I suddenly forgot how to cook for myself. After looking through all the aisles and being boggled by the high prices I realized there was no way I would be able to afford (on a student budget) to eat meat every day. What was I supposed to do?
What first started as a decision based on price soon became a much bigger issue. I had been having problems with my stomach, nothing too serious just finding that I had an upset stomach all the time so I decided to seek out a Naturopath. After some running some tests she determined I had built up a mild lactose intolerance. As someone who always had a glass of homogenized milk for dinner and often indulged in a big bowl of Ice cream for desert I was shocked. So here I am advised not to eat any dairy nor could I afford to eat the same amount of meat I was used to. What was I suppose to eat? It seemed like everything either contained milk or was too expensive for my budget. I began to search. I looked up food blogs (@DairyFreeBetty is an all-time Favourite!), and searched the depth of Pinterest looking for recipes of things I could eat. My diet then became primarily vegetarian – mostly filled with beans and salads with the odd chicken breast for dinner. I became worried, was I giving my body all the nutrients it needed by living without most of what I was used to? Was it enough to fuel myself on the days I went for long runs or went to the gym?
At the same time I was now beginning to explore this new world of food, that I had never had to think about before, I was also learning more and more in school about proper nutrition and being physically active. I took my first nutrition class and loved it! We talked all about the dangers of diets and the searched through the vast literature to find answers for what a true well-balanced diet consisted of. Gluten free? Dairy free? Meatless? Paleo? Nothing but brown rice and broccoli? Through all the information we were able to come up with a few conclusions. One, there is no set ‘diet’ or lifestyle that was better than the other, they all had their own advantages and disadvantages. Becoming a vegan or vegetarian means losing a lot of essential vitamins and nutrients that are primarily found in meats, eating meat every day can actually be bad for our heart (especially red meats) and bad for our environment and farm animals, Gluten-free doesn’t necessarily mean healthy either for there’s often a lot of added sugars and fats to make up for the lack of gluten. Now I don’t want to scare you way from ever eating anything but that brings me to the second conclusion, moderation is key. Everything is good for us in appropriate amounts. Thus, we shouldn’t punish ourselves (or others) for indulging in some chocolate or ice cream on a Friday night but perhaps if we are eating multiple chocolate bars a day then there could be some room for improvement. Third conclusion that can be drawn about food is: diets are HORRIBLE and should be avoided AT ALL COSTS. I can’t stress this enough! Not only are diets (such as Atkins diet, Whole 30, Military diet etc) are unsustainable but going on and off diets (this is called yo-yo dieting) actually slows down our metabolism which can lead to sufficient weight gain and poor health. So yes, you may see an initial drop in weight but it is most likely just water weight and as soon as the diet stops the weight will come back. Lastly, the Canadian Food Guide (http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/fn-an/food-guide-aliment/index-eng.php) is a great resource for planning meals and your diet.
Knowing now that a well-balanced meal can look a number of different ways, I began to think about what mattered most to me. What things did I want to indulge in and were there foods I wanted to avoid? After having limited my meat consumption I began to realize how easy it was to find alternative means of getting protein into my meals. At the same time my eyes had been opened to the inhumane ways animals were being treated and the impact it had on the environment. I eliminated meat completely from my plate.
As you can see my diet may not be perfect (nor do I think it is) but finding a healthy balance takes education and a whole lot of trial and error. My diet may not work for everyone but it works for me. I guess what I am trying to say in a nutshell is that we shouldn’t restrict ourselves from certain foods because they are “bad” nor should we blindly follow the pact. Being healthy means finding what is right for you, what fuels your body with all that it needs while also meeting your quality standards. Eating shouldn’t be something to punish ourselves for, instead we should celebrate the abundance of delicious foods we are fortunate enough to have access to! What does a healthy diet look like to you?