April is National Stress Awareness Month which was created to increase awareness about both the causes and cures for our modern stress epidemic. While most people are probably not surprised that this is such a problem in our society (hello, who has never experienced stress), some may be surprised by the often hidden and underlying causes of stress.
One that I wish was talked about more is the concept of becoming stressed about "clean eating" and the general fear mongering that goes on in the wellness world.
Wondering what I'm talking about? Tell me, how many times have you heard any of these phrases:
"Sugar causes inflammation!"
"Everyone should cut dairy from their diets."
"Gluten is the devil."
If you aren't living under a rock and even if you are exposed to only a small portion of diet and wellness culture, I'm sure you hear these things pretty often. Heck, even my middle school students barrage me with questions about why gluten is so bad for us.
But wait, Kristen. You're a health coach, shouldn't you be concerned about these things. Aren't we eating too much sugar? Don't we need to be eating more vegetables? Can't gluten-free or dairy-free diets help people who have suffered for years from IBS or other hard to diagnose diseases.
The answer, in short, is yes. For many Americans, the Standard American Diet (also known, fittingly, as SAD) which is comprised of processed foods and artificial sweeteners, is unfortunately still the norm for many Americans and may contribute to some of the health epidemics we are currently witnessing.
What I'm referring to, however, is the obsession over perfection and the belief that certain foods are "bad" and inherently make us "bad" when we eat them. I'm talking about how a relatively healthy person (i.e. no known allergies or intolerances) becomes so scared by specific foods that they can no longer enjoy a meal out with friends for fear of falling off the "clean-eating" bandwagon. Heaven forbid those chicken fingers have gluten loaded breadcrumbs!
For so long I have stressed over the foods I eat, even after seeking help for my eating disorder over 15 years ago, I fell into the wellness trend traps and diet culture lingo: "gluten-free", "dairy-free", refined sugar free. I know you know what I'm talking about.
The problem with idolizing these dogmatic principles is that it relates food to our own morality and being "good" or being "bad". It injects shame where shame shouldn't ever be placed - on our our natural desire to nourish and feed ourselves. It causes STRESS over something that is a natural, normal and healthy part of life!
And what do you think happens when we place stress on ourselves about something that is supposed to be making us "healthy"?
That's right. It actually makes us sick.
Studies in fact have shown that even if someone is eating a healthy diet, any kind of unmanaged stress can actually negate the benefits of their diet. This stress may also be impacting our modern health issues and lead to premature aging.
So, how have I shifted some of my views on "healthy" eating as it relates to all of this? For starters, I now recognize that all foods have their place and just because I want to eat more vegetables, it does't mean I can't also eat ice cream. And while there are still things I try to avoid in excess (certain oils, soy, etc.), I don't freak out if I have them or happen to buy something with them in it.
I talked a little bit on this post about labels and a big part of stressing less about food has been to remove labels around how I eat. I'm not paleo but I enjoy making some gluten-free treats at times. I'm definitely no longer dairy-free but there isn't anything wrong with using coconut milk sometimes if you like it!
While I am still on this journey to finding more peace with food and by no means an expert, here are a few things that help me navigate the media and my own thoughts.
Take time off from social media and really try to figure out what your body wants and needs. So often, we see posts that hail one person's success from cutting out X food - and that's great! Maybe it works for them but it doesn't necessarily mean it works for you.
Eat alone! Like, really alone. No phone, and no TV, just you and your food and (inevitable) thoughts. The more messages you are taking in while eating, the more likely you are to become stressed, especially if those messages are related to food itself.
Begin to disassociate foods with words like "good" and "bad". Remember that you are a living, breathing human being and you deserve to eat regardless of your weight, what you ate the day before or how much you exercised that day.
What do you think? Have you experienced stress related to food? Let me know in the comments!