When working with clients I am fully aware that everyone has a different scope or reach with their nutrition.
It is important to meet that individual where they are, and make small changes which may benefit their health without them feeling pressure to obtain a nutritional status beyond their means. I often use the example of their being a ‘gold standard’ of nutrition, which in an ideal world would be optimal. However, I am more than aware that the real life version of nutrition is about progress not perfection, it’s about being informed to make good choices but not always having to choose the ‘best’ option. After all, our health is not based on what we choose in one meal or snack, its about an accumulation of better choices over a long period of time, and this is based much more on the habits we adopt than the knowledge of what we ‘should’ eat. Remember, ‘musts and should’s’ can be quite unhelpful to us, but if things become part of our set habits, things we don’t even put conscious thought into, then life gets a hell of a lot easier.
But something I’m seeing more and more of is a different set of nutritional rules. Where nutrition is being used to shame people for not making the dictated ‘right’ choices, or casting judgements on people themselves if they don’t eat the way they ‘should’. With more and more nutritional information cropping up on the internet and nutritional guru’s emerging, it is quite frankly becoming an era of nutritional elitism.
Lately I spoke to a friend who’s child was going to a birthday party at Macdonald’s and he didn’t want to eat there, he wanted to take a packed lunch. I started to mull over the consequences of this choice for the child. Would he feel isolated for his choice? Would he make the other children/parents feel bad? Would it ruin his experience? The truth is I’m not entirely sure, but like anything in life, I think the main consequences would be from the intent in which this child’s choice was born from. If, his choice to take a packed lunch was communicated in a non-judgemental manner, as his own choice because he’d prefer to eat his own food, then I foresee the situation would not become a big deal. However, if that choice was communicated in a way to say that he was ‘better’ than the others, or that he looked down on people who choose to eat Macdonald’s, I can imagine this would promote a feeling of ‘food shaming’ and result in a negative situation all round. I don’t really know how that situation played out in the end, but what I do know is that even as a health professional I recognise that if a parent is trying to feed a large number of hungry children, then Macdonald’s is a cheap option. Yes, there are better options, but I also don’t think it’s a big deal as a one off.
This also plays into us being able to recognise our privileges. It is a privilege to eat well, it is a privilege to afford the higher cost of healthy food, and it’s also a privilege to have the time to learn about nutrition and better nutritional choices.
As human beings our psychology is to believe that our choice is the correct, natural and normal choice. We often attribute a judgement on anyone who doesn’t make the same choice or think the same way. Lets use an example of something I heard a comedian talking about, although the sketch was for comedy benefit, what he actually did was tap into the psychology of human behaviour and how we structure our judgements. In short, the point he made was that we view everyone who drives on the road slower than us as an idiot, and everyone who drives faster than us a maniac. With only us driving at the correct speed I’m surprised we get anywhere with all those idiots and maniacs on the road, (obviously it’s all in the delivery 🙂 ). The point being is that we deem ourselves the only one responsible for driving at the correct speed and most other people are just not as good. Lets transfer this same attitude into nutrition.
I’ve heard friends make outraged comments about observed food choices other people are making, which they then attribute a flaw in that person’s character to said food choice. For instance, someone picks up a can of coke and muffin for breakfast, ‘no wonder they are fat’, or ‘they must be a certain type of person’, judgements of their character or self based on their nutritional choices. I have also heard comments such as ‘well, their the sort of people that eat at Burger King’, what ‘sort’ of person is that?! Anyone who walks through the door of Burger King and buys something, if we’re being objective. I am not beyond chastisement for this type of attitude either. I know when I first delved deeper into the world of nutrition I was very ‘gung ho’ with my message and felt other people were slightly crazy if they didn’t see what I was talking about. Luckily this lasted for a short period of time and I’ve managed to grow and evolve past this nutritional elitism, because elitism in anything is just not cricket. Just because someone doesn’t make the best nutritional choices in life, thats not enough to cast assumptions on their character, especially as we never know what someone’s struggles are.
Barrier’s People May Face
It is a fact that to eat healthily in this country, by which I mean consuming food that contributes both to the eater’s health as well as to the health of the environment, costs more than it does to eat poorly. Indeed, the rules of the game by which we eat create a situation in which it is actually rational to eat poorly. If you live on a tight budget and struggle to keep your family fed, the trips you take to the supermarket are, in effect, foraging for energy, calorie dense foods to keep your family alive. If we compared £’s for calories, processed foods would win out most of the time. No wonder there is a correlation between low income and obesity or other health related problems, it makes sense.
A Disordered Relationship with Food
Emotional or disordered eating can drive individuals to seek out food for other reasons than purely survival. Often people who emotionally eat do so for comfort or to satiate feelings in some way, this will often involve seeking out food which is more processed and higher in calories and/or sugar, it’s a natural drive in this circumstance. People can also create attachment to certain foods, foods they feel are ‘safe’, or perhaps they have rigid rules and can only allow themselves to eat certain foods. I have had more than one client who has had to work hard just on the psychological impact of changing their breakfast/lunch/dinner, as their attachment to particular foods go far beyond just a nutritional choice. Food has power over some people and at times it can be overwhelming.
This is incredibly important when it comes to making better choices. People can be bombarded with certain foods, an example would be regular treats hanging around the office, or going to party’s on a regular basis, working in a food environment or being faced with treats around the house. When faced with these foods regularly enough it can become a fixed habit to choose these foods, sometimes even subconsciously with little active thought in the process. Research shows that we will always favour food which is readily available to us, which obviously makes sense.
Ill health – Temporary or Chronic
I know if I feel sick or unwell I want something sugary. This is my body’s way of getting energy and trying to offset the lack of energy or nausea I’m feeling. But for someone who has a chronic illness and is faced with feeling unwell on a daily basis it can become very difficult to always make better nutritional choices. (of course this can be a vicious cycle as good nutrition can enhance health and help heal at times, but thats not always at the forefront of someone’s mind when dealing with illness). Depression and anxiety are often isolating and when people isolate themselves they can become bored, boredom can also be a big reason to snack and choose foods for comfort.
Lack of Knowledge
Sometimes people just don’t know, they don’t know what protein, carbohydrates or fat is. They are unaware of how food interacts with their body and they may have little inclination, time, resources or ability to want to learn. This doesn’t make them bad people, this is not something you can attribute to their character as a whole.
Food ‘shaming’ is becoming more and more common. I see it amongst my colleagues, I see it amongst my friends and I’ve seen it in myself before. But where does this elitist attitude get anyone? Does it help the people who aspersions are being cast upon? Does it help the person casting aspersions to feel better, more superior, in the ‘right’? and does it help anyone else who may want to learn or grow or evolve at their own speed, with their own agenda?
Nutrition is one subject where people feel justified to offer advice when it isn’t asked for, or to try and ‘help’ when it isn’t required. Something I’ve learnt is that unless people want to learn or ask something in particular, it is not my place to offer advice where it may not be needed. Much the same as if people choose to read my blog, it is their choice to do so, and their choice to do what they will with the information I write about.
I think it’s great to teach ourselves and our children about ‘good’ nutrition, and to be able to use that knowledge in a way that empowers us to be healthier in general. I think it’s great to be proud of what we do, what we teach our children and how they take that forward, and we should be. But I think it’s also important to be aware of our privileges and that our choices are OUR choices. If someone doesn’t agree or comply I don’t believe it is acceptable to attribute this to a character flaw in them, or cast aspersions on their lifestyle. If we eat a healthful diet we need to be aware of our privilege to afford this, to understand what constitutes a healthful diet, to be physical able and have the ability to make ‘good’ choices.
Nutrition and food is very individual and it’s about our own journey, keeping ‘eyes on our own plate’ is part of that journey.