As I sit here eating my ham sandwich, I started to reflect on the ingredients in my lunch. My ham comes from Costco – it’s the “natural” kind of course with no nitrates or artificial ingredients. But we all know that the word “natural” means basically nothing. And deli meat is full of sodium and bad for you. My sandwich thin is 100% whole wheat but it’s fully loaded with shit I can’t even pronounce. My cheese isn’t the American kind – I quit eating that long ago. No, this is cheddar cheese, but still, it’s not organic and it’s Target’s generic brand. My japanese cucumber is from the farmers’ market so it’s local, but is it non-GMO? Maybe. Is it organic? Definitely not. My ranch dip is half organic. I bought the powder from a local health food store so it’s relatively clean. But the sour cream I mixed it with is Daisy’s light version – the only product I’ve been able to find with a relatively low amount of ingredients. I might even throw some canned pineapple (in pineapple juice) into the mix for good measure.
I just poured myself my third cup of coffee for the day. It’s some generic light roast blend with no artificial ingredients. Fair trade or organic? No. And my creamer is not organic, but it’s supposedly “natural” with fairly clean ingredients.
How do I feel about my meal? Freaking fantastic. It’s not perfect. I know that. I also kind of don’t care. I used to worry like crazy about trying to eat to some kind of standard. 100% whole wheat! Three ingredient max! All organic! No butter! No artificial ingredients! And no matter what, I kept screwing up. And then one day I realized that the way I eat has nothing to do with anyone else.
My meals didn’t have to fit other people’s standards. In a perfect world, I would grow my own organic produce, I’d raise my own chickens, I’d catch my own fish, and I’d only buy meat and dairy from a local farmer.
But instead, I’m living in one of the most expensive places in the country with a tiny ass backyard, a black thumb and easy access to Costco. And even though I live less than a mile from the ocean, I talk too much to catch fish efficiently. So you know what? I do my best. I have to balance my checkbook with my desire to eat well. I buy organic grapes at Costco when they look fresh, and I buy as much as I can from the farmers’ market. But my priorities don’t currently include paying $10/pound for organic chicken every week, and I don’t feel guilty about that. I don’t need to. Who am I trying to make proud?
I think in all of the trendiness that is healthy living, we’ve sort of forgotten the whole purpose of actually living healthy. We aren’t trying to out-organic our neighbor. We are all on a quest to live as long as possible, and to live as WELL as possible. And in the process, we’re trying to help our children do the same.
And yes, maybe the key to that is buying completely organic, non-GMO, whole wheat (or gluten-free!), low sugar and artificial color/dye/ingredient-free. But if I’m losing my mind because I haven’t yet been able to implement that, then I’m not living very well. I’m trying to be someone I’m not.
So instead, I just do my best. I try really hard to avoid any artificial colors. It’s a particular priority for me because my (admittedly small amount of) personal research indicates that it can lead to behavioral issues. But when my daughter is deadset on adding 52 colors of icing to a cake she is excited to bake for her brother’s birthday, sometimes I have to give in. I’ll buy the organic cake mix and she can pile on all the artificial colors she wants. When Halloween rolls around this year, I simply can’t get my panties in a bunch about the candy they’ll receive. Or just before that, the Count Dracula cereal will be in stores, and I’ll buy it for my kids. They don’t complain about the low-sugar cereals the rest of the year, and Count Dracula brings so much joy to their faces. And don’t even get me started on my shave ice. Bring on the sugar and artificial dyes. If I die from the three times a year I have them, well, so be it.
I’m writing this because I think we all feel the pressure now. I’ve even judged others for eating their sugar-filled JIF peanut butter and jelly sandwiched between two pieces of white bread. No no. I’ll stick to my 100% whole wheat bread, organic (peanuts only!) PB and no-sugar-added strawberry preserves. But guess what? I eat junk all the time. So why the hell am I judging? I certainly don’t want to feel judged when I stop by McDonald’s for a soft serve sundae after a long hike.
One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned in this whole process is how important education is. Research everything so you can formulate your own priorities. I’ve learned that it’s okay to pick my battles, and it’s okay to understand that perfection isn’t the goal. I’m constantly in awe of my vegan friends who blow me away with their ability to eat so perfectly. But that doesn’t mean I need to be like them. It doesn’t mean I have to feel guilty about my priorities. I try hard to eat as many whole foods as possible, but I don’t feel even remotely bad about my daily Honey Nut Cheerios habit. I think the produce I get at the farmers’ market tastes incredible, but the apple pears from Costco make my heart sing. And who knows what they’ve been sprayed with to keep them “fresh” long enough to cross the Pacific Ocean. (But apparently, apple pears themselves aren’t necessary GMO. I think.)
In our family, we largely eat based on how our body responds. Large amounts of highly processed foods make us feel sluggish, and we all crash after an overdose of sugar. Heavily enriched wheat products bloat us, and too much unhealthy fat lands us in the bathroom. Repeatedly. But a diet full of lean meats, a variety of produce and minimally processed foods seems to be a perfect fit. Because I don’t know what the chemicals might be doing to us, I do try to buy the “cleanest” products I can find. Most of the time. I will go to the health food store to buy a bottle of organic ranch dressing, but I walk past the organic milk at Costco and go for the cheaper (still $5!) gallon of regular. Does that make sense? Um no, not really. And the best part is that I don’t have to explain it to you, just as you don’t need to explain your buying habits to me.
In my opinion, I’m not in a financial or mental position to eat “perfectly”. Could I if it was a matter of life or death? Probably. And some of you might even say it actually is life or death. And you might be right.
But what I do know for sure is I can’t eat whatever sounds good without any regard to what it might be doing to my body. I spent a lot of years doing that, and I paid the price. So now, I don’t eat to suit a standard. I eat to suit myself.
And that’s working just fine for me. We all make decisions that don’t make sense in our life, but we do the best we can based on our priorities.
So the gist of this post is to stop putting pressure on yourself to be perfect. There really is no such thing. The people who seem to eat “perfectly” may not be as active as you or maybe they struggle with something else. Or maybe I’m wrong, and they are just simply perfect people. But I suspect not. And that’s irrelevant anyway, because they aren’t you.
I do know that eating well makes a difference in how I feel, but I also know that I can eat a tiny tub of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream and suffer no long-term effects from it. Starbucks’ banana walnut bread makes me feel horrific for hours after I enjoy it, so I try to avoid that. It’s just not worth it. But I still buy a frappuccino every once in a while, even though I know it’s loaded with crap. Because ya know what? I can get a small and it doesn’t bother my stomach.
Worry about you and your family’s bodies, and stop giving any thought to how your once-a-year fair food indulgence will appear to others. I feel confident that most of you already do this, but even I fall into the trap of worrying about how my food choices might be perceived. I’m constantly looking for new, delicious, “clean” products to buy, and I love sharing them with you. But I’m also not afraid to admit that I might have eaten a slice of store-bought carrot cake just before that.
Balance. That’s the best most of us can strive for, and I think it’s a healthy goal. Do your best – eat to your own chosen standards – and to hell with with the rest of it. When I go to the store, I inspect every ingredient list and I make purchases based on the information I’ve learned over the years. And I fully suspect that half of the information I believe to be true is probably false. Because we’re constantly evolving and learning new things as people. I already know that many of the “natural” products I buy are likely anything but. I buy them anyway. Why? Because it makes me feel better to know I’m trying.
And as long as I’m trying, I figure I’m better off than I was before. When you’re so immersed in the “living healthy” community (whether it be on Facebook, or through blogging, or just your own friends), it’s easy to criticize yourself when you see others doing things you aren’t. But think about all of the changes you’ve made! Just because your actions aren’t 100% healthy doesn’t mean your 74% is anything to sneeze at. When I first started, I was hovering around 10%. If that!
And let’s be honest, no matter how good your decisions are, there’ll always be something you’re not doing “right”. Whatever that is. So like I mentioned before, pick your battles. And give yourself a huge pat on the back for everything you’re doing right!