Healthy Food vs. Healthy Eating

April 23rd, 2012 by Sara Upson

If I asked you to make a list of healthy food, most people would likely be able to do this pretty easily.  You might even list something like fruit, vegetables, whole grains, lean meat, fish, etc.  If I asked you to list or describe what healthy eating was, most people would recite the same list of healthy foods- fruit, vegetables, whole grains, lean meat, fish, etc.  However, healthy food and healthy eating are not the same thing.

Many people assume or believe that healthy food and healthy eating are the same thing.  Technically, healthy food is food that promotes health when consumed.  Healthy eating though is more than simply eating healthy food.  Healthy eating also includes having a healthy relationship with food (the single most important factor to healthy eating).  We will explore this aspect of healthy eating more, but first let’s look at the two components of nutrition science that help to establish healthy food versus healthy eating.

Generally when we think of nutrition we tend to lump everything together, however there are two main components to the science of nutrition: physical and behavioral.  The physical component of nutrition includes chewing, swallowing, digestion, absorption, enzymes, specific nutrients, and energy needs- this component stays pretty consistent each day.  The behavioral component of nutrition includes why you choose the foods you eat, why you crave certain foods, what is different about your eating when you’re alone versus with others, what is different when you’re at home versus at a restaurant, why you restrict your intake, how to know what to eat, how to know when to stop eating, and why you like certain foods.  Although the behavioral component is consistent with certain aspects (such as food likes, those do not tend to change too much) there are other aspects that could change on a daily basis depending on your needs, or even how your day was or how you feel.

It is easier to isolate the physical component of nutrition and focus on healthy food.  Many times when you hear or read nutrition information it focuses on this physical component.  You might hear that eating certain healthy foods will lower your risk of cancer or heart disease and even offers an element of control.  Rarely do we hear much on the behavioral component of nutrition, which has a huge impact on the daily choices we make about the foods we eat.  Therefore, people typically try to control the physical component of nutrition by focusing on healthy food, while overlooking the behavioral component such as how to know when you are hungry or full, what is different about your eating in different situations and why, and how your day can effect your overall eating.  Healthy eating considers both the physical and behavioral components of nutrition.  It combines healthy foods and a healthy relationship with food.

Many people have not yet established a healthy relationship with food, yet they want to focus on healthy eating.  This is like trying to build a card house from the top down.  They believe once they are able to eat healthy foods and make healthy choices that they will then have a healthy relationship with food, however the opposite of this is true.  Once you have a healthy relationship with food, then you are empowered to make healthy food choices, and that choice becomes second nature, not an internal battle of will.  Let me give you an example: someone who does not know when they are full, who eats different when they are by themselves versus with others, who cannot keep sweets in their house because they fear they will not be able to stop eating them is making an attempt to eat healthier.  Overnight they completely change their diet to consist of bran, wheat germ, soy, flax seed, broccoli, prunes, and fish (all healthy foods).  However, by the afternoon, or maybe the next day or next week, they are already craving their old favorite foods.  At this point they decide to have one of their old favorite foods, feel they have blown it, and depending on where they are with their relationship with food may completely give up healthy food altogether to return to their old favorite foods.   Some people (again depending on their relationship with food) may even binge on their favorite foods resulting in an even greater sense of failure and guilt that may lead them to restrict their intake or try dieting even further.  (Again more emphasis on the physical component of nutrition.)   Some people may even take this focus on healthy food to the extreme by only eating foods they consider to be healthy.  This person may be eating healthy foods, however this is not a healthy relationship with food and this is not healthy eating.  (For more information on this be sure to check back next week where I will write about an extreme focus on eating healthy foods.)

The individual who is trying to control their diet by eating healthy foods is putting the cart before the horse (so the saying goes) if they do not have a healthy relationship with food.  It is much more important to establish a healthy relationship with food and explore the behavioral components of nutrition than it is to eat healthy foods at every meal.  Yes, I do want you to make nutritious choices when it comes to eating.  I would be thrilled if everyone ate a balanced diet including fruit, vegetables, whole grains, lean meat, fish, etc.  However, if you did not eat healthy food for a week or even for an entire year, and worked only on establishing a healthy relationship with food you would be healthier afterwards (when you have established a healthy relationship with food) than if you only worked on eating healthy food.

Unfortunately, it is a lot easier to focus on the physical component of nutrition, to focus on healthy foods, than it is to focus on establishing a healthy relationship with food.  It is much easier to say you are on a new diet, that you are going to eat healthy, that you are going to eat broccoli every day than it is to say that you are going to figure out how to know when you are full, why you ignore your hunger, why you cannot keep sweets in your house, why you eat when you are stressed, why you eat for comfort, why you restrict your intake, or why you eat differently when others are not around.  For this reason the line between healthy food and healthy eating is often blurred.

I remember when I first made the connection that healthy food and healthy eating were not the same thing, and I was quite flabbergasted!  What do you mean that healthy eating is not just eating healthy foods?!  In our society this is well accepted information, however being well accepted does not make it true.  Healthy eating is so much more.  Healthy eating includes foremost a healthy relationship with food, and also includes:

  • – Eating a wide variety of food (not limited those deemed as healthy foods).
  • – Balance and moderation.
  • – Listening to your body for internal regulation of hunger and fullness cues and acting on and honoring these cues.
  • – Satisfaction in your food choices.
  • – Your diet over days and is not limited to one meal, day, or week.
  • – Choosing foods that meet your nutrition needs.
  • – Flexibility that allows you to nourish yourself without guilt or judgment of your food choices.
  • – Handling bad days, emotions, stress, and exhaustion without turning to food.

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