Nutrition Isn’t All About the Bull’s-Eye

A registered dietitian explains why you shouldn’t aim for 'perfect eating'

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It seems like people are always on the hunt for that perfect, "magic" meal plan that will get them to their goal weight. Which foods are "good" and which ones are "bad"? What's the formula for exactly what to eat, how much of it, and when to eat it that will give you the fastest results? When my clients approach me with these requests, my answer is always the same: Just like in a game of darts, nutrition isn't about getting a perfect bull's-eye every time. You get points for just hitting the board, too. In other words, it's not about eating perfectly all the time, every time. It's about your overall habits—getting points on the board. Maybe you get a bull's-eye once in a while, but you didn't fail just because you were a little off target.

Why I Support "Imperfect" Eating 

Perfection is subjective, which means it comes from personal perspective, feelings and beliefs, as opposed to an independent, objective point of view. It's different strokes for different folks. We need less judgments about food. We don't feel guilty for breathing, even though we need air to live. So why feel guilty about eating? Seeking perfection can cause you to avoid and miss out on a satisfying food experience. Our health is a collection of choices (and genetics) over a long period of time. A simple choice does not define our overall self-care. 

Maybe the more important question is why you're eating something. Overeating foods on a regular basis to regulate your mood and cope with feelings is not normal, but there is help for that habit, which is not about the food. You are not "addicted" to food. It's the "process" that is the problem. Having a piece of cake on someone's birthday (yes, with sugar and fat) is a normal part of life for most people. To each his own if you don't like cake and don't want to eat it. But those of us who do are not less healthy than you. 

It's simply unfounded that "fat is gonna harm you" or "sugar is gonna harm you"—in unlimited amounts ANYTHING can harm you, even delicious sunlight or water for that matter. The best tip I can offer is to be careful of what you read. If it sounds alarmist or too crazy to be true, it probably is. 

So How Can I Get "Points on the Board"?

1. Instead of trying to build a "perfect" plate, focus on building a balanced plate. Aim to make half your plate fruits and vegetables; a quarter of your plate lean protein (a palm-sized piece of meat, fish or plant-based protein); and a quarter of your plate starch (a fist-sized portion, which could include whole grains).

2. When "indulging," follow the half-plate healthy model. Maybe your mom's legendary mac and cheese is what you really want, so go for it! On the flip-side, that doesn't mean it would be practicing self-care to take the whole tray of mac and cheese and eat it in one sitting. At some point, your fullness goes beyond comfortable. Take a nice portion, equivalent to one or two fists, and then balance it out with half a plate of nutritious steamed veggies or salad. Enjoy it and take your time with it. If it feels uncomfortable to clean your plate, then don't. Know the mac and cheese will still be there tomorrow. 

3. Figure out if it's a good time to enjoy _________. Is this a special occasion or a celebratory event? Like I said, enjoying cake at a birthday party is a normal part of life, so don't beat yourself up over it. If it's more of a craving, then ask yourself if it's a good time to enjoy your treat mindfully. If not, you can always have it later, when you have time to enjoy it—maybe even sharing it with a friend. 

Perfection isn't realistic or attainable. It can also be deceiving. Many thin people have unhealthy habits, and many larger frame people have very healthy habits. To me, the more important thing is creating healthy habits that can stick with you the rest of your life, and accepting and loving yourself no matter what size you are

What are some ways you try to find balance with enjoying the foods you love? 

Hungry for more? Write to eatandrun@usnews.com with your questions, concerns, and feedback. 

Rebecca Scritchfield, MA, RD, ACSM Health Fitness Specialist, helps empower people to build healthy lifestyles. A graduate of the Johns Hopkins University, Scritchfield is a Washington, D.C., based registered dietitian and fitness expert who encourages clients to find exercise that feels great, learn to manage stress, and establish lifelong eating skills that balance individual nutrition needs with hunger and pleasure. Visit her blog at: www.rebeccathinks.com.