Want to eat in a way where food is both a source of pleasure and a source of nourishment? Here are tips for how to eat a balanced diet.
Gena Hamshaw is a nutritionist and dietetics student, and the face behind The Full Helping where she shares nourishing vegan recipes and meal ideas. We adore Gena’s food (we’re always drooling over her Instagram feed). But even more impressive is her openness about her past struggles with anorexia and orthorexia.
We asked Gena if she’d be willing to her experiences with us, and she agreed! She’s author of two vegan cookbooks, the newest of which is Food52 Vegan. The book is full of colorful, plant-based recipes that are as beautiful as they are tasty. Gena’s also offered to share this vegan chocolate cake recipe with us from Food52 Vegan, which aligns perfectly with the theme of balanced eating. Hats off to Gena for her authenticity and sharing her beautiful work!
(Photo credits: James Ransom)
5 tips to how to eat a balanced diet
My name is Gena. I’m a food blogger, a vegan cookbook author, a nutritionist, and an RD-to-be. I’m also recovering from thirteen years of on-again, off-again anorexia and orthorexia.
Usually I say that I’m “recovered,” not recovering. In a lot of ways, this is true: I’ve been weight-restored and physically healthy for many years now. I no longer engage in disordered eating patterns, I don’t have “fear foods,” and I don’t use restriction or dietary manipulation as a means of trying to exert control over my life. I love food—it’s probably my greatest passion—and I love to eat.
But as I was drafting this post, I couldn’t help but think that the word “recovered” may be a little too neat and tidy to describe the before-and-after of eating disorders. In a lot of ways, we’re always recovering from the struggle—even if recovery takes us to places where we feel more freedom and pleasure and peace than ever before. Part of embracing the ongoing journey of recovery, I think, is understanding that balance doesn’t just happen—it demands effort and consciousness, at least for some of us.
What do I mean by “balanced?” I mean a way of eating in which food is both a source of pleasure and a source of nourishment. I mean indulging when it feels right, but also understanding how to preserve the pleasure of indulgence by reserving it for special moments. I mean eating until you’re totally satisfied, but not beyond the point of comfort. In other words, all of that “moderation” business that we hear so much about.
I won’t pretend that balance or moderation are easy for those of us who have extreme histories with food. But here are some of the mindful eating strategies that have helped me to preserve balance in my own life.
1. Punishment is off-limits.
I used to have a really hard time wrapping my mind around the idea of “balance” because I couldn’t quite distinguish it from the elaborate system of checks and balances that had defined my relationship with food in the past. For so many years, my response to indulgence was swift and immediate self-punishment. If I allowed myself to enjoy a restaurant meal, I’d inevitably try to starve myself by replacing breakfast with green juice the following day. If I tasted one too many sweets one afternoon, I’d swear of all sugar for a month. My attempts to “compensate” for food choices I was unhappy with only pushed me to wider and wider extremes.
One cornerstone of my recovery has been swearing off self-punishment. I don’t starve to compensate for a meal that was a little indulgent, and I don’t drag myself to the gym for hours if I’m feeling anxious about something I ate earlier in the day. I simply remember that how to eat a balanced diet is a continuum, and it gives me space for both indulgences and for simpler meals. I can’t prevent myself from feeling food guilt every now and again, but I can prevent myself from acting on that guilt with deprivation and poor self-care.
I don’t starve to compensate for a meal that was a little indulgent, and I don’t drag myself to the gym for hours if I’m feeling anxious about something I ate earlier in the day. I simply remember that my diet is a continuum, and it gives me space for both indulgences and for simpler meals.
2. Food is nourishment, not control.
From the moment I hit puberty until the moment I committed myself fully to recovery, I saw the act of eating exclusively as a way of manipulating and controlling my physical shape. Oddly, how I looked was actually a lot less important to me than being able to feel as though I had learned to master my appetites. To me, this was the ultimate power trip, evidence of my own strength.
Today, I see that my anorexia was the opposite of empowering. In fact, it stripped away all of the things that really make me powerful: empathy, passion, excitement, human connection, intellectual engagement, and an appetite for both life and food. I no longer look at my meals and food choices as a means of trying to control anything (and I’m a lot less attached to the idea of “control” in general). Instead, I look at food as an area in which I can carefully listen to and take care of my body. I eat foods that nourish me both physically and emotionally, and I recognize that healthful eating begins with a fundamental recognition of one’s own appetite.
3. Balanced meals at regular intervals.
It’s all well and good to embrace the idea of self-care and nourishment. But positive, self-loving thoughts aren’t enough—at least in my experience—to ensure long-term balance with food. For me, the process has been half emotional/spiritual, and half practical. I prioritize self-care mentally, but I also make sure to eat really balanced meals at even intervals. This means a good ratio of protein, fat, and carbs with every plate, never skipping meals, and making sure that I get a wide variety of nutritious foods each day. I emphasize these same guidelines with my clients on how to eat a balanced diet, and in my recipes.
See also: Plant Based Diet for Beginners
4. Sustainable habits only.
I come from a long, colorful history of extreme diets, fad diets, elimination diets, deprivation diets, and other forms of hyper-restrictive eating. So today, I live with one golden food rule: “if I couldn’t healthfully and comfortably sustain this way of eating forever, then I’m not interested.”
This immediately disqualifies me from most 3-week cleanses, detoxes, elimination diets, and food challenges, and that’s fine with me. It means that I don’t aspire to eliminate sugar completely from my diet (could I live without vegan cookies forever? Nope), I don’t swear of processed foods entirely (that’s not something I could practically sustain for life), and I don’t take a hard or fast stance against ingredients like oils or sweeteners—even if I’m more discriminatory and moderate with them than I am with other foods. I spent many years striving and struggling with food; at this point in my life, the goal is to be conscious, but comfortable.
In the past, foods were either healthy or unhealthy, clean or dirty. Food choices were immediately categorized as good or bad. There was no middle ground, no gray area, no capacity for nuance.
5. Perspective and resilience.
In the past, foods were either healthy or unhealthy, clean or dirty. Food choices were immediately categorized as good or bad. There was no middle ground, no gray area, no capacity for nuance. Today, I can see that no single meal or day or even week of food is all that consequential in the grand scheme of things. I know it’s a cliché to say this, but it really is the big picture that counts.
So, I don’t panic when my habits get off-kilter because life is busy, or it’s the holiday season, or I’m feeling especially stressed out. If I’ve overeaten or or lost my footing a bit with food, I try not to panic. Instead, I cultivate a sense of resilience and humor. I try to suspend judgment and anxiety. I wait for my regular habits to fall back into place. And, with enough patience and self-acceptance, they always do.
For Gena’s vegan chocolate cake recipe, go to: Decadent Vegan Chocolate Cake
Recipes for how to eat a balanced diet:
- Slow Cooker Black Bean and Quinoa Chilli
- Pinto Bean Skillet Bake
- Vegan Apple, Pear and Cranberry Crisp
About the Authors
Sonja Overhiser is author of Pretty Simple Cooking, named one of the best healthy cookbooks of 2018. She’s host of the food podcast Small Bites and founder of the food blog A Couple Cooks. Featured from the TODAY Show to Bon Appetit, Sonja seeks to inspire adventurous eating to make the world a better place one bite at a time.
Alex Overhiser is an acclaimed food photographer and author based in Indianapolis. He’s host of the food podcast Small Bites and founder of the recipe website A Couple Cooks. Featured from the TODAY Show to Bon Appetit, Alex is author of Pretty Simple Cooking, named one of the best vegetarian cookbooks by Epicurious.