My diet approach: less rigidity and more ‘real life’

A couple of comments on my Facebook page, a comment from a client that she wasn’t  ‘my perfect client’, and a post from one of my good nutritionist friends inspired me to have a bit of a think about how I approach nutrition, or the expectations that others have of my nutrition approach.

Whenever I put something out on social media, people will read from it what they will – I want them to comment and engage (why else would I put a post up?)  One of these was a comment I got after posting a recipe up on my page. Someone commented that she was very concerned that I say I follow a minimally processed diet approach, yet used a protein powder in my pancake recipe, clearly a highly processed ingredient*. She’s not wrong – protein powder is highly processed for sure, even the brands that I use and recommend others do: those that don’t have a lot of added ingredients bar the protein powder, some flavouring and stevia-based (or thaumine) sweetener . It got me thinking though. This person was annoyed that I was straying from their perception of what I advocate. If I could include protein powder in my recipes, clearly I’m not an advocate of the real food approach. How could people trust anything I say if I suggest that protein powder is okay? I wasn’t living up to her expectations of me, and she was disappointed.

It’s a tough balance: when I changed my philosophy around food I think I was a lot like other people – went too far in the extreme of finding the perfect real-food approach in an effort to ditch processed food. Legumes and all grains were off the menu (regardless of dietary tolerances, as this was the ‘perfect paleo’ way). All bread was to be avoided at all costs. Only drink red wine (less sugar) … It was 95% of what you’d call a ‘primal’ approach.

Like most people, though, I have settled in an approach to eating that is more practical to real life and, frankly, less exhausting. I have my diet non-negotiables –for me, I don’t touch diet soft drinks and chewing gum. In fact, I had a dream a few months ago that someone offered me a piece of gum and I took it. I woke up in a panicked state. This is because around 6 years ago I couldn’t go a day without having Wrigley’s Extra gum, and now I am scared that if I have it again that it would be a quick slide back into a daily habit that I couldn’t stop (even though when I gave it up it was literally like a switch had gone off in my brain and I couldn’t imagine having it again). I don’t have food allergies, so unlike other people, there isn’t anything that I must avoid or I’d be seriously compromising my health. That said, if I was eating the way I did during my Master’s degree at Otago, I couldn’t last during the day – I’d regularly have to nap in the afternoon under my desk after a diet coke and a massive ciabatta bun from Il Panificio bakery for lunch, which was backing up a large milky trim cappuccino and a dark rye sesame bun for breakfast. A carb overload and no fat or protein will do that to me (and a lot of people) – and don’t get me wrong – I LOVED it (and still would!) Just not how it makes me feel and, unfortunately, now I know too much about the long-term implications of eating such a nutrient-void diet). Huh. And I was doing a Master’s in nutrition at the time…

For everything else, though it is more about dietary principles rather than strict rigidity. Less religion and more realness. I try to avoid vegetable seed oils and artificial sweeteners that impact on blood sugar levels. However, if there is a dip that someone has brought along to a dinner party that has canola or sunflower oil as the second ingredient, I would likely have some if I thought it sounded nice, even if I wouldn’t buy it myself.  I avoid eating soy – especially products that use it as a cheap protein filler as you’ll find it in many packaged goods, though by now living in a vegetarian/vegan household, I eat organic tofu around once a week – and really enjoy it. I consume gluten when I have (for example) a date scone, or I really feel like toast. This might be once a fortnight. I drink wine. I have 3-4 alcohol free nights per week, but enjoy red wine (and coming into summer, white wine too – even though it has a higher residual sugar count). Not a lot – 1-2 glasses, and what they serve at the local bar is probably a more generous pour than we have at home. I like chocolate. I eat Quest protein bars (the varieties that don’t have sucralose as a sweetener in them – some do, some don’t) and use these as a bit of a stop gap as when training intensity ramps up (as it has over the last couple of months). I’m just hungrier in general and am not always organised. Despite their ‘organic’ label, these are about as far away from real food as you can get.

We buy white bread – the stock standard cheap loaves – as this is one of the only things that never comes home in the school lunch box during the week. If you’re wondering, I don’t think there is too much difference between white and multi-grain bread, really – it is all rubbish. I don’t eat it myself (any toast I have would be out at a cafe, a more delicious type of sourdough or ciabatta, probably), and can justify it till the cows come home but truth be told, getting any food in some kids can be difficult, so if they will eat a white bread egg or cheese sandwich that is going to at least fill them up, then so be it. A friend of mine commented on how she laughs when I post about lunchbox options for kids – and how (for her at least) it’s just a little unpractical and/or even if the kids show interest one day, the next they won’t have a bar of it. Now I get it. I really think I didn’t have a true appreciation for this and if I can somehow crack the nut that is ‘school lunches’ then I’d probably be a gazillionaire. One day. Maybe. (And if you have any bright ideas that I might not have thought of, pass them on!)

So, yeah. I still call my dietary principles ‘minimal processed food’ relative to the food environment and where I was at 7 years ago. Sorry to disappoint or concern anyone. Or perhaps this just makes you feel a little relieved that, despite best intentions, it doesn’t read like a perfect food environment or a perfect food diary, even for someone with my nutrition qualifications and practical experience. But that’s real life, and we do what we can. Some days are awesome, some weeks are awesome, and some, well, some just aren’t. That’s life, right? And when the dust settles, I’m pretty happy with it actually.  If you do what you can and have the best intentions going into it – then you’re always going to do better than if you didn’t try at all.

So please don’t think you have to be perfect – I’m not and nor should you stress about striving to be so. If you want some guidance at reaching your ‘happy spot’ click here to book a consultation or check out my online nutrition coaching services.

How would you tackle this problem?

Do you have someone close to you who challenges your food decisions? For some it is like water off a ducks back. For others, particularly after years of the own battles they’ve had with food, to have someone else question something which they finally (finally!) believe is making them feel better can bring up the insecurities that were beginning to be put to rest. If it’s just to do you and what you eat, then perhaps it’s a matter of riding it out and letting the results speak for themselves. What happens, though, when the challenge comes from your partner and extends to differences in what you want to feed your children? Readers: we need your help.

A lovely client of mine is in exactly this predicament now. She is constantly battling with her husband with how they feed their energetic three year old daughter. He travels quite a bit for work, therefore leaving Jane largely responsible for Annie’s food intake. For the last year Jane has been following a whole food paleo style diet and feeling fantastic. Like most people she’s found it relatively easy to maintain. Unlike other diets she has followed in the past, she no longer feels the light yet slightly gnawing hunger across the course of the morning, or the drop in blood sugar around mid afternoon that is often experienced by people who are “good*” during the day. She feels much calmer than she has in the past and feels the food she’s eating is optimising her nutrient intake. Most importantly, after a long history of battling with her weight, body image and self esteem, she finally feels like she’s on her way to conquering the negative thoughts in her head that have told her for years that unless she is a perfect size 10, she is not worthy. Those thoughts that tell her she’s already a failure before she has even started on (yet another) calorie restricted plan are no longer lingering. It’s a sense of empowerment that finally she is able to control her food intake and that it doesn’t control her.

Naturally, given she is the major caregiver for their daughter, she has done a lot of reading around the best foods to feed Annie. Gone are the cocoa pops and Weetbix. These have been replaced by scrambled eggs and potato hash, fruit smoothies that include coconut milk and spinach, and pancakes made from banana, eggs and almond butter. Crustless sandwiches and roll ups have been replaced with kumara wedges and roast chicken drumsticks for lunch. Needless to say Annie loves it. Some slight resistance initially upon trying different foods, but after the ‘food lag’ she is happy to try lots of different foods and now even talks about preferring fruit and nut butter to single lunch box packets of potato chips… and therein lies the problem. Instead of being happy that their daughter is being nourished through whole food choices to optimise her growth and development, Jane’s husband is taking a stand against whole food and this ‘fad paleo diet.’ When he is home, he is frequently challenging her on the food choices available in the pantry and the seemingly deprivation approach to meals that Jane is serving up at home. When they eat out, the evening typically starts with an argument over where to eat. Not because Jane is any more particular over restaurant choice than her husband (as they both enjoy good food), but because he refuses to choose a restaurant as he doesn’t know what she’s “allowed to eat.” The already tense undertones of the evening are further exacerbated by the inevitable “is there anything you can eat on here?” and his insistence on choosing Annie menu options that resemble the standard western junk food diet.

Jane finds that they are constantly arguing over what they feed Annie. He views paleo through the lens of the media. Cutting major food groups, overly restrictive, the higher saturated fat content leading to adverse health in later years are three such criticisms that come up when he googles ‘paleo is dangerous.’ Just as important, he believes Jane is setting up Annie for a future of dietary restriction and problems with food. Not unlike, he points out, what Jane has been battling since her teens. Not only is Jane influencing Annie’s future physical health, but she is intentionally damaging her psychological health by being overly obsessive about removing processed food.


While you might think that Jane just needs to discuss with him the premise of a whole food philosophy to clear up a few misundersatndings, unfortunately there appears to be little that can be done to change his mind. Any source of information that she provides him to back up her decision to include full fat dairy products or remove bread is countered by dietary guideline recommendations to build a diet on healthy wholegrains. Any evidence she presents him is discredited because it doesn’t come from health authorities and nothing she has said can convince him otherwise.


What’s a person to do in this situation? There are two immediate issues here. The first one is the lack of belief from Jane’s husband that she has turned a corner with her own self esteem issues. Her enthusiasm for the paleo diet is being read by her husband as a continuation of her obsession with food and body image. While she genuinely feels that she is getting on top of this, his accusations are bringing back feelings of doubt and insecurities. Obviously those aren’t the words he is using, but because she is being accused of being obsessive around food, that is what she is hearing. Potentially a bigger problem is his accusations around how she is feeding their daughter. What strikes at the core of Jane’s being is the inherent distrust he appears to have in her ability to be a responsible caregiver for Annie. That’s not what he is saying, but there is no doubt in her mind that that is what he is thinking.

So I’m writing this post as a shout out to others who may have been in this situation to offer some words of wisdom. Jane’s husband won’t listen to her. Or me. The information has to come from someone he trusts and respects, and looks up to. Theres no one in their immediate circle that fits that bill at this stage. And while Jane could ‘just relax’ when her husband is at home, that’s not ideal either. So, short of that, how does Jane tackle this?

*you know what I mean by good eh? That 300 calorie per meal diet that just gets you through to lunch but makes you want to chew off your arm by 4pm. blame their mid-afternoon crash on lunch. For a lot of people it’s under eating at both meals even if they feel somewhat satisfied after breakfast.