Tomorrow is Thanksgiving, a day that has become less about being thankful and more about eating large quantities of tasty food. Now, if you’re already thinking about clicking away from this page before I make you feel guilty about your plans to indulge, don’t worry, that’s not where I’m going with this.
Where I’m going is that I realize that most of us feel some conflict between our desire to be healthy, and to do the things we need to do to achieve health, and our desire to just relax and enjoy ourselves. If we’re trying to walk a path towards health, the Holidays are a time when we tend to feel that conflict more acutely.
If you are a patient at Four Rivers Clinic, you have probably been advised to avoid certain foods which have been contributing to your health challenges: food allergens such as wheat or dairy, perhaps, or that whole list of foods that came up on your food allergy panel. And then there’s the grains, carbs and sugar we probably told you to cut back on or avoid. The list of foods to avoid almost starts to sound like an ingredients list for Thanksgiving dinner!
Changing your diet towards a healthier one can sometimes feel like a sacrifice, or drudgery, leaving out many of the things you really enjoy, and substituting them with, well, less tasty things (I admit it, herb tea just doesn’t compare to a good cup of coffee). With a big holiday meal looming ahead we may find ourselves either psyching ourselves up to be strong and say no to the candied yams, or telling ourselves we’re just going to go ahead and enjoy ourselves, all the while feeling a little guilty or worrying that we may be doing ourselves some harm by going “off our diet”.
For those of you who relate to what I’ve just said, I would like to offer the following thoughts.
Making good dietary choices is all about perspective. For some people, a single serving of a certain food will cause a significant flare-up of symptoms. If you know that eating a little wheat on Thursday will result in a rash or asthma attack on Friday, then it’s probably not a good idea to dig into the pumpkin pie (or at least to not eat the crust). If, however, you know that you have to eat a certain food for several days before it starts to cause symptoms, then a little at Thanksgiving dinner is probably a safe bet, as long as you don’t keep eating the left overs for days afterwards!
What we eat or don’t eat is not a moral issue, it’s a functional issue. Some of us can be quite self-critical if we eat foods we’re “not supposed to”. The truth, however, is that we don’t avoid certain foods because they are inherently “bad”, we avoid them because they have adverse effects on our health, pure and simple. Self criticism isn’t useful (and it isn’t very much fun either). What is useful is to develop a healthy relationship with the foods we eat by having a realistic perception of how they affect us and making choices that are self loving.
We work to improve our health so that we can have a better quality of life. But part of a better quality of life is enjoying ourselves, and part of enjoying ourselves is to enjoy the food we eat, particularly on special occasions and on occasions that have emotional meaning for us.
The bottom line:
Sometimes it’s healthier to just “eat the cookie”. When Dr. Greta was in naturopathic school she and her classmates found that the more they learned about all the harm that can come from foods in the standard American diet the more stressed out they became about eating just about anything. They realized that this fear of food was, in and of itself, unhealthy, so they developed a saying to help them lighten up: “Eat the cookie”. This helped to remind them that sometimes it’s better to just enjoy yourself and not worry too much about the health consequences of every little thing.
It should be noted, however, that the saying wasn’t “Eat the whole package of cookies”. It’s all about balance, perspective and honesty with ourselves. To achieve and maintain health, most of the foods we consume need to be nutritious, whole and uncontaminated, but we need sensory and emotional nourishment as well and food is part of how we get that. Therefore, the occasional indulgence is actually health promoting, as long as we don’t overdo things, or start sliding down a slippery dietary slope.
So, please enjoy your Thanksgiving meal. Enjoy the people you have that meal with. You have your doctors’ encouragement to indulge yourself a little bit. And, if you feel so inclined, maybe spend just a few minutes thinking about, or sharing with others at the table, some of the things you really are thankful for.