I don’t have a great relationship with food. In fact, that’s an understatement. I have a bad relationship with food and exist on the perpetual verge of a worse one.
I have good reasons for this. First up there are the body image issues, which in my case have very little to do with being attractive to an arbitrary observer and a lot to do with being trans and chronically ill and thus spending my life feeling like I’m in a body that holds me back from living the life I want to live. It’s hard to love your body when it hurts all the time and stops you from doing the things you love. I’m also a dancer, which doesn’t help with the whole body image thing.
Oh, and I have a million dietary restrictions, and no matter how closely I stick to them, still have constant stomach trouble. I currently can’t eat gluten (I’m coeliac), lactose, fruit, or nuts (I have pollen-food syndrome). I also have sensory issues that further restrict what foods I can stand to eat. Thus, the prospect of food is generally fairly unappealing, because it requires a lot of effort (and money) and the result tends to be more suffering.
So me and food? We’re not the best of friends. I can’t allow myself to think about it too much. I can’t count calories; even when I did so with the best of intentions (to make sure I was eating enough), within a week I was actively restricting my intake. I can’t let myself diet. I have an obsessive personality and too many factors making me susceptible to disordered eating habits.
Despite all of this, I currently have the healthiest diet I’ve had in years — possibly my entire life. I eat more protein and get more vitamins. I’ve gained muscle and my boobs have shrunk (which is great). And it’s not just because I gave up Haribo, to which I had a real and frankly embarrassing addiction. It’s because I learned how to trick myself into eating better without thinking about it.
For me, ‘better’ means fewer carbs (my diet used to be 90% pasta) and more protein, because I had very little of it. I was B12 deficient and, while not yet anaemic, well on my way to getting there. The dietitian at the coeliac clinic told me to eat more protein, and because I knew my carb-heavy diet wasn’t helping my fatigue, so that was part of it. But the change was also motivated by my return to Irish dance and a desire to give my muscles a helping hand with the whole strengthening thing.
But healthy does not mean every meal taking two hours to prepare or requiring a ton of complicated ingredients or everything being cooked from scratch. I have chronic pain and fatigue and I share a student kitchen, dude. Cooking things from scratch when ready-made ones exist is never going to happen. Ideally everything I eat takes minimal effort, time, and equipment to make, which also helps with the whole ‘not overthinking food’ thing.
It can be really, really hard to balance “moderate and sensible efforts to eat healthier” with “obsessive dieting and disordered eating habits” if you have anxiety, an obsessive personality, or pre-existing issues of the sort. So I thought I’d share what I’ve figured out.
Admittedly, some “healthy” habits have been forced on me. Developing an intolerance to lactose has seriously limited my biscuit options, so I eat fewer of them. Other habits have been impossible — I can’t eat fruit as a substitute for sweets, because of allergies. But as for the rest…
First of all:
Lentil pasta is absolutely amazing.
I discovered lentil pasta because it was in the free-from section and I thought it would make a change from regular gluten free pasta. For me, it’s not that much more expensive, although if you’re used to regular wheat pasta, it can seem pricey.
Lentil pasta is amazing because it feels like eating pasta. It’s low effort (it actually cooks faster than normal pasta), texturally very similar to regular pasts, but has a lot more protein. Like, a lot.
I’ve all but completely swapped pasta for lentil pasta and it’s made it so much easier to eat protein without putting any effort into it at all. I recommend the Morrison’s free-from fusilli — it’s a fair bit cheaper than the Napolina penne and I actually like it better.
(You can also get various other pastas like pea pasta, black bean pasta etc. I only get lentil because I eat peas a lot anyway but lentils are a major pain to cook.)
Frozen vegetables are your friend
This is one of those pieces of advice that only works if you have access to a freezer. If you don’t, I’m sorry, and I feel you, because that was me in first year. But frozen spinach has been a revelation. I only got into spinach last term, when I was trying to increase my iron intake without supplements, but buying it fresh meant I had to eat it everyday for a week to get through a bag — and ended up totally sick of spinach. Now I keep a bag of frozen spinach in my freezer; it’ll probably last me most of the term, and is super easy to add to pasta.
I tend to buy some vegetables fresh, but frozen mixed veg can also be a great friend. No more chopping. No more trying to decide which one to eat. Just dump a bunch of frozen vegetables in with your lentil pasta while it boils, rinse it, add some tomato sauce or something, and tada: one saucepan, very little effort, nutritious meal.
Up until now my advice has been vegan-friendly, but eggs are amazing. Boiled eggs are very little effort, and I tend to eat them with toast when I come home from dance. Fried and scrambled eggs require slightly more effort, but they’re still quick and don’t require toiling over a stove for ages. Or stick some cheese and spinach in an omelette — even better.
I’ve always eaten eggs, but not in anything like the quantities I’ve eaten them this year. They’re a great post-dance food because they’re easy and I’m always tired, but they also have a ton of protein and B12 and other useful things I was lacking in the past.
Calories tell you nothing
You probably already know this, but it bears repeating. Calories tell you nothing (or very little) about how healthy you are. I refuse to count calories at all because I know it’s unhelpful to me. I’d like to avoid reading the packets of food altogether, but I have a bunch of allergies, so I kind of need to know what’s in stuff. But I don’t look at calories. When I got a FitBit, I deleted the calorie and food-tracking sections from the app and display so I wouldn’t see them.
When I decided to improve my diet, I told myself it wasn’t about eating less. It was about eating better. Instead of tracking how much I eat, I tick off on a habit tracker whether any given day involved protein or vegetables. To my surprise, I fairly often do better at the former — probably because of all the lentil pasta.
Sure, I’ve made a conscious effort to eat the less processed versions of some foods. I now buy chicken breasts instead of nuggets on a regular basis. But not because they’re lower fat or have fewer calories. That’s not a useful way of tracking things, for me.
If you can’t do it in moderation, don’t do it at all
This is the #1 thing I’ve learned about my response to food. I can’t do things in moderation. So, I don’t let myself diet, because I always get obsessive and consequently anxious about it. I also can’t be trusted to eat Haribo in moderation (a kilogramme of Haribo every week is TOO MUCH), so I’ve banned myself from eating it at all until I can have one or two without eating the entire packet.
If you can’t think about healthy eating without berating yourself for every mildly unhealthy snack, then ignore this post. Seriously. Giving yourself a complex is more unhealthy. But if you’ve been thinking you want to try and be healthier but you’re worried about taking it to extremes, maybe try swapping your regular pasta for lentil pasta. You can satisfy your pasta cravings, get protein, and not think about food, all at the same time.
This post has been epically long, so I’ll end it here, but if anyone’s got any other tips to share for tricking yourself into eating more nutritiously without any conscious effort, I’d love to hear them!
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go and make a pizza for lunch.