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Health Food vs. Healthy Relationship with All Food

by Carina Chiodo, English, minor in Psychology

Rewind to 10 months ago when I am eagerly about to start graduate school. I was proud to boast that the Masters of Science degree I’d be working to earn would be in Nutrition & Food Science and that I would go on to become a Registered Dietitian. I was ready to finally be surrounded by fellow nutrition nerds who I hadn’t met yet, but was so sure I was destined to bond with over our ‘secret knowledge’ that all food serves a purpose. I had been infected by a revelation that society’s popular diet culture was totally bogus. I was fervent about joining any movement emphasizing that food is not to be feared such as Health At Every Size® (HAES) and Intuitive Eating. They spoke to me because they highlighted that food is one of life’s great pleasures and we deserve to nourish ourselves with it.

Fast forward to now, and I look back at myself as naïve; and very much unprepared for the criticism, conflicts, and difficult debates I would be having, many with the very peers who I had been so sure would be kindred spirits. I had no idea that nutrition is as controversial as politics.

I chose Nutrition & Food Science quite randomly, in a way far too complex for me to describe briefly when I’m asked why I chose my major. Long, long (long, long, long) story short: when I was an undergraduate in English and Psychology, I avidly espoused the idea of becoming a food writer. I grew up in a kitchen-table-centered household where meals are cause for celebration, so the culinary obsession came naturally to me. I loved to write and I was fascinated by the way the human mind works around food—hence my academic concentration.

I attended school in L.A. to chase this dream- the city of celebrities, smog, beautiful beaches, and trendy restaurants. I would come to find out that it was also a place where flaws are microscopically examined; and where there is an oversupply of trends that come and go so quickly it takes talent to stop to follow one. Oh, and did I mention that everyone wants to be thin? I put all these factors together one day and realized that I was a major victim of society’s notion that one size = “healthy”, meaning a 25-inch waist and thighs that don’t touch.

I had a breakthrough by recognizing that I was chasing unattainable ideals in a VERY unhealthy way, both physically and mentally. I did my research, and realized that nutrition- the real science of food, versus popular fad food claims, resonated with me. I had a fair number of internships for culinary journalism companies under my belt, so as a self-proclaimed ‘foodie’, I already knew a lot about food. When I delved deeper, beyond the entertaining restaurant reviews and into the scientific facts, I was captivated by learning that our bodies actually need every single type of food, despite all the low-carb, nonfat, gluten-free jabber I had been overwhelmed with.

I now had a passion for debunking the diet myths that society had fed me all my life; and was ready to change the conversation towards trusting our bodies and building healthy relationships with food. Yep, I was going to be the new celebrity nutritionist and I was ready to bring this Intuitive Eating subculture I now knew I was part of into the spotlight for the world to know and embrace.

Ok, so that wasn’t a very short story. After a year in a graduate program in which I couldn’t be happier, I realize that not everyone pursuing nutrition wants to be a part of the ‘subculture’ I thought I was a part of. While the Intuitive Eating and HAES enthusiasts like myself definitely exist, there are others who are on quite the opposite side. I found this out one day while I was eating lunch in class when a fellow nutrition classmate pointed out that my meal wasn’t balanced because it didn’t include fruit. And I had been quite proud of toting my little Tupperware container of steak, black bean, and quinoa salad to campus! That was just the first of an onslaught of remarks I’d receive: the disbelief that I eat Top Ramen when a noodle craving kicks in, have red meat at least once a week, see nothing wrong with drinking regular 2% milk that comes from cows not almonds thank you very much, and eat ice cream almost every single night.

Next came those very keen to tell me about their ‘healthy’ habits once they found out I was off studying nutrition. I quickly grew irritated when people came to me specifically, to brag about how much they love the new, 9-calorie-per-ounce, cashew-milk “ice cream”. It bothered me. A lot. But I couldn’t figure out why it bothered me so much. Was it because I had to feign interest when I was secretly laughing in my head? For a while I thought I was just sick of having to fake it and then I realized I was frustrated that our culture was making my peers think the way they did: that being ‘healthy’ is following the new fad diet, swearing off carbs, and claiming to be obsessed with the new 9-calorie “ice cream” trend that everyone knows doesn’t replace a pint of genuine, premium, vanilla bean Haagen-Dazs ice cream (in its full-fat, sugar-sweetened, dairy-only glory).

The conversation about nutrition needs to change, and even some of those who are educated about nutrition still tout whichever nutrition-related statements make it to popular media headlines. It’s hard not to when we learn certain “facts” about what can increase the risk of certain health problems. I do subscribe to the idea that some types of foods might be better options than others, based on the specific needs and health of each individual. However, I do not even attempt to acknowledge the paradigm of moral categories pertaining to food, designating which are “good” and which are “bad”. Too much or too little of anything is not a good thing if it replaces balance and variety which I know all my peers in the nutrition field can agree on. That being said, I have chosen to eat with no foods off-limits, while keeping my individual needs in mind and based on my unique lifestyle, health, and cravings.

Trends persist because they are new and seem sexy. What has been tried and true for millions of years is not new, nor sexy, and thus the age-old ‘tricks’ are forgotten. Listening to our bodies’ needs has been the tried and true way to maintain a healthy relationship with food since…well, forever. It’s not exciting, juicy, or magic, but there is no doubt that it works. Honoring our hunger is the no-nonsense key to having a happy food life and the healthy eating habits follow from there. A broken relationship with food will cause far more drastic problems, like eating disorders, than eating gluten, carbs, meat, GMOs, or any other ingredient that has a bad reputation ever will.

It can and will continue to be difficult to embrace a lifestyle and set of values that society is slow to pick up on. I have hope, however, that everyone, not just those in that somewhat small subunit of the nutrition field, will accept food for what it is without feeling bad about consuming a variety of all types. And, of course, that no one would ever try to replace a genuine extra-hot-fudge ice cream craving with 9-calorie frozen, cashew milk. Gross.

Carina Chiodo is a graduate student in the Masters of Science program for Nutrition & Food Science at California State University, Chico. She is originally from the Bay Area in California and has also lived in Los Angeles and Florence, Italy. Carina is currently working on developing her graduate research project on mindful eating, food attitudes, and body image differences between American and Italian university students. During the academic year, she is a nutrition educator for Butte County elementary schools and a regular contributor to the American Culinary Federation’s Culinarian publication. This summer she is walking the Avon 39 for Breast Cancer in San Francisco with her mother, a cause she is passionate about. Carina plans to become a Registered Dietitian, specializing in women, teen, corporate and athlete nutrition. She will never tire of trying out new restaurants, reading, or going to stand-up comedy shows—and her current favorite ice cream is Northern Oregon Blackberry from Marianne’s in Santa Cruz, CA.

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