Our diets have developed split personalities—one day, we're eating clean, the next, we're downing pork belly. Is this good for us, or making us pack on pounds?
I have just spent $33 to purchase three scoops of primal kale salad, one wild salmon cake, and a few grain-free, antibiotic-free chicken tenders. Walking out of Hu Kitchen, a market and restaurant in New York City that specializes in unprocessed food with wholesome ingredients that “exist in nature,” I actually feel good about the hefty price tag. More than a meal, I’ve bought a membership into the cult of Clean Eating. I will be ingesting no chemicals, no laboratory-created concoctions, no GMOs, no gluten—just delicious food in its purest state. I am the ultimate healthy eater.
That is, until I come across a bag of Haribo gummy bears. When that happens, I will scarf them down with total joy, not caring at all that they are loaded with sugar and additives. Then later, I’ll be eating clean again.
I am not alone in veering between these extremes— totally healthy and pure one minute, chowing down on sugary, fatty foods the next. Welcome to America’s new style of dining; call it the Polar Opposite Diet. We make protein-rich chia seed smoothie bowls for breakfast (like one of these Smoothie Bowl Recipes Under 500 Calories), eat zucchini “noodles” instead of pasta (fewer carbs!), and drink green juice to cleanse our systems, yet we slather our bread with fancy French butter, order bacon on everything at restaurants, and dig into full-fat artisanal ice cream topped with homemade whipped cream.
This erratic type of eating is part of a larger pattern, identified by researchers as a desire to make healthy food choices while refusing to deny ourselves indulgences. “Today’s consumers don’t stick to rigid eating plans,” explains Kelly Weikel, the director of consumer insights at Technomic, a research and consulting firm that collects data about food and eating trends. Eighty-six percent of people report that they don’t follow a specific diet all the time, and in fact, many of them go back and forth between healthy and hedonistic, the company’s research reveals. Specifically, our food behavior varies significantly depending on where we are: Consumers tend to eat more healthfully at home and more indulgently at restaurants. “What we eat depends on the occasion, the scenario, and the day of the week,” Weikel says.
THE EATING EXPERIENCE
We are living in foodie times, and to forgo any type of meal, whether it’s veggie based or rich and fatty, means missing out on a fascinating event and an education. “We are more sophisticated consumers, so we are always interested in the latest new foods,” says Susan B. Roberts, Ph.D., a professor of nutrition at Tufts University. Farm-to-table restaurants, juice bars, and food trucks are everywhere. Plus, we can watch amazing food being prepared on the dozens of food shows that have taken over our TV screens. Eating new dishes, learning their histories and places in tradition—this is an experience we want to be part of. And social media is feeding our appetites. You can’t check your Instagram feed or Pinterest without viewing luscious shots of food porn. (Instead, try 15 Food Porn Recipes That Are Good for You) People post their pictures of French fries made with duck fat, drizzled with truffle oil, and sprinkled with hickory-smoked sea salt, along with their photos of creamy, vibrantly green and pristine spinach smoothies. “We see pictures of super healthy meals and super decadent meals and nothing in between. It leads you to believe that this is how people eat all the time, so it becomes normal,” says nutritionist Dawn Jackson Blatner, R.D.N., a Shape advisory board member.
We also have a tendency to become fixated on certain foods, both the healthy and the not-so-healthy stuff. Hence our preoccupation with kale, quinoa, and juice, along with bacon, short ribs, and chocolate malt cake truffles. “Like every trend, the style swings back and forth,” explains Jessica Spiro, R.D.N., a nutritionist in San Diego. “A decade ago, fat was the villain, and we began shunning it and eating way too many carbs. Now we have an obsession with bacon, butter, and coconut oil.”
Surprisingly, eating indulgent foods can actually be good for us. Researchers from the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab recently set out to study how “the rise of foodie culture,” as they put it, and the consumption of a greater variety of food affect our weight and health. After surveying more than 500 women, they discovered that those who were more adventurous about what they ate—meaning they had tried a variety of uncommon foods such as pork belly, beef tongue, and rabbit—were healthier eaters, had lower BMIs, and were more physically active than those who were less willing to try unfamiliar dishes. “The findings were exactly the opposite of what everyone expected,” says Brian Wansink, Ph.D., the director of the lab and the author of Slim by Design. Being open to different flavors may be the healthier way to go because people who consume a wide variety of food are more attuned to enjoying the tastes and textures rather than the quantity (it's one of the ways Being a Foodie Can Help You Lose Weight). In other words, the experience of eating new things is so satisfying to them, they don’t have to consume as much to get their fill.
DIGGING TOO DEEP
Sticking a fork into a little of this and a little of that doesn’t bode well for everyone, however. Nutritionists point out that it can be a challenge for some women to stop eating the rich stuff once they start. “Some people do fine, swinging from indulging a little to getting back to cleaner eating without a problem,” Roberts says. “For others, it gets them offtrack, and if they want to stay at a healthy weight, they need to stick to healthy foods with very few exceptions.”
It’s that balance of healthy and indulgent that makes extreme eating a healthy option. The problem is, balance isn’t easy to attain. “In many ways, the hardest thing in the world is moderation,” says David Katz, M.D., the founding director of the Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center at Yale University and the president of the American College of Lifestyle Medicine. “You’re going to eat some of the tempting foods, but you need the mental strength to be able to say when you’ve had enough. For many people, it’s easier to refrain from temptations completely than to eat them and try to call it quits before it gets out of hand.”
And worse than gaining a few pounds, if you can’t maintain your control over what and how much you’re consuming, you’re likely to get angry and frustrated with yourself. “We tend to moralize our health behavior,” points out Kayleigh Pleas, a wellness coach in New York City. “We see ourselves as weak if we overeat, and we feel ashamed about it. But beating ourselves up has a counterproductive effect, because shame actually activates the brain’s stress response. Then cortisol, one of the main stress hormones, floods through our system and prompts us to eat even more.” (P.S. Chowing down on this Food May Lead to Overeating and Weight Gain.)
FINDING YOUR SWEET SPOT
So how do you eat healthy, for the most part, without depriving yourself of luscious, indulgent foods? We can all agree, it’s no fun to order the plain grilled chicken breast with steamed broccoli if everyone else at your gathering is trying the duck confit with tarragon emulsion and crisp potato galette. The key is to follow a few simple rules.
Add hits of adventure to your diet.
If you’re worried about overdoing it with foods that are too tasty to stop eating, occasionally include small bites of them in your regular meals. Garnish your salad with a rich cheese, Wansink suggests, or top it with a small sliced spicy sausage to excite your taste buds. “Every other week, try to have a food you haven’t eaten before,” he adds. “Doing this will make you a little more mindful of the process of eating,” which can help you eat healthier overall.
Lose the good-versus-bad mentality.
If you want a food, don’t deny yourself. You’ll only get annoyed and upset and probably end up bingeing on something just as caloric or even more so. Instead, eat the food and savor each bite, Pleas advises. Chew slowly, so you can really taste its flavor; pay attention to how appealing its texture is. “Welcome the pleasure of that food into your body,” she says. “Don’t be afraid to enjoy it.”
Tell yourself you can always have more.
Serve yourself a small helping of indulgent foods and remind yourself it’s not going anywhere and that you can eat it again tomorrow. This will prevent that now-or-never panic and keep you from piling the goodies up on your plate.