When I’m standing in the checkout line at the supermarket, it is hard not to notice the deluge of nutritional advice from magazines:
The four foods to cut out of your diet for flat abs!
The 10 superfoods you should be eating right now!
Shelly from Virginia lost 80 pounds — see what she ate!
The message that they are sending, explicitly or implicitly, is this: If you are frustrated with your eating/weight/body composition, you need to know more about nutrition.*
Except I don’t agree.
I mean, yes, nutritional information is useful. There’s nothing inherently wrong with learning more about how certain foods affect your blood sugar or mood, for example.
But what these magazines never seem to acknowledge is that there is a many complex factors that influence our eating. If we reach for a chocolate bar instead of green beans, “not realizing that sugar might spike our blood sugar” or “being unaware that chocolate bars have a lot of calories” could be one contributing factor. But it is very unlikely to be the only contributing factor.
Given the many factors that can influence our eating, it only makes sense that we need to develop an integral set of skills to eat in a way that best serves us:
- Somatic skills. Are we able to notice our body’s sensations on a regular basis, or are we just floating heads in the world? Physical sensations include eating-related sensations (hunger, fullness), but also sensations that tell us other things (e.g., my chest is tight during this meeting and it is because I don’t want to be here)
- Emotional skills. We need to be able to notice and process our emotions and thoughts on a moment-to-moment basis. What is going on in our minds and our hearts, when we have a cookie in front of us?
- Cognitive skills. We need to have knowledge that helps us make eating decisions that are best for us. Part of this will likely include some knowledge of nutrition.
- Relational and environmental skills. We need to be able to notice how the people we are with and the environment we are in are influencing our eating.
- Societal skills: We need to be able to notice how the society we live in is influencing our eating. Are you afraid of that chocolate bar because you are afraid that you’ll get fat? If so, why are you afraid of getting fat?
It has been my observation that most people who are frustrated with their eating are significantly unbalanced in terms of these skills.
More specifically, they tend to be overdeveloped in terms of knowledge of nutrition, portion sizes, etc. — and underdeveloped in two or more of the other skills.
Again, this doesn’t mean that nutritional information isn’t useful. It can be.
But, if you are significantly unbalanced in terms of your eating-related skills, you might need to think less about nutritional information for a little or long while. It might be a better use of your time and energy to, for example, spend your time and brain space exploring how your emotions or your physical sensations are influencing your eating.
I wanted to write about this because I’m not sure I’ve ever read the advice “you might want to worry about nutrition less” in any mainstream online publication or magazine. Many of the people I work with are worriers, and worriers often worry about nutrition because magazines and articles tell us that we should worry about nutrition.
So I will say it again: Honestly evaluate your strengths and weaknesses. Do you really need to think about nutrition (or “clean eating” or “wellness” or whatever you want to call it) right now?
* When I refer to “nutrition,” I am also including related topics such as “clean eating,” portion sizes, calorie-counting, etc.