As a registered dietitian, healthy-ish is one of those buzzy new lifestyle terms I can fully get behind. Unlike the severity implied by the words clean eating, detox, and cleanse, healthy-ish signifies something much more lenient—and much more sustainable. Healthy-ish is the way of life and eating I’ve always stood up for, practiced myself, and counseled clients toward. It lives in that just-right nook between following a strict diet that never allows for indulgence and going all out, all the time in a way that can obstruct your goals.
Here, have some numbers for context: Healthy-ish is around a 7 or 8 out of 10 on a healthy-eating scale. In an ideal world, that would be people’s status quo: eating well most of the time—then some of the time, eating those less-than-healthy foods you need to stay sane. But in a world with rampant food guilt, eating disorders, and pressure to live up to an impossible beauty standard, it can be hard to believe that living a healthy-ish life is just as valid as hitting a 10 on that healthy-eating scale, day in and day out. But I’m here to tell you it is.
Being healthy-ish is not only a way of eating; it’s an attitude toward food.
The two are equally important. It’s one thing to follow a prescribed method of eating, but your attitude toward food can determine how happy you are with your eating habits, which can in turn affect your feelings about yourself.
Being healthy-ish isn’t just about treating yourself to a brownie—it’s knowing that if you eat a brownie one day, nothing bad is going to happen to you. It’s being able to look past an indulgence and not feel ashamed or weak because you “gave in.” It’s not obsessive, the way clean eating can be. It’s permissive—to a point.
If you are stuck in that all-too-common but completely unhelpful morality struggle of judging food as “good” versus “bad”, or chastising yourself for having cravings (never mind actually indulging in them), or “punishing” yourself with exercise for having a treat, you should consider trading up to a healthy-ish way of eating instead.
Here are some examples of unhealthy eating transformed into being healthy-ish.
Unhealthy: Eating some chips or a piece of cake and worrying about how it’ll keep you from your health, weight, or fitness goals.
Healthy-ish: Having a handful of chips or a piece of cake every once in a while and going on your merry way, knowing that it’s all part of a healthy diet. NO GUILT.
Unhealthy: Lucky Charms every day for breakfast.
Healthy-ish: Eggs and homefries on Sundays because you’ve eaten a healthy breakfast all week anyhow.
Unhealthy: Slamming margaritas and eating nachos by the pool every day, all day, on your week-long vacation.
Healthy-ish: Enjoying a margarita and some chips every other week while you’re at dinner with friends.
Of course, making that switch is often easier said than done—which is where these tactics come in.
If you’ve been extra-rigid with your diet for years and fear that any indulgence is going to result in weight gain, you’re either going to find the prospect of living a healthy-ish life intimidating or exciting (or both).
Yes, it’s scary to relinquish control—especially if you think keeping a strict grip on what you eat has helped you reach or maintain your goals thus far. But as a registered dietitian, I can assure you that the vast majority of people can’t stick to an overly restrictive diet plan in the long-term. If you’re trying to commit to a healthy lifestyle, being healthy-ish is the way to go. Here’s how to make it work in your own life.
For starters, it can be helpful to remember how weight gain works.
That whole “a moment on the lips, forever on the hips” saying is the opposite of the truth. It’s not like having a less-than-healthy food when the mood strikes will result in instant weight gain. Your body doesn’t work like that.
Think about it this way: If you live a generally less-than-healthy lifestyle but throw in a couple of salads every so often, you wouldn’t see much of a change from your baseline weight, health, or fitness levels. It works the same way in reverse. If you live a consistently healthy life with some indulgences occasionally added in, as long as you’re using proper portions, you’ll be fine.
Understand that even though that “ish” allows for some wiggle room, the underlying theme is still about good health.
Healthy-ish is a more forgiving way of life than many people allow themselves, but at its heart, health is the goal. Yes, you should still have tons of fruits and vegetables in your diet, along with plenty of other whole, healthy foods.
I want you to enjoy your food. But using the healthy-ish lifestyle as an excuse to overeat just because you’re on vacation, or because you have chocolate in the house? No. Overall, your diet should consist of healthy choices, interspersed with indulgences some of the time. Healthy-ish works because you’re never really restricted, but it’s only truly effective if you keep up both ends of the bargain by eating a mostly healthy diet.
Focus on mindfulness to make those treats count!
Truly enjoying your indulgences—a.k.a., slowing down, doing away with any distractions, and savoring them in every sense of the word—is an essential part of the equation.
Instead of inhaling a cupcake without realizing how good it tastes and makes you feel, noticing those little details can help you feel more satisfied, thus helping you avoid constant cravings and feelings of deprivation that can lead to a binge-restrict cycle.
Ultimately, it can take time to get used to living a healthy-ish life.
This is especially true if you’ve been conflicted about food for a while. But it’s worth it to find peace in the balance that lies between two extremes of the healthy-eating spectrum. And if you’re not sure you can do it alone, there’s no shame in that! A registered dietitian or psychologist can help you get there. It might take some practice, but you can do it!
Trust me—you’ll be happier and healthier, both in body and soul, once you make the change.
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