Time after time we’re told what not to eat, what not to wear, what not to think, say, do, and risk. The focus is always on the negative. From the time we’re children we’re told “no” more emphatically than we’re told “yes.” Our life’s decisions are based on avoiding the negative.
The same is true with nutrition. Don’t eat ice cream. Don’t eat cake. Don’t eat sugar. Don’t eat meat. Don’t eat too much. Don’t eat too little. It’s maddening, and by the time you’ve been told what not to eat by all of those who think themselves experts on diet fads or nutrition, you’re left with very few options and an equally small amount of sanity, willpower, and enthusiasm for food.
My battle with body image and exasperation over what to eat, and what not to, began in high school, as it does for so many young people. The pressures didn’t stem from home or school, but from my perception as to what society deemed as beautiful. My answer? To control my eating with extreme rigidity. I would eat a peppermint. I would eat a bowl of dry cereal. Maybe I’d choose to really test my fortitude and eat nothing at all. What I ate ruled my every waking hour. But it wasn’t sustainable. I quickly transitioned from a diet that allowed for eating very little to a diet that would allow me to eat what I wanted and not gain weight. Anorexia quickly turned to bulimia. Starving turned into obsessive binge eating. And a peppermint might turn into a half-gallon of ice cream, in one short sitting.
In an effort to gain some semblance of control over my diet, I sought answers in the form of diet pills, diet fads, exercise, and expert advice – the way many of us do. I soon realized that everyone fancied himself, or herself, the authority on what not to eat, with very little attention paid on what to eat. The agenda focused on weight loss, rather than health gain.
As parents, this battle over the perfect combination of diet and exercise can find its way into our homes. And it’s here, in homes filled with an abundance, where we have to focus on being the most restrictive. But it is also here where we have to be the most attentive to how we are managing a healthy diet, and how we’re communicating that management to our families.
Our children are looking to be led. They crave structure. They crave love. They crave intellectual development. And their bodies crave nutrition that will fuel them for all of the above. Whether because of our heritage or our blood type, our bodies know what we uniquely need to be successful in this life. But too often the nutritive rigidity we as parents impose on ourselves is absorbed, sometimes by accident, by our children. As a parent with a blended family that includes five daughters under twelve, I know very well the pressures this can bring in regard to educating children on the importance of nutrition without appearing obsessive, controlling, and restrictive.
My personal health metamorphosis, pre-dating the acquisition and creation of my family of seven, began with my foray into the local food movement. I started spending my summertime Saturdays sidled up to local growers and artisans who were selling their wares to droves of mission-driven locals – all of whom were looking to source more nutrient-dense food, while supporting their local economy.
I was introduced to cheeses made from nuns in a monastery in Virginia, kale grown by a family of daughters, beets hand-picked that morning and thrown in a bag with a variety of other vegetables as part of my weekly CSA (crop share association) delivery. I started to add in new foods, better foods, foods packed full of vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients. I began searching for sustenance and energy in the food I consumed. Focusing my attention on what the food contained, not what it didn’t. Kale helped fuel my brain. Beets increased the blood flow I needed for intense physical activity. Blueberries satisfied my sweet tooth while maintaining my blood sugar levels. And local handcrafted dark chocolate packed a punch of theobromine that aided in flushing out toxins and giving my mood a boost.
Without knowing it, I started doing something we health coaches refer to as crowding out. The theory of crowding out flips the idea of absence on its head. Instead of obsessing over what to remove from your diet, you obsess over adding in healthier options and allowing the unhealthy choices to fall away, naturally and gradually.
You remember all of those experts telling us what not to eat? Crowding out does the opposite. If I want ice cream after dinner, I have an apple. Instead of tortilla chips, I eat avocado slices with a pinch of ground sea salt. As I want food, I eat food. I just focus on integrating new and delicious foods into my diet, leaving my stomach with very little capacity for less healthy options. The concept of crowding out is even more useful as a parent because it positions food as nutrition meant to fuel us. In our home, more often I am answering questions like, “Why are blueberries good for your eyes?” or “Why is kale great for your lungs?” We don’t restrict what our daughters can eat. Instead we give them fantastic options that, once enjoyed, remove the desire and space, for sugar-laden sweets and other unhealthy, non-nutritive options.
Quick Start on Crowding Out
1. Do not engage in negative self-talk centered on what you cannot eat. Instead focus on what you can eat.
2. Identify two or three new healthy food options. Focusing on foods not in packaging. The requirement of packaging often indicates it is not a good option.
3. Cook. Take pictures of what you cook. Share those pictures with your kids and on social media. We all need a little positive feedback from our efforts.
4. Follow a food blog. We have several great ones locally and there are many notable national blogs. One of my favorite Richmond blogs is called Eating Bird Food. Another I enjoy, on a more national scale, for my gluten-free and paleo recipes is Elana’s Pantry. Set your favorite as your Internet browser home page. These will be the first pages you see when you go online, and will constantly introduce delicious new foods and recipes for you to add into your family’s diet.
5. Seek support. Whether a health coach, friend, colleague, or family member, recruit someone to join you in your crusade to crowd out the unhealthy by welcoming in the good.
6. Don’t let crowding out stop at diet. Use it in relationships. Use it to guide your attitude each day. Add in good and the bad will fall away. Focus on what you can have, what you do have, not what you can’t or don’t.
Your personal diet does not have to focus on the absence of food. It doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing approach, or something you can’t share with your children. If thoughtfully approached and carefully communicated, you can become adventurous with your diet and empowered to make choices that fuel you and your family.