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3 Tips for Eating What You Need

I’ve been reading the book Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times by Katherine May, and while I’m enjoying it all around, one part about food caught my attention.

Early in the book, May talks about having a mysterious illness that doesn’t get diagnosed until later as a problem with her gut. And while most of the time, we think of a healthy diet as one including lots of fiber-rich foods, she had to do the opposite for a few days.

“I spend three days eating egg fried rice and spaghetti with butter, white toast and Marmite and bacon sandwiches. It’s the most counter-intuitive diet I’ve ever followed, and it fills me with guilt and makes me feel better than I have in months.” (p. 73)

The end of the second line was what caught my attention. We’re so conditioned to think about what food we “should” or “shouldn’t” eat that we rarely pay attention to what our bodies need.

And even if you can think about what you need, you may feel the same sense of guilt May did because what you need doesn’t align with your “should.”

I’ve heard about this before. I know people who’ve had to eat a lot of red meat because of anemia, even though it doesn’t jibe with their ethics and/or because eating beef isn’t climate-friendly. I know people who’ve had to start eating meat after being vegetarian because of health reasons, although it was very hard for them. And I know of folks who can’t handle lots of leafy greens, even though they’re good for most people.

But even though eating what you need may sometimes feel odd or uncomfortable, it’s important to do. If you don’t, you’re likely to have low energy and feel lousy, which isn’t a good way to live.

With that in mind, here are three tips for thinking about what you need to eat.

1: Your specific health needs

A good place to start is to find out if you have any health conditions that might impact how and what you eat. This could be diabetes, a gut problem like May had, anemia, or something else altogether.

Conditions like these make it important to follow certain guidelines about your eating. If this feels restrictive, like a diet would, remind yourself that eating this way is to make sure you stay healthy and have the energy you need rather than blindly follow someone else’s eating rules.

2: Foods to avoid

You may also need to experiment to see whether there are any foods you should avoid and therefore do not need. A good example is if you have an allergic reaction to certain foods.

Bear in mind that this doesn’t have to be a life-threatening reaction, although you certainly want to avoid those! Any negative response to a food counts. For example, I don’t eat rice, eggs, or bananas because my body reacts to them, usually with a rash or other skin condition. Other people may get congested or have an upset stomach or even break out into hives.

None of this is fun, but the good news is, depending on how severe your reaction is, if you avoid something for long enough, you may be able to add it back into your diet, at least to have on occasion.

3: Foods that make you feel good

And finally, notice which foods make you feel good. Note that I didn’t say which foods taste good, but rather ones that make you feel good.

After all, you’ve probably had occasions where you’ve eaten something that tastes good but that leaves you feeling lethargic or gives you an upset stomach.

On the flip side, you’ve probably also eaten foods that leave you feeling satisfied, light, and/or energized. Those are the ones you want to focus on.

It may take a while to be able to tell which foods fall into this category, but try to pay attention to how you feel after eating, say in 20-30 minutes. That will give you a lot of clues, and it can even become a positive feedback loop. The more you eat foods that make you feel good, the more you may find that you want to eat them, and the better you’ll feel, so you’ll want to keep eating them.

Needs are individual

The other important thing to remember in all this is that what you need is specific to you. What you end up eating may be terrible for someone else and vice versa.

So don’t try to compare what you’re eating to someone else’s meal. Only you can tell how your body feels after you’ve eaten, and you need to do what’s best for you.


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