Nutrition is a topic fraught with differing opinions, strong emotions, and a whole bunch of logistical complexity that make it hard to study sometimes. But despite how complicated (and overwhelming) it can feel at first glance, the fact is: it doesn’t have to be. When we take a close look at nutrition, we see it looks vastly different for different people, depending on their dietary preferences, intolerances, family history, economic background, and way more. Fundamentally, nutrition is personal. That’s why, in this article, we’ll dive into answering frequently asked questions that will arm you with the information and background knowledge to decide for yourself how you want to tailor your nutrition journey (and resources that may help along the way). In particular, we’ll be discussing:
- The question of what health really means
- Factors that influence health
- Striking your own nutrition balance
- Hunger cues and listening to your body
What is health?
Everyone has their own idea of what “health” is. Some say it’s a size, look, activity, or trendy diet. Modern medicine might say it’s a mass-to-height equation, commonly known as BMI. If we look at the dictionary, Merriam-Webster states that health is “the condition of being sound in body, mind, or spirit,” while Oxford Languages defines it as “the state of being free from illness or injury.” Needless to say, health is variable, subjective even, in definition and in real life. As a result, health is about finding a balance in all things. Terms such as “authentic health” or “optimal health” may be used to reflect the idea that health takes a different shape for everyone. The most important thing is finding that balance that can keep you free from complicating conditions and allows you to live life joyfully for as long as possible. This period of the lifespan is often referred to as the healthspan.
What influences health?
Before getting into what a balanced life looks like, all of the other determinants of health have to be discussed. Determinants of health are defined by the USDA as “the range of personal, social, economic, and environmental factors that influence health status.” They are primary contributors to health. Socioeconomic status, alone, is one of the greatest determinants of all-cause of mortality. Social and environmental determinants include:
- Educational and job opportunities
- Accessibility of healthful foods
- Social climate and discrimintaion
- Exposure to crime or violence
- Access to transportation
- Natural environment
- Environmental pollution
- Physical barriers (esp. for those with disabilities)
- Relationships and personal support system
In addition to these factors, genetic predispositions and gene expression play a role in health. For example, having a family history of diabetes, heart disease, stroke, cancer, among other conditions, can increase the chances of inheriting them. It is paramount to recognize these factors when addressing health risks, so that actions can be taken to prevent, or at least mitigate, their effects.
In addition to these influences, discrimation of all kinds, low cultural competency, and weight-bias in the medical system can exacerbate poor health outcomes. Approximately 1 in 5 Americans report having faced discrimination, the vast majority being race-based, while seeking medical treatment. While most everyone can agree that race or gender-based discrimination in the medical system is to patient detriment, there isn’t similar concern for weight-based discrimination. This is in part because weight is seen as a choice, a sign of laziness or gluttony, a lack of willpower. In fact, in modern medicine, health is nearly synonymous with the BMI scale and weight. This narrow view of health fails to recognize many major points: Weight has a strong genetic component. Just as some people are “naturally thin,” others can be naturally larger. Dieting often starts in adolescence, where it is highly associated with disordered eating and strongly correlated with long-term weight gain. For adult women in the Women’s Health Initiative, after nearly 8 years of a restricted calorie diet (360 calorie deficit) with an increase in physical activity, there was an average of ¼ pound lost and an increase of a little more than 1/10 of an inch in waist circumference. Bottom line being? The human body can’t be outsmarted. It will return to its preferred weight, or higher, after dieting.
But let’s be clear: weight is not the same as health. When comparing cardiometabolic health to BMI status in US adults, 76% of ”normal-weight,” 51% of “overweight,” and 32% of “obese” adults were considered healthy. Cardiometabolic health predicts rates of many chronic diseases and cardiovascular events like heart attack or stroke. When relying on weight status, disease risk in those considered “normal” can be overlooked, and those in the higher weight categories may be unnecessarily told to lose weight or engage in unhealthy eating and exercise habits in an effort to change their bodies, despite this worsening health through increasing inflammation and stress to the body systems.
So, what can you do to affect any change on your health and your life? Engage in healthy behaviors. At Allara, we take a behavior-first approach to our nutrition programs because they are the #1 thing we can do to affect change on our health.
Striking Your Own Healthy Balance
As a registered Dietitian (and the Lead Dietitian at Allara), I know nutrition isn’t the only piece of the pie when it comes to health. In fact, the best analogy for a balanced, healthy life is that of the tricycle.
The front wheel, steering and driving our health, is the mental component. It includes sleep, stress management, relationships (with others, ourselves, our bodies), and psychiatric conditions. These topics need to be addressed first, as they inform and shape the remainder of our health behaviors. (Please note: if you’re struggling with mental health concerns, it is recommended to work with a licensed therapist or counselor that can help you navigate difficult situations or experiences). When it comes to sleep, though, it can also have a massive impact on your day-to-day functioning. On that front, we have a few tips for you!
- Aim to get 7-9 hours of sleep on average.
- Try to get to sleep and wake up at the same time each day. This ensures you maintain a healthy sleep rhythm, and that your body releases the right hormones to help you sleep deeply or feel alert at the right times.
- Get as much movement as you can during the daytime - a fatigued body helps with restful sleep
- Practice a 30 minute, or longer, bedtime routine to promote relaxation. This could be through journaling, jotting down mental clutter, sipping tea, stretching, skin-care, bathtime, etc. Don’t forget to minimize light exposure through dimming the lights and putting down your phone!
- Sleep supplements should be a last resort, but are certainly an option. They are best taken 1-2 hours before bed:
- Tart Cherry has been shown to increase exogenous melatonin
- Magnesium glycinate or bisglycinate has been shown to improve sleep quality and duration
- Chamomile and Valerian are two natural sleep aids, found in the famous Sleepytime Tea
- Melatonin at no more than 2-3 mg per night, only when you need it
If the front wheel of the health tricycle is mental health, the two back wheels are movement and nutrition.
When it comes to movement, we recommend following the USDA Physical Activity Guidelines. They suggest 150-300 minutes of moderate intensity activity or 75-150 minutes of vigorous activity movement each week. Moderate intensity movement is activity that gets your heart rate up, elicits heavier breathing, and causes you to break a sweat. Vigorous intensity really challenges your cardiovascular system and causes the heaviest sweating and breathing. However, it is still important to lay a strong foundation for physical health by increasing general daily movement, like walking, and also prioritizing strength, flexibility, and rest. Yoga, in particular, is a flexibility and bodyweight activity that is exceptionally beneficial to PCOS, in part, due to its mental health benefits.
Lastly, balanced and adequate nutrition is a major aspect in managing PCOS. We want to emphasize the fact that balanced does not equal restrictive - quite the opposite. It involves moderation. So what does moderation mean? Well, in the context of nutrition and wellness, it essentially means taking what you need, and leaving the rest. You can decide what you need by tuning into your body, and combining this personal knowledge with scientific knowledge as to what foods and beverages will provide your body with essential vitamins and nutrients, as well as sustain your energy levels throughout the day.
Here are some helpful, in-depth resources - dietitian approved - in which you can learn more about how to incorporate a healthy PCOS diet into your daily life:
- What is the best diet for Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS)?
- What does it mean to have a balanced diet? Breaking down the PCOS plate
PCOS and Sugar: Every Single Thing You Want to KnowThese articles will give you the nuanced insight into not only what foods you should make an effort to incorporate more of, but also why they are good for you, how you can implement them into your diet, and what place they might take up on your plate (or bowl!).
But before we even get to the point where we start meal-prepping our favorite foods, or jotting some of these superfoods (think green vegetables, berries, nuts, and fatty fish) onto your shopping list, we first face the question: when do you even know you’re hungry? When should you eat?
After years of crash-dieting, consuming unrealistic (or increasingly impossible) beauty ideals via social media, and avoiding arbitrary food groups thanks to excessive demonization of them, many people do not even know when they are hungry anymore. (This can be especially true if you have a history of an eating disorder). With that being said, if any of what we just described sounds like you: please do not blame yourself. It has become all too normalized to crash-diet and restrict foods you love. You are not at fault. In order to get you back on track to understanding and listening to your body, consider listening to one or more of the following hunger cues:
- Ask yourself the following questions: are you shaky? Does your head hurt? Do you feel faint, fatigued, or low energy? Do you feel like you could eat a whole meal, or does a bowl of fruit and yogurt sound like it would fill you up? Answering all those questions can help you decide if your body is telling you it needs a full meal (complete with carbohydrates, fiber, and protein), or whether an energy boosting snack - such as a smoothie and toast with nut butter - will stand you in good stead. And if you’re really not sure? Start off with something small - preferably high in fiber and protein - and proceed from there.
- Sometimes, you might still feel hungry, even after having eaten. This can be your stomach rumbling, or you have a gnawing feeling in your gut. If that is the case, this could mean you are hungry, or if you have just eaten, thirsty. (It might even mean both!). Drink a large glass of water and see how you feel after 10 minutes. If you’re still hungry, eat something corresponding to your hunger level.
- Think about what sounds good to you. Do you fancy something salty? Do you have a craving for chocolate? Or just something sweet in general? Imagine your ‘perfect’ meal, and see how your body reacts to ideating it: do you feel excited to eat that meal, or does it feel too ‘heavy’ or ‘not enough’? Pay attention to these signs.
Finally, we just want to call out something that might not be a hunger cue, but can help you on your journey to better listening to your body: a mindset shift. Individuals who have a history of or tendency toward disordered eating, can sometimes fear certain foods, especially high fat or high salt ones (such as fries, chocolate, cake, etc). Through excessive restricting and/or binging, those foods can in turn become highly emotional. In fact, food in general can become highly emotional.
This is a completely understandable reaction, and it can mess with your hunger cues. Though this mindset of siphoning foods into ‘bad’ and ‘good’ can certainly take time to unpack and unlearn, consider replacing it with the following: all foods have energy. They all contain important calories that play an important role in keeping you functioning day to day. Your favorite foods give you the energy to laugh with friends, contribute to conversations, complete your work, exercise, and much more. You can’t make ‘wrong’ choices when it comes to what foods you want to incorporate into your diet: if it keeps you feeling energized, if it makes you happy, and if it supplies your body with the important nutrients and minerals it needs to keep it functioning well, then it has a place in your diet. Working out the particulars is an ongoing process, one that you can optimize as time goes on, as you tune into your body, listen to hunger cues, and develop your own definition of what health means to you.
Need help cultivating a balanced diet that works for you? Get in touch with Allara to get paired with a Registered Dietitian who can help!
Allara Health provides personalized treatment for hormonal, metabolic & gynecological conditions that utilizes a holistic plan that merges nutrition, lifestyle, medication and supplementation, and ongoing, expert support to heal your body.