When ‘Healthy’ isn’t your Vibe: Eating Right in a World of Wrongs

White woman sitting on the street pouring Fruit Loops in her mouth
Photo by Criativithy from Pexels

Like most people, I have a complicated relationship with food.

In high school I experimented with skipping meals. I have an abnormal spine that effects digestion and GI functioning. This leads to various problems including nausea and untrust-worthy appetite feelings. I can feel starving after I just ate. And I can miss a meal and feel completely full.

In high school, nausea, combined with feeling full all the time, combined with the stress of ‘where am I going to college?’ and the slow unraveling of my first romantic relationship, made it seem reasonable to not eat. Or eat less. Maybe this felt like something I could control during years where it felt like no matter how hard I tried nothing else could be what I wanted.

This pattern continued in high school where my diet became more refined. (Here I say diet not as a weight loss plan, but as the word to describe a habit of eating.) Sometimes I ate regular food in the cafeteria. But almost every month I’d have a string of days, sometimes even a week, where the nausea was too strong to even be in the cafeteria. I ate saltines, ramen noodles, and Pepsi because the carbonation seemed to help with my gut. I swore by this diet. It was a lifeline, a thing I could trust. Where other foods, not matter what they were, seemed to trigger all kinds of unpredictable reactions on any given day. Eating meals became a strategic, time-consuming set of calculations. It seemed like even when I gave my body things the world called ‘healthy’ it rebelled.

As an adult, my enlightened, very health-conscious friends, listened to my complaints and immediately diagnosed a troubled microbiome. “You need good bacteria,” they said. (True). “It happens to people who have had abdominal surgery,” they said (also True). They told me to try yogurt, which made me feel sick about fifty percent of the time. They said, “try kombucha.” But Kombucha has alcohol in it, and my gut REALLY doesn’t like alcohol. It used to, but not anymore.

When we talk about ‘healthy’ food, it is important to remember that this is a flexible definition. Clearly, my diet of saltines, ramen, and Pepsi, was not a balanced or ‘healthy’ diet. But it was the thing I found that worked and allowed me to function (mostly). If I’d had celiac, this clearly would not have been a good idea. But I say ‘clearly’ with sarcasm because diets and the symptoms of celiac are often undiagnosed even by doctors. In fact, I’ve had several friends who had doctors tell them to quiet their angry guts with starchy diets, only to discover later that a starchy diet full of gluten was basically the worst advice ever.

Likewise, people with nerve and motility issues like my abnormal spine, cannot just pack down a leafy salad every day for lunch because many greens and raw veggies put strain on the digestive system. Likewise, beans, nuts, and some fruits are also difficult to digest for some people. Being ‘healthy’ in whatever way we’re defining it this year is neither so obvious nor so easy as we tend to think.

I say this because we are a species of snap judgements. We see what someone orders at the table next to us in the restaurant. We see fast food habits. We see obesity. We see extreme skinny people. Based on these observations, we think we understand something about them and their eating. But it is never that simple.