As I sat in my first Nutrition class, I thought, “This is easy.” I knew so much already about what I should eat, from my “health” magazine reading, food journaling, and USDA nutrient database searching. It took me another year to declare myself a Nutrition Science major, because taking Chemistry, Organic Chemistry, Biochemistry, and the like did NOT sound so easy. The food stuff, though? I had that down.
I did learn about digestion in that first nutrition class, but I wasn’t too interested in the details of how a hamburger is processed from bolus to anus. (Is anyone, really?) I also learned how to flirt with a classmate, who asked me on a date in Spanish while we were taking notes in class. Oh, and I learned that, according to our teacher, each French fry could have one whole gram of fat, so we better count how many fries we eat and be aware of our FAT INTAKE. Lesson learned: I should eat fewer fries.
But I (thought I) already knew what I should eat.
(Low-calorie, low-fat foods and lots of fruits and vegetables, obviously.) I already knew how many calories were in most of the foods I did eat. I already knew how to manipulate my body weight by controlling my food intake. I already knew that saturated fat was “bad” for me, and that I probably shouldn’t be drinking diet soda so often. In other words:
I knew what I wanted to know about nutrition, because that information isn’t too hard to come by.
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I have worked with clients who knew far more about the calorie counts of their daily food staples than I did (or cared to). Some have known the calorie (or “macro”) count of a fast food entree as well as they do their own debit card PIN. Some have memorized the general public health messages of how many servings we need of each food, and how to get them in a “healthy” way.
In diet culture, a “nutrition expert” might be anyone who looks the way you want to look, spouts off facts that scare you into changing their ways, or takes the liberty of telling you what you should eat. And then, some consumers are their own nutrition experts, changing and restricting their food intake to meet a personal set of food rules that have developed over the years.
And most, if not all, of us think we know what we “should be eating” on a daily basis, without having to be told for the Nth time for a dietitian.
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At a recent sports nutrition event, I struck up a conversation with someone who’s training for their first half-Ironman, but does a lot of traveling, Anywhere from three to seven days a week may be spent on the move, in airports, dining at restaurants. This person wasn’t even sure where they would be traveling to this week. “Standard,” they said. Oh, and, “Tell me, what should I eat to stay healthy while traveling?”
I will turn the “What should I eat?” question around on you every time.
I don’t want to answer the question of what anyone “should eat” after knowing them for five minutes, five hours, or five years. Instead, I’m curious, “What DO you eat while traveling?” In any case, what are your norms? Your preferences? Where do you think there’s room for improvement in your daily diet? Why?
Am I going to tell you something you don’t already know, or are you looking for me to reinforce a diet rule that you need some motivation to stick to?
Will that actually help?
We talked about hamburgers, fried food, drinks, and sometimes skipping meals altogether. We talked about how airline food is a real gamble. We talked about the limited options in airports, and how it all starts to taste the same anyway. We talked about the candy shop in Terminal 2 at SFO. “Does candy count as eating more ‘colors’?” (Does anyone really need to ask?)
And of course, after a few minutes, there was the inevitable admission from my conversation partner. “I KNOW what I should eat, though. I know I don’t eat healthy.” And while I love any and every opportunity to argue about what “healthy” means, this wasn’t the time. I also knew that I wasn’t going to bring any major nutrition revelations to this brief conversation about eating and traveling. But, if we had a little more time, I would have loved to know why this person “knows what to eat” but chooses not to, anyway. That’s where things get more interesting, to me.
(We did eventually talk more about fueling for the upcoming half-Ironman. Which was probably much more helpful!)
Another patron asked, “Well, what do YOU eat every day?” Maybe we can talk about why I don’t answer that question, next time.
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I don’t write this to discourage you from asking a dietitian any question you want to ask, if given the opportunity.
(And assuming that opportunity is an appropriate time/place to do so. Hint: a social gathering is neither that time nor that place!) Instead, I’m encouraging you to explore the variety of questions you could ask. I’m writing this because, if we’re being honest with each other, you know a lot about nutrition if nutrition is simply “how to eat healthy every day”. And even armed with that knowledge, you don’t always do it. (And that’s OK! I know how to save money responsibly, but that doesn’t mean I’m always spending responsibly. None of us are perfect humans.)
So, the real questions to ask probably start with “Why”, not “What”.
The real revelations come when we look at how you think of, care for, and respect your body; when we talk about emotions and food, cultures and food, childhood experiences and food. The helpful conversations may start when you recount the one time a fitness trainer told you not to eat fruit because it has too much sugar, or when a health professional told you to lose weight before they addressed the strep throat you came in for, or when a nutritionist suggested you cut out gluten, “just to see if it helps.”
You know what you “should eat” according to society’s collective perception of health.
But, there’s so much more to explore, taste, experience, feel, and ask. Don’t stop there. And if you meet me at another group talk or in a session, know that I’ll probably have more questions for you than you have for me. That’s how this relationship works best.