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Finding Balance in Eating

Note: this has a couple of spoilers for the movie Chocolat.


Our society doesn’t seem to do that well with balance or moderation. These days, so much falls into black-and-white thinking, with little or no room for middle ground – and that often seems true of eating, too.


That all-or-nothing approach leads to yo-yo dieting, where you first restrict how much and what you eat until it gets to be too much, and then you go all out and eat everything.


One of my favorite illustrations of this is in the movie Chocolat. In the movie, the comte has almost stopped eating anything for Lent, and he’s incensed when a newcomer opens a chocolate shop. Finally, one night, when the comte walks by the shop and sees a chocolate display in the window, he becomes enraged. He goes in and attacks the chocolate until he accidentally tastes some. Then he gorges so much that he ends up with a stomachache.


This swing between extremes isn’t good for you, physically or emotionally, but it can be hard to avoid, especially since we often get mixed messages about how much to eat. But it is possible to find balance.


Mixed messages

I started thinking about the problem of mixed messages around food after watching a wonderful TED talk called “Why Thinking About Death Helps You Live a Better Life” by Alua Arther. Alua is a death doula, and she supports those who are dying and their loved ones.


And not surprisingly, issues of food come up in her work. Alua shared the story of working with a woman who was dying of cancer, a woman who had spent much of her life on diets and had denied herself foods she loved.


Alua said: “If you take nothing away, hear this: you are going to die, so please eat the cake. Eat the cake, order the dessert, eat the French fries, eat the brownies…. [Because one] day you won’t be able to anymore.”

I understand and appreciate this sentiment, but also with a grain of salt. I thought again about Chocolat, where the character Armande ate chocolate and sweets even though she had advanced diabetes – and it meant she died sooner than she might have.


So, on the one hand, it’s tempting to eat all the sweets and fried foods and whatever else you want without worry, but then there are other messages.


Maybe you’ve heard how calorie restriction can lengthen your life or how certain diets can cut the risk of some diseases. These mixed messages can get very confusing.


So, which is it? Eat what you want because you’ll die one day, or have a more restrictive diet so you can live longer?


Finding balance

Every person has to decide for themselves how they want to answer that question, but from my perspective, it’s a false choice. It implies that you can never eat the cake, the brownies, or the ice cream if you want to live longer, and that not eating certain foods will guarantee you a longer life.


But the thing is, life doesn’t come with those sorts of guarantees. You might restrict calories and eat all the “right” foods, but you could still become ill or have a terrible accident and die. And plenty of people who eat the supposed “wrong” foods live a long time.


That’s why finding balance is so important. And that’s where mindful eating comes in.


When you pay attention to your eating, you’ll be able to learn a lot of useful information:

  • What foods you truly enjoy

  • What foods, if any, don’t agree with you

  • How many sweets or other foods you can eat before feeling sick to your stomach


For example, you may find that you enjoy more nutritious foods when they’re prepared in certain ways, like roasted Brussels sprouts or braised cabbage. You may also find that having a big helping of cake and ice cream is fine for your birthday, but that you don’t need that much on a regular basis.


In my case, I still like having sweets in moderation. I usually have something sweet after lunch – a cookie, a brownie, a little ice cream – but I don’t eat a lot of it. And after dinner, I have a piece of dark chocolate. Most days, I don’t want anything more than that, so I’m not depriving myself, but I’m also not saying that sweets are off-limits. It’s simply that I enjoy lots of savory foods, too, and as long as they’re not all fried foods, I don’t get an upset stomach from them.


Your balance point may be different, but it’s very important to have one.


Eating isn’t all or nothing

Despite what some people might claim, you don’t have to turn eating into an all-or-nothing, black-and-white event. And trying to make it that way could have negative results if it means you end up doing a lot of yo-yo dieting.


Instead, if you’re mindful when eating, you can find a balance. And when you do, you’ll find that you can enjoy all kinds of food in the amounts that work best for you.


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