Why Eating What You Love Can—and Should—Be Part of a Healthy Diet

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It's safe to say that for a long time, "healthy" food didn't always make the mouth water. Watery, low-fat milk, rubbery tofu with no seasonings, and stomach-churning macrobiotic salads were long the staples of health-conscious households, none of which were about to win any Michelin stars.

While culinary science has certainly improved leaps and bounds since the bland tofu dogs of the '90s, the perception that healthy eating requires a bit of a flavor sacrifice endures; that to make the healthiest possible choices, you have to be okay with eating vegetables that you can't stand, or forever eschewing desserts in favor of "healthified" versions that taste like dirt. But some nutrition experts argue that eating for pleasure, and what you love, can actually be super healthy.

“I think it's really important to promote a greater sense of enjoying food in American culture,” says Brad Turnwald, PhD, a postdoctoral research fellow in the department of psychology at Stanford University. “In other cultures that also have a lot less chronic disease than we do—France is kind of the canonical example—they eat for pleasure there, and they [generally] don't have this labeling of certain foods as ‘good’ and certain ones as ‘bad.’ Food is meant to be enjoyed.”

That idea—of eating for enjoyment—is “a critical piece that health professionals [have unintentionally] screwed up on for the last couple decades,” says Christopher D. Gardner, PhD, director of nutrition studies at the Stanford Prevention Research Center and a professor of medicine at Stanford University. The healthcare system is focused on diabetes, cancer, and heart disease, he says. Because those illnesses are impacted by food and nutrition, society has come to think that “we're enjoying ourselves way too much with sugary, fat, salty things. We should eat healthier things that have less of this and less of that, and deprivation, and don't do that. Pretty negative, right?”

However, consider this mind-blowing idea: You can eat for pleasure and eat healthfully at the same time. The two concepts are not mutually exclusive. In fact, you’ll probably end up maintaining a healthier diet in the long run when you eat foods that make you happy. “I became an RD because I love food,” says BZ Nutrition owner Brigitte Zeitlin, RD. “Food should taste good. … I think that is what food is all about.”

"Food is nourishment in a lot of different ways. It is actual nourishment for our bodies, but it also nourishes our soul a little bit, and we should be eating foods we like, foods that feel good to us." —Brigitte Zeitlin, RD

This isn't just wishful thinking—there's evidence that supports people being more inclined to make healthy choices when they think that choice will taste good. Dr. Turnwald recently co-authored a study with Dr. Gardner and several others that looked into the idea of taste-focused versus health-focused versus basic labels in college dining halls. (For example: are people more likely to choose and eat more carrots if they’re labeled “Twisted Citrus Glazed Carrots,” “Nutritious Vitamin-Rich Carrots,” or just “Carrots”?) According to the study, across five school sites and 137,842 diner decisions, “taste-focused labels increased vegetable selection by 29 percent compared with health-focused labels and by 14 percent compared with basic labels. Vegetable consumption also increased by 39 percent.”

“What we saw,” explains Dr. Turnwald, “was that paying attention to the flavorful components is most effective when the vegetables are actually prepared deliciously—so when they're served with a sauce or multiple herbs and flavor combinations. Even though that might add a little bit more calories than eating a raw carrot, you enjoy it so much more and you're not in this mindset of restriction when you eat it, that that's a more sustainable strategy.”

Additionally, cutting out the foods you like, or forcing yourself to eat "healthy" foods that you hate, likely won't help you stick with any healthy habits for the long haul. “A lot of the research on dieting and how many diets fail for people tells me that [for] any strategy to work sustainably for years and for people to work into their lifestyles, the food has to taste good,” says Dr. Turnwald. If you're forcing yourself to eat kale because you heard it's more nutritious than spinach, you're probably going to stop eating it entirely and thus not enjoy any of its health benefits—when you could be getting similar benefits from a food that you genuinely do like.

Plus, feeling like certain foods are "bad" or "off-limits" can lead to unhealthy eating patterns of restricting certain foods, then binging on those foods, then overcorrecting back to restriction again—hardly optimal for mental or physical well-being.

“In the past we’ve said, ‘Do you want the tasty choice, or the healthy choice?’” says Dr. Gardner. “That’s ridiculous." What we should be thinking about instead, he says, are creative ways to have the tastiest food possible that's healthy and environmentally sustainable. (Really, the best of all worlds.)

So how to put the "eating for pleasure" concept into practice? Here are some pointers from the experts.

1. Eat what tastes good to you

Groundbreaking, right? Fitness bloggers and Instagram influencers have been touting the idea of “food as fuel” for a while, and while that’s not wrong—food both literally and figuratively makes us run, Zeitlin points out—that doesn’t mean you have to eat the “most fueling” superfoods even if you hate them. Kale and quinoa are not universal requirements of a healthy diet.

“You should be eating the vegetables that you do like, the types of protein that you do like,” says Zeitlin. “If you don't like fish, then no amount of stuffing your face with salmon is going to make you like fish. There are other healthy choices that you can eat that you would enjoy more. If you are someone who prefers chicken or you prefer turkey, that's great. Eat those things. You don't have to eat salmon to be healthy.”

One note here: At the same time that you’re hat-tipping your preferences, recognize that your preferences may change, and you should be open to trying new—and old—foods on occasion. “Maybe the food that you didn’t enjoy eating when you were 7, you now do enjoy eating it at 27 or 37,” says Zeitlin. Adventure is pleasurable, too, right?

2. Focus on flavor, and don't sweat overmuch about preparation

Another thing we’ve gotten wrong in this whole idea of eating healthy foods is that you need to eat them the most healthy way, says Dr. Turnwald. “So if you're going to have carrots, they should be raw and not cooked with too much oil or butter and not too much salt. If you're going to have a salad, don't use much dressing. People think that if you do that, you might as well have a cheeseburger or something, but that's really not the case," he says.

Just making the effort to eat the healthy food, and eating it often, generally matters more than the specific way it's prepared—so don't stress overmuch about that (unless you're finding that you're only eating deep-fried vegetables).

3. Indulge, damnit! (Just know that it’s not always the same thing as eating for enjoyment)

Another thing society has gotten mixed up on is this idea that indulging and eating for enjoyment are one and the same. You should by all means eat brownies, or French toast, or whatever it is that makes you happy. That’s indulging. You should also eat Brussels sprouts if you enjoy those. And therein lies the difference.

“Sometimes eating for pleasure can get a little bit confused with the ‘treat yourself’ mentality,” says Zeitlin. “Indulging is part of healthy living, right? It’s part of healthy eating. Restriction is not part of healthy eating. But you want to be mindful of how frequently you’re indulgent. I love chocolate chip cookies. They make me happy. Living a healthy life, I can’t eat them for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.”

At the end of the day, we can't overlook or underestimate all the different reasons why we eat, and what we gain from food beyond nutrition. “Food is nourishment in a lot of different ways,” Zeitlin says. “It is actual nourishment for our bodies so that our heart beats and our mind works and we can walk from A to B. But it also nourishes our soul a little bit, and we should be eating foods we like, foods that feel good to us.” Amen.

Another thing impacting our genuine enjoyment of food: diet culture. And if you're looking for a way to jazz up your vegetables, you'll want to try this delicious, nutty sauce.

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