How The Myth of Perfect Eating Sabotages Your Health—and what to do about it

When did the notion of being perfect somehow become better than being real?  It was probably a looong time ago, but I think that social media has has added fuel to the fire more recently. . . especially when it comes to food.

 

PERFECT FOOD SETS AN ARBITRARILY HIGH BAR

The recent trend in showcasing perfect foods as a means of achieving health might be leading us down the wrong pathway.

The food images we see on social media are so pristine … so clean … so pure. You know what I'm talking about. An image of perfectly aligned foods in a rainbow palate, with an Adriatic Sea backdrop and iconic white Greek villa blurred in the distance.

B r e a t h t a k i n g ! ! !

Honestly, I love staring at perfect pictures like that, juuust before feeling slightly depressed and wondering what I'm supposed to do with the #instafood pics. Should I feel badly that my meal doesn't look as magical? Should I arrange my dinner plate as if it´s going to be in a photoshoot? Should I eat more exotic foods? Or should I feel badly that I haven't vacationed to an exotic place … since way before my children were born? I am not sure exactly.

I´ve been to Greece, but the social media interpretation we see is not really how Greeks eat. Personally, the most amazing food I ate there was served at a hole-in-the-wall cottage-like structure, colonized by five feral cats, and run by an elderly couple who—I think—served us dinner from their personal kitchen. In fact, at one restaurant, the woman in the kitchen stirring the pot on the stove was actually barefoot and pregnant! Hardly the pristine images I am accustomed to seeing on Instagram!

As a nutritionist living in Spain for almost 8 years, I study, explore, and live the Mediterranean way of eating and living each and every day, and it has absolutely nothing to do with perfection or clean eating.

The images on social media represent an American interpretation of the beauty and simplicity of Greek or Mediterranean food, paired with our obsessive tendencies to make it slightly more perfect.

We are perfectionizing it.

Yet, food is imperfect ... eating is imperfect … and life is imperfect.

Let me be the first to say that
it's about time we disrupt dieting! #disruptdieting

 

THE HAVES AND HAVE-NOTS OF HEALTH

The concept of showcasing healthful foods and active lifestyles is a nice idea, and the intentions are good. Theoretically, the more nourishing foods we see glamorously displayed, the more inclined we are to eat them. Perhaps. Yet, I feel that such a display of food separates us into the haves and the have-nots of health. You don't need exotic goji berry smoothie bowls adorned with hemp seeds to live healthfully. If that´s your jam—great (I love me a green smoothie). However, if you are thinking that's the only way to better your health, then you might give up because the bar has been set too high.

Generally, nutrition experts have come to a consensus about the optimal foods for long-term health. As famous food enthusiast Mark Bittman stated in a Vox interview:

We know what it is that we ought to be eating. It´s more fruits and vegetables and less animal products and processed stuff. Let´s talk about that. Let’s set the local and organic and micro-greens aside and say if you like that stuff; if you can afford that stuff, more power to you, but the important thing is that everyone focus on eating real food.
— Mark Bittman, Food Journalist

 

As Dr. David Katz, Director of Yale University Prevention Research Center, reminds us:

“Health is for something. We tend to attach a moral imperative to being healthy. The point is healthy people have more fun.”
— David Katz, MD, MPH

Therefore, a true movement promoting health and vitality should support the broader vision of helping more people along a simple and sustainable pathway to wellness ... to have more fun.

This perfectionizing is not just on social media. That is only the latest expression. Americans have a rich history of tweaking food and crafting diet crazes. Most food we buy in the supermarket is selling us on the idea that it´s perfect. We have scientifically designed protein bars for fueling our work-out, fortified breakfast cereals powering our children, micronutrient-infused water hydrating our workouts, and canned vegetable soup touting that it's healthier than the real thing—actual vegetables.

The most disturbing example of perfecting our food is infant formula, whereby specially formulated powders were promoted to new mothers as a sterilized and superior version of rustic, old-fashioned breast milk.

None of these processed and reformulated foods have inched us closer to health. In fact, perfecting whole foods is what got us here in the first place—a manufactured, highly processed food chain, which is associated with increased weight gain, metabolic disease, chronic disease, and reducing quality of life. In other words—we are eating less real food and having less fun.

We also attach great value to foods that look perfect. Supermarkets stock shiny, shapely fruit and vegetables, while literally tons and tons of excess imperfectly shaped odd-balls are sent to landfills. In the US, between 30 and 40% of our food is wasted, averaging more than 20 pounds of food per person per month.

Message received loud and clear.

Our current food trend is perfection or bust!

 

IS PERFECTION THE PATHWAY TO WELLNESS?

As we learned from the Blue Zones cross-cultural research explored by Dan Buettner and National Geographic, many healthy people and cultures around the world who experience high quality of life, low rates of chronic disease and increased life span don't overthink food nor try to redesign whole foods to make them even better. Instead, they stick to the basics: prepared wholesome foods from the region, plated with love, and paired with great company. Italian food and culture are wonderful examples of how a few basic ingredients create a complexity of flavor, pleasure and delight ... especially when shared around a big table filled with laughter.

Our perfectioning of food flows into many other areas of our life, feeding our strong desire to “do it all” and “be it all.” It's easy to compare ourselves to others and fault ourselves for not being someone else. Yet, this insatiable desire to be the perfect version of someone else stands in the way of being the best version of ourselves. It paralyzes us from having the courage to take on challenges and initiate change for our health.

Personally, I struggle with “perfecting” my own health routine. I want to cook wholesome dinners every night for my family, enjoy invigorating morning jogs to clear my mind, pack Pinterest-perfect lunchbox for my children, and—what mother doesn't want to brandish homemade granola bars at the after-school pick-up? I get it. We want it all!!

Yet, I am working on letting go the fear of not being perfect paralyze me from taking small steps forward towards health.

These are some of the concerns I hear from my own clients and students when it comes to perfectioning health and food. . .

  • “I´m so exhausted that a few changes to my diet won't be enough to energize me.”

  • “I´ll start eating better once life slows down.”

  • “I can´t change my health without overhauling my whole life—forget it!”

  • “I can't cook. My food never looks or tastes like it does when other people make it.”

  • “I can´t eat nutritious meals every day, so why bother ever?”

  • “I´m not going to exercise because I won´t look like I did 10 years ago.”

  • “I can´t go to the gym until I'm in better shape.”

The mindset of perfection is destructive
to our health.
 

FIGHT PERFECTION WITH A RETURN TO OUR ROOTS

My crazy entrepreneur friend, Jason Zook, founder of Buy My Future (along with many other cool things), sums it up most concisely:

“Perfection is a virus. Don’t let it infect you. Stop searching for perfection and start focusing on completion.”
— Jason Zook, Creator of Buy My Future

 

I couldn't agree more. By focusing on the completion of each tiny step along the pathway to better health, it becomes a matter of practice rather than perfection.  

For your health and your eating habits, stay focused on the basics. Keep it simple and take one step forward without getting lost in your grandiose vision of perfect health. Try one of these steps or create your own first step:

  • Sit down for dinner with your children tonight.

  • Add a handful of greens to your dinner plate and drizzle with olive oil.

  • Chop up an assortment of fruit and store in the fridge for an easy peasy snack.

  • Stash a small container of unsalted mixed nuts and dried figs in your backpack for a pinch.

  • Pack a lunch one day this week using my 4-Step method.

  • Learn the simplest way to make any whole grain at home.

  • Take a walk on your lunch break tomorrow because you like fresh air.

 

Do whatever gets you moving forward without going overboard and falling off the cliff.

 

Remember that food should unite us. We want more people to enjoy nutritious and sustainable food. We already have wholesome imperfectly perfect foods on earth, so let's cultivate and enjoy our relationship with those foods. Put your momentum and your mind power behind these movements:

  • Growing school gardens (and White House Gardens)

  • Visiting your local farmers´ markets

  • Sharing meals with friends, family, and community

  • Picking up that imperfect produce

  • Cooking a few more meals at home

  • Passing on traditional recipes and culinary techniques to your children

 

IN A NUTSHELL

  • Food does not have to be perfect.

  • Eating should not be clean or pristine.

  • Food does not have to be gorgeous.

  • Food can be rustic, dirty, messy, creative, fun, rich, improvisational, luxurious, delicious, and wild.

If we are going to create a food movement, let´s choose one that brings us together and includes more expressways to long-term health. #disruptdieting

There will always be a need for high-end culinary excellence and scientific advancement of food, yet this should be the exception and not be setting the bar for health.

It's tough to keep it real when it comes to #instafood and Pinterest perfection, but I'm going to make a conscious effort to show realistic rooted and rustic foods at least 80% of the time. There is always room for extravagance now and then—and that's the point!

You call me out if my food pics get too perfect-y!  

 

Keep it rooted. Keep it rustic. Keep it real!