Food Manifesto

7.5 steps to help you change your attitude to food.

These are just some ideas and thoughts which I have come up with that I found helpful, and I share them here in case you do too.

1. It’s ok to love food and love yourself at the same time.

I think it’s fair to say that many people have issues with their self-esteem – myself included – and I’m not here to tell you how to reach self-actualisation and never feel down on yourself again. However, I do believe that we should cut out this idea that you can only love either food or yourself. How many times have we made this excuse to ourselves, or to each other? “I know I should be healthier, but I just love food too much.” A friend of mine who is young, fit and super-toned was recently describing her intense fitness regime before lamenting, “the only reason I need to work out so hard is that I just really love food.” I think we all need to stop thinking like this! Exercise and healthy eating are equally important, and they both need to be incorporated into our lives. But to enjoy, appreciate and be excited about food does not imply that we must then hate and punish ourselves. Fitness should be about feeling good and embracing a positive, active lifestyle to keep within a healthy weight range, rather than burning calories to earn food rewards. Loving yourself doesn’t mean you choose to sacrifice all the flavour in your life, in the same way that “but I love food!” is not a valid excuse to eat chocolate or pizza ten times a day.

Food can be source of passion, delight and social interaction for adults and children of every culture. Sharing a meal brings people together. Recipes passed down for generations create a treasured family history. Cooking for others can be an offering of love. To be interested in discovering, preparing, tasting and experimenting with food is nothing to be ashamed of. Trying new things is risky and exciting, and eating something delicious is a party for your taste buds! Negotiating food intolerances and other dietary restrictions can also be rewarding, as you take on the challenge and learn to approach food differently. We must learn to love our bodies and treat them with respect, finding a healthy lifestyle that works for each of us as individuals.

2. Embrace multiple ideas about what you eat.

I suppose it’s possible that life is one big food race, and at the end of the world God, Allah and Buddha will declare the winner to be the Mediterranean diet or the vegans, but it’s probably not very likely. I don’t think there is one simple solution to eating well; no one is forcing you to pick the label you like best, slap it on your forehead and live by it exclusively for the rest of your life. It’s ok to eat meat and also love vegan food. Your paleo and pasta cookbooks can stand side by side. Embrace and experiment! Try a dish you’ve never heard of in a restaurant you’ve never been to before. I am lucky enough to live in a multicultural, food-obsessed city with access to a wide variety of cuisines, but thanks to technology the world can come to you wherever you live. Search through recipes online, try food blogs and cookbooks for inspiration, or invent things straight out of your head. Don’t worry about perfection and plating up – it’s much more fun to make a big mess in the kitchen and see what happens.

3. Know your personal pitfalls.

We each have our own hurdles, some that frequently trip us up while others seem easier to overcome. Don’t try to copy someone else’s strategy if your strengths and weaknesses are different to their own. For example, you may be dynamite at resisting snacks between meals but find it tempting to go back for a second helping at dinner. You could be someone who does high-intensity exercise every day, but also suffers from an insatiable sweet tooth. Maybe you’ve been living off instant meals because you’re convinced you can’t cook. Not true! To paraphrase my mum, anyone who can read can follow a recipe.

I found that growing up in a big family encouraged me to eat very quickly which is a tough habit to break, especially when I’m busy or running late (so basically all the time). My instinct is to eat in a big rush, which is leaves me feeling hungry because I haven’t had time to notice that my stomach is full. Another pitfall is portion control – I need things rationed out or there’s no stopping me. That packet of chips: I want it. The whole bag. I don’t care if it’s a single serving or super jumbo family size, I will eat those chips to the last crumb. So for me it makes sense to avoid buying in bulk, even if that would make sense economically. I also avoid having tempting foods in the house, using my extreme laziness to help keep plenty of distance between me and ice cream.

Identifying your own personal pitfalls can help you find ways to navigate around them, and help to curb some unhealthy habits.

4. Make your food diary work for you.

Dieticians and personal trainers often ask clients to keep a food diary as a way to trace eating patterns or identify diet-related health issues. This can help you eat more mindfully, as you have evidence of all your intake, good or bad. I tried this successfully for a while, but soon my food diary became a whole new way to torture myself: all my failings were there in black and white, often underlined in angry red. Recording my intake didn’t stop me from eating erratically, but it made me acutely aware of my mistakes as I looked miserably back over the pages. It also took me a while to realise that I was using the food diary as an excuse to eat more. Whenever I ate something I shouldn’t, I would feel guilty about it until I wrote it down, then I let it go and felt better. I would scribble down my sins as soon as possible, close the book, and breathe easily. Not very logical or healthy, and certainly not the outcome I had in mind! After a while I hit on a solution that held me more accountable: I can use the diary to write a list in advance of what I plan to eat and tick it off by the end of the day, adding extra items to the list if necessary. This helps me to focus on what is a reasonable amount to eat, aiming to minimise those additional extras. When I’m eating I can also be mindful of the list and know that I need to slow down if I’ve nearly used all my daily allowance.

If you do keep a food diary, consider how effectively it works for you – whether it keeps you mindful of what you eat, or you’ve switched to auto-pilot and write without thinking, or perhaps like me you were subconsciously using it as a loophole.

5. Be proud of your food philosophy.

I read an article recently that railed against the trend of “smug eaters” going clean, green, gluten free, dairy free, raw, vegan, paleo, etc. The writer proudly asserted her right to “eat full-carb, non-brown, non-vegan pasta without guilt”, in a defiant rant that may have been tongue-in-cheek but still sounded pretty harsh. Rather than judging others or creating a war between diet factions, people should be free to establish a food philosophy that works for them. It may not come with a label, and that’s just fine. My approach is basically to be my own guinea pig and sort out from trial and error what works for my body; I’ve developed a pretty broad philosophy that incorporates principles from paleo to vegan with a dash of sugar-quitting. It’s not about high-fiving a vegetarian when they give in and try some chicken, or teasing your lactose-intolerant friend when you spot them gazing wistfully at an ice cream. Know what works for you and be proud of your own philosophy. Just remember, it goes both ways: you shouldn’t feel the need to apologise for your choices, but on the other hand don’t go beating people on the head with your spirulina smoothie.

6. Don’t hate on others for their achievements.

Disclaimer: I am totally guilty of this myself. When my housemate made the change to a healthier eating and fitness regime in order to train for a half-marathon, she started losing weight instantly and looked fitter and more gorgeous than ever, which drove me crazy with jealousy. Everything she cooked smelled heavenly, and I felt that for all my efforts to be healthy she had completely overtaken me and I was never  going to get there. It took a shamefully long time before I could consciously put aside my pet green-eyed monster, stop sulking and just be happy for her. It was irrational and petty to do otherwise; at the end of the day we both wanted the same things, so I needed to use her efforts to inspire me rather than kill my motivation. Just because someone else is winning, it doesn’t mean that you are destined to fail.

This section was almost titled “Don’t hate on others for their success”, but it’s important to make the distinction here. You don’t just achieve success one magical day and then never have to work at being healthy again. Nobody is perfect, not even that super hot girl in your yoga class. The people whose lives we admire are still a work in progress, and they are overcoming struggles of their own. (You also don’t know the full story if you think anyone has got it perfectly together.) If someone has worked hard and made positive changes to their diet or exercise, those achievements should be congratulated rather than resented. We all need a bit of positive feedback, so don’t glare at Yoga Girl’s back and mutter to yourself that she probably just has good genes – go up to her after class, tell her she looks amazing and ask her how she does it!

7. The golden rule:
All things in moderation.

This classic, simple and effective motto for life was taught to me by my father, although I’m sure he wasn’t the first to invent it. I guess it speaks for itself.

Personally, I have also found that most advice is improved with the addition of: “… but don’t be a dick about it”.

7.5 … and to end, my favourite food quotes:

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. –Michael Pollan
We all eat, and it would be a sad waste of opportunity to eat badly. –Anna Thomas
There has never been a sadness that can’t be cured by breakfast food. –Ron Swanson

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