Something tells us this isn’t the first article you’re reading trying to answer this question. Nutrition has been a huge topic of discussion in regards to lifestyle and wellness for decades now. Diet culture, specifically, has now dominated conversation given the rise of social media and celebrity. With its power to distort reality, people have become convinced that certain body types are more desirable than others, which subsequently leads to poor choices in nutrition while believing it’s healthy.1
But what does science say? What do our bodies need on a daily basis to stay in top form and keep us living to our best potential?
Although we learn at a young age what foods are good for you, the importance of keeping a balanced nutrition has gotten lost in the impact of social media and influencer culture.
These images most likely look familiar to you. The food pyramid (seen on the left) was first implemented by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) back in 1992 for the public to use as a reference for what constituted a healthy diet. Other public health organizations then created their own graphics of the pyramid and posted them on their walls and websites for distribution. From schools to hospitals, this pyramid was seen everywhere after its inception, but the USDA soon decided to change the pyramid into a graphic that would be more visually stimulating and comprehensible not only for adults, but for children as well.
The USDA found that the pyramid was causing some confusion. People were interpreting it as literal steps to advance through rather than tiers of food groups that all make up a healthy diet.2 So, in 2011, they introduced the now infamous MyPlate visual, which gave a clear image of what one’s plate should look like while having good nutritional habits. Yet despite these helpful, research-backed, doctor-approved food maps, we still see a prevalent struggle to follow them amongst all age-groups across the country, and the more lifestyle has become its own online market, the more our society strays from what we know is good for us.
So how do we combat the crisis our country now faces when it comes to nutrition and diet culture?
First, it is important to acknowledge that American society has a dichotomy surrounding the subject. On the one hand, we have a serious obesity problem that has been heavily documented in the media, creating a hostile environment for struggling obese people that makes their eating habits worse out of stress and discouragement. On the other hand, we have our so-called lifestyle “gurus” on social media that push restrictive and unenjoyable eating habits, causing the opposite kind of relationship with food, which some like to call “food-fear.” Most of us may attribute the U.S’s struggle with obesity mostly with our love of fast food. However, this is not the only contributing factor. Much of why people struggle to make healthy food choices is mental. When we see popular influencers on social media promoting such strict nutritional guidelines on themselves, it can not only create insecurity within their audience but also confusion towards food itself.
Is the only way to “look good” not enjoying our meals at all?
Do we need to force ourselves to eat the foods we don’t like just because they are considered “healthy” and will make me look like Influencer X?
These are the kinds of questions that run through many people’s minds when seeing this kind of lifestyle content centered around diet and nutrition.
While it seems we will never be able to reconcile all of these complicated relationships with food and nutrition, there is good news, and it comes right down to science. We have allowed ourselves to get swept away in the media frenzy surrounding lifestyle and wellness. While there is content online that is accurate, honest, and helpful, it is often overshadowed by supposed “healthy” lifestyle trends that are unrealistic and, even more importantly, unenjoyable.
The answer lies in the visuals above. While it may seem old school, these are the only “guidelines” that provide a fair balance of foods in one’s diet. If you notice, the USDA has also made a point of accounting for the natural desire to indulge in some sweets and other delights here and there. There is nothing wrong with this and no one should ever feel that they can’t eat foods they want and enjoy.
The key is in moderation. Too much of one thing is never good, so having space on your plate for all five food groups is essential to having a truly balanced diet. Each serves an important purpose, and all work together to keep your body happy and nourished. Fruits and vegetables provide essential vitamins, minerals, and fibres that keep the body healthy; grains are the necessary carbohydrates (yes, CARBS, it’s important to eat them too) that give us the energy we need to take on our day; protein supplies the body with key amino acids, which are the building block of the body; dairy provides the calcium that builds strong bones and healthy teeth.
The USDA diagrams also account for supplement intake, which is another method of getting the nutrients needed to stay healthy without eating foods that maybe one prefers not to eat. While supplements should never replace food completely, they can be an added part to one’s eating routines to keep the body sustained and immunity boosted.
Despite the difficult culture currently surrounding nutrition and diet in our society, there are still resources available to reassure us that what we see online is not always the answer. Everyone’s body is different, and the way we choose to nourish ourselves is our choice. As long as we are making nutritional changes that promote balance, we will find ourselves less conflicted about the food choices that we make, and feeling less guilty about indulging once in a while. Nutrition should not be a topic that promotes fear and shame. Rather, it should reflectpride in how we choose to take care of our bodies, and be a space where we can all come together to appreciate the delicious foods we have at our disposal on a daily basis.