The Lean Pocket Dilemma: Defining "Healthy"

Scene: While trying to multitask on a particularly hurried morning, I was able to throw a handful of nutritious snacks in my polka-dot lunch box. A small bag of mixed nuts, a fresh apple, cucumber slices, etcetera. However, as the clock continued to tick, and I was suffering the consequences of an overused snooze button, the realization set in that a morning chore had to be sacrificed if arriving to work in a timely manner was going to happen. This instance, the sacrificial lamb was my lunch. Today’s lucky stand-in: a delicious Lean Pocket.

Flash forward to noon. I’m eagerly waiting the minute and a half until the crisper sleeve does its magic and my warmed Lean Pocket is ready to devour. After a tiring morning, I’m quietly lurking around the microwave rather then partaking in the conversation of my coworkers. However, I did not go unnoticed. Caught off guard, the following question was thrown my way, “You’re the dietitian…you know that isn’t healthy, right?”

…sigh…exasperated head shake…

When your occupation is filling brains with food knowledge, if you are spotted with a snack that falls short of being purely organic or unprocessed, the odds that your choice will be speculated are high. Truthfully, I get it. I can’t say I wouldn’t have the same reaction if I witnessed a trusted psychologist being admitted to a mental health ward. To a certain degree I signed up for this, yet this notion towards nutrition is gravely concerning to me. The question itself is harmless, but the attitude that manifested its formation is in my eyes one of the preeminent barriers to improving one’s nutritional health. After some contemplation, I wondered if the true underlying issue is the belief that in order to eat “healthy” one must strive for perfection.

If this is true, suddenly the achievable seems impossible. Excuses begin to feel justified:

-       “Eating healthy is too expensive”

-       “I don’t have time for it”

-       “It’s just so confusing”

Food manufacturers add fuel to this blazing fire, by adding words like “all-natural” and “100%” to their product labels. Popular diets emerge, such as the Paleao diet, which encourages only foods that could be found by scavengers before the Neolithic Agriculture Revolution (meaning, before we learned how to farm). Frustration is not directed at the principles of the diets themselves, but more so the exclusionary, all-or-nothing approach. As with any behavior or attitude that reaches an extreme, there is a term for when a fixation to only consume “healthy” or “pure” foods dictates one’s life, that being orthorexia.

What may start as a good intention to improve nutritional health can result in social isolation due to fear of eating out, along with anxiety concerning meal choices and planning.

Additionally, it is often argued that the definition of “healthy” is ambiguous. Granted, the field of nutrition is rooted in science, therefore known and researched facts about certain dietary components and their influence on health have emerged. For example, over eating refined sugars and saturated fats can increase risk for obesity, diabetes and heart disease. However, with a wide spectrum of food choices that contain a myriad of nutrients, what is deemed healthy is distinctive to each individual. Many factors come into play, such as the type and amount of nutrition one’s body biologically requires, as well as what their dietary habits were prior to implementing improvements. If a Sausage McMuffin and hashbrown was replaced with a regular Egg McMuffin and apple slices, I would say that was a “healthy” switch.

As with any endeavor in life, striving for perfection can be a double-edged sword. When an ideal is not reached, feelings of incompetence and disappointment ensue. We are talking about your life here. If you are lucky, you will have to make meal and snack decisions on a daily basis, multiple times a day. It would be foolish to never expect a piece of birthday cake to pass those lips. Rather than perfection, why not strive for improvement?

In my personal opinion, a dietitian’s role is not to enforce strict dietary regulations, but rather to foster a salubrious relationship with food that can be sustained throughout a lifetime.

In case you were wondering, after acknowledging the lunchtime comment and reciprocating with a un-amused shrug combined with a civil smile, I returned to my desk and proceeded to thoroughly enjoy my Lean Pocket. It may not have been the best, but it could have been worse. Like each and every individual who steps through my door, I also am striving for my own nutritional balance.