You’ve probably been told a few times in your life — by a well-meaning parent, teacher or even your physician — that healthy eating is important because “you are what you eat.” This popular mantra has been around for decades and is used to help people understand the importance of food to their overall health and well-being. Without discrediting food’s impact, my opinion is that this mantra is more myth than truth.
Of course, we can argue that we are what we eat at the cellular level. Nutrients from our food are used for growth, repair, development, reproduction and building a strong immune system. Thanks to the Genome Project, we also know that the food we eat affects our genes, and our genes affect how we respond to our food. In a nutshell, it’s not as simple as “eating fat will make you fat.”
Nutrition science is complex, and sometimes we get it wrong. Recent studies illustrate the fact that many of the decade-old “rules” we follow for eating healthy (think: low-fat diets) were wrong, especially when it came to the relationship between fat and heart-disease risk. Current research shows that sugar intake is probably more of an indicator of risk for heart disease than fat ever was.
Gut health is another important piece of the “you are what you eat” conundrum. It may make more sense to change the mantra to “you are what you absorb.” A healthy gut is necessary for the nutrients we eat to actually be absorbed and fully used by the body. This ability may much more accurately reflect how well we’re able to prevent disease and stay healthy long-term.
So, should we just eat whatever we want and hope for the best?
Not at all. Food is more than just a source of nutrients, and our relationship with food is as complex as the nutrition science. Food has the power to affect how we feel about ourselves and our outlook on life. If we take this mantra too seriously, it can promote a much too rigid expectation for what “healthy eating” looks like. This can lead to feelings of judgment not only by society but from within ourselves. When we’re not consistently meeting the requirements of “healthy,” it can lead to feelings of guilt. This has the potential to create disordered eating practices that may ultimately do more harm to our long term health than good.
In addition, the food we eat is not the only marker for long-term health. We know other lifestyle elements can make a huge impact on health, including exercise, smoking and stress. If we are what we eat, we may also be how we act and how we think. Understanding how your own unique body chemistry responds to the food you eat is the first step toward creating lifelong health. Once you determine what foods make you feel good, you’re much more apt to eat them consistently. This will likely be different for everyone. What makes your best friend burst with energy may deplete you of yours. Healthy eating is relative; someone with an autoimmune disease, digestive issues or arthritis may benefit from avoiding grains, whereas for others this may be unnecessarily restrictive.
When we diet, we tend to overly focus on what we’re not eating and less on what we are. We place so much more emphasis on what we can’t have. The essence of “you are what you eat” should focus on the food we do consume, not the ones we restrict.
Perhaps adopting an 80/20 rule for healthy eating is the best course of action for long-term health. This principle recognizes that nutrients from food help our body to perform at its optimal best but also allows for the elements of food that brings us joy, like mom’s freshly baked cookies or pizza night on Fridays.
Consistency and moderation go a long way when it comes to maintaining lifelong health and preventing disease. Instead of hyper-focusing on specific nutrients or avoiding entire food groups, we may be better off eating food that makes us feel good and eating it most of the time. Making this mindset shift in your own diet can change the way you think about food and may ultimately lead to better health and weight loss.