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When it comes to wellness, Americans suffer from a serious case of overconfidence. And even the most health-conscious consumers aren’t immune. We interviewed top industry experts to find out where you should be paying more attention—and when you should cut yourself some slack.
Even the most health-conscious consumers aren’t immune. You may buy organic, do yoga or meditate regularly, and dutifully take your fish oil. And compared to the large pool of fast-food-eating, sedentary Americans, you are living an exceptionally healthy life. But chances are you have blind spots that keep you from optimum wellness. Maybe you still succumb to your after-dinner sugar fix, power through the same monotonous workout day after day, or allow the latest extreme diet trend to seduce you—whatever your weak link, you may be unwittingly shortchanging your health.
Well, here’s your reality check. Take a look at the following eight mistakes, misperceptions, and myths to see whether you’ve been fooled, too; then use our experts’ tips to start making easy, doable changes today. Don’t sweat it: Nobody’s asking for a radical overhaul—you’ve already built a strong foundation of wellness—but avoiding these common pitfalls will ensure a healthier life starting right now. And isn’t that what matters most?
Hiding behind a health halo
You likely know someone who’s vegetarian but lives on potato chips or gluten-intolerant but snacks obsessively on sugary gluten-free treats. When you adopt a restrictive, single-focus diet—no matter how healthy it appears to be—it’s easy to lose sight of the larger goal: eating nutrient-dense foods in appropriate amounts. Taking such a myopic approach is “almost its own kind of eating disorder,” says integrative physician Tieraona Low Dog, MD, faculty member of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona. Over time, too-narrow food choices can lead to deficiencies, she warns.
Likewise, consuming only organic or vegan can make you feel virtuous, but that doesn’t give you license to reward yourself with oversized portions or calorie-dense treats. “Often people are so focused on what they’re eating that they lose sight of how much they’re eating,” explains Holly Lucille, ND, RN, of West Hollywood, California. “I’m a big fan of getting back to calories; the bottom line is, if you take in more energy than you expend, you’re going to have trouble losing weight. An organic blue corn chip is still a corn chip.”
In general, labeling foods as good or bad creates a detrimental dichotomy. People tend to overeat when eating “good” foods, explains Maryann Jacobsen, RD, creator of the Raise Healthy Eaters blog. (Indeed, in a recent study, people thought cookies labeled organic were lower in calories than identical cookies without the label.) Similarly, labeling something as a “bad” food can create a scarcity mentality, or the feeling that there’s not enough to go around, and lead to bingeing. “We’ve lost a sense of our internal cues,” she explains, citing a study from the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab comparing Parisians to their counterparts in Chicago: The French stopped eating when they felt full; the Chicagoans used external cues and kept going until their plates were empty—yet another reason why the French are skinnier!
Solution: Build a balanced, holistic, and positive diet by putting your energy into focusing more on what you should eat rather than what you shouldn’t. “You know you’re on the right track if you’re getting plenty of fruits and veggies, whole grains, lean meats, fish, and low-fat dairy,” advises Jacobsen. Tune into your body’s signals and stop eating when you’re 80 percent full. Track your caloric intake in a food diary for two weeks. (To calculate your target caloric intake, multiply your weight by 15; you can brush up on caloric values for common foods at nutrition.gov.) Simply writing down everything you eat “is a big wake-up call,” says Lucille.