3 Things I Learned This Summer

I’ve been pretty MIA in the past few months, mainly due to my internship requirements while maintaining a part-time job and managing to have some fun here and there. Writing a blog definitely cuts into having a social life, so I pushed myself to get out more and enjoy the Triangle area as much as possible. I worked pretty hard, but I made sure to play hard too. I’m only 25 and I don’t want to let my graduate education be the death of me!

Ever heard of Grad School Barbie?

“Graduate School Barbie comes in two forms: Delusional Master’s Barbie (TM) and Ph.D. Masochist Barbie (TM).”

That said, I did have a very educational summer. I didn’t blog about my job at the Inter-Faith Food Shuttle as much as I would have liked, partially due to confidentiality issues and partially due to time, but there were a few major lessons I learned while working this summer. I’ve narrowed down my top three for you.

1. Some people couldn’t eat Paleo even if they wanted to.

I had no idea that hunger was such a huge problem in this country, until I spent the summer working at a food bank like the Inter-Faith Food Shuttle. I’ve always grown up in comfort, having access to any type of food I wanted (within reason), combined with the knowledge of which food is healthy for me and which isn’t. I’ve been instilled with the belief that healthy food is worth spending money on, and my grocery bills prove it. I never realized that poor food choices could be anything but the individual’s responsibility. But I also never realized that sometimes, healthy food is literally not available where a person lives. And I never realized that in a country as wealthy and modern as ours, that there could be children going without food for days on end. But this is all happening less than 15 miles down the road from my comfortable apartment in Chapel Hill.

I was exposed to an entirely different side of nutrition this summer. I had been under the impression that the study of nutrition was to identify the ideal human diet and to educate others on how to eat to optimize their health. And yes, for some people, that’s the goal of nutrition. But I’ve now learned that there are many thousands of people for whom optimal health is out of reach, and simply getting adequate calories to make it through the day is the only thing on their mind when deciding what to eat. For people living in “food deserts”, they don’t even have a choice to purchase fresh foods, since they don’t have a grocery store available to access these foods even if they wanted them. For these people, packaged junk food is their only option. How can this be possible in a country like America?

It’s an eye-opening experience to realize that most people out there don’t have the luxury of trying to “optimize” their health. I’ll take this with me when it comes to my own perspective on nutrition. I’ll always believe in the whole foods message and try my best to guide others down that path, but sometimes you just need to make the best with what people have and understand that not everyone will be able to achieve the perfect diet, or even come close to it. Sometimes people’s lives just don’t support an optimal diet and maybe just an improved diet will suffice. As I said, I’ll always guide people towards what I think is optimal, but in the end, people need to eat… and I have to come to terms with the fact that an ideal diet isn’t in the cards for a lot of people.

The wonderful selection in your local food desert.

2. The government cannot tell us what to eat

This summer, I’ve also seen what happens when the government makes a decision on what is “healthy”, and it’s not good. From WIC benefits to school lunch programs, the emphasis on low-fat (or fat-free) dairy, minimal red meat and saturated fat consumption, and a religious obsession with whole grains permeates throughout every government run food program out there. Except SNAP (formerly food stamps), which is unregulated as far as nutrition standards go, a fact that is quite contentious with the public health community, where many believe that the government should only allow “healthy” food purchases with our tax money. And I see the argument, and I’d agree with it if I felt that the government had a good handle on what was considered “healthy”. However, I can’t see the benefit in taking away the freedom of choice from already marginalized people in order to stuff low-fat low-sodium commodity crops down their throats.

So while it’s unfortunate that food stamps are being used to buy cheese puffs and Oreos, I don’t trust the government to regulate the food that low-income people are buying, considering what they are feeding our children and mothers on WIC. I’m not sure whose job it is to ensure that all Americans have access to affordable healthy food, but I truly don’t believe that the government is going to accomplish this enormous task. Especially with the current dietary guidelines as they’ve been established.

3. There is more to life than nutrition!

I realized that I was starting to get an unhealthy obsession with nutrition and food over the past few months. Orthorexia, if you will. Maybe not as extreme as some people take it, but certainly enough that my life was being negatively affected by my excessive focus on eating healthily and exercising, all while reading way too many blog posts and articles about nutrition theory. At some point you have to assess what your interest in physical health is doing to your mental and emotional health. I don’t want to skip getting drinks with friends because I have to go to the gym 6 days per week. I don’t want to avoid restaurants on dates because I am worried about what I’m going to eat when I’m there. I don’t want to spend all my evenings reading nutrition articles when there are bestselling books that I would enjoy reading.

Life is too short to be obsessed with health and nutrition. The concept of “diminishing returns” comes to mind when I realize how unhappy I was for the few months that I got way too into the whole Ancestral health community. This isn’t to say that I’ll be removing myself completely, far from it. In fact, I’ll be attending the Ancestral Health Symposium next week with my mother for a nutrition-and-health-packed long weekend. And I’m truly looking forward to it. That said, I’ll probably be laying low a little bit with the blog for the next few months, and only writing when I think there is something important or interesting to say.

Yes, I love learning about nutrition and I’m enjoying finishing my degree here at UNC. And I’ll continue to remain curious and opinionated about what I hear and read, both while in school and when I finally get out into the real world for my career. But I’m going to balance all this with enjoying my life as much as possible, because I really think I started to lose sight of what was most important in life during my spring semester. Yes, health is quite important, but not as important as happiness.

I hope you all will take a look at your own lives and re-evaluate your priorities as far as health and fitness go. Of course it’s important to be healthy, but make sure your dedication to health isn’t making you unhealthy – mentally, emotionally, or even spiritually – in the process.

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  1. Laura, this is a wonderful post! I’m glad you wrote about your experiences with the IFS; it’s so easy to forget that for a lot of people, having access to ANY food is the paramount issue. It’s fine for people who can afford grass-fed beef to quibble about the fine points of paleo diet, but we should all remember what you write so eloquently about before we start judging other people. It extends to so much beyond food choices – most people are doing the best they can, and it’s so much better to encourage and help than to judge.

    Which makes me think of your last point about becoming too obsessed. At literally twice your age, I can definitely say that different things are going to be important at different times in one’s life, and it’s good to develop the ability to accept that sometimes we have to – or want to – change our focus and make adaptations. Without being morbid about it, I have the perspective of thinking about how many years I have left, and what do I want to spend them doing? Certainly I’ll eat/exercise to support health and (hopefully) longevity, but I don’t want to be on my deathbed wishing I’d spent more time with my loved ones and less time trying to achieve a certain % of bodyfat.

    I hope you’ll continue to find time to update us about your studies and experiences.

  2. Even though they may be spaced way apart, I’m really excited and interested to read your future posts. You have an amazing, and very useful for many, perspective!

    Great post!

  3. That was really a great article. I hope you realize that when you think about real food sources for those who have none, then a whole new time consuming research begins. The whole teaching a person to fish thing. Home gardens, neighborhood gardens. That’s what is needed……fresh food at the area of need. And it could help with the “9 meals from anarchy” thing also.
    Saddend to hear about your eating on a date also. I turn 60 next year and really thought I might have a shot. 🙂
    I enjoy your posts so OK on less but lets not hit zero.

  4. Nice to read this Laura. As a dietitian with a private practice, people come to me at all stages of nutrition knowledge and ability. Ability is the key word – and the focus of the first session is on determining what they actually “can” and “will” do to improve their diets. Of course teaching them some fundamental nutrition “truths” are also part of that first session.

    This week I had a wide range of clients, to whom I gave a wide range of recommendations (although I have a pretty consistent overall plan that I work from). One obese woman I simply asked to go the grocery store for fresh food once per week and eat more quality protein at lunch. She balked at the grocery store idea, to which I directed her to a store that delivers. She and I agreed that was all she would be able to work on until her next session.

    Today, I saw a young mother who is dealing with several issues in her family life. She also is obese and dreams of wearing “a 2-piece bathing suit” someday. I stressed to her the importance of simply eating 3 real meals a day with her daughter and getting her daughter involved in the selection and preparation of foods such as vegetables. I also reinforced the idea of “health first, wieght loss second.” She seemed to get it and I feel she will slowly yet surely change her unproductive behaviors.

    Another female patient I saw for the third time today has really embraced the idea of eating whole foods, with full-fat dairy, and more vegetables, while basically eliminating most bread. She has lost 8 lbs in 9 weeks, great progress for a 40+ year old woman with some insulin resistance. She expressed some disappointed in this rate of weight loss, but my assurance that she was exceeding my expectations for her progress made her feel better. She has been doing a lot of research on the recommendations I have given her, and has found that there is good research to support them. She also said there is a lot of conflicting info out there. Keeps good nutritionists in business anyway!

    Finally, a very interesting young female client I had this week has a condition which may be largely hormonal. Doctors have not been much help, so she came to me. I do hope my recommendations, which include a higher fat diet, help her. She does Cross Fit workouts several times per week (I think at the same gym you gave your nutrition talk at Laura), but she did not know much about the Paleo-type diet. She wants to be a doctor so I pointed her to Dr. Cate Shanahan’s book, Deep Nutrition. She bought it for her e-reader (not sure which one) and seemed excited to read it, along with Food Rules. I have a strong feeling she may be another enlightened doctor someday!!

    Anyway, I agree with you that balance is essential, and feeling good about what you eat and can get to eat is just as important as making good choices. Enjoying oneself and having a spiritual connection is just as essential to attaining good health, physically and emotionally.