The Word "Should" in Eating... Does it Have a Place?

I hear people talk about what they think they should be eating all the time. Not just in my work with clients with disordered eating in Denver, but also in the rest of my life as well. You’ve probably also heard it in everyday conversation “I should eat more vegetables” “I shouldn’t eat this dessert” “I should eat more protein” etc, etc. The question is… is it okay to should on yourself about eating something?? The answer: sometimes… and, it’s complicated.

When it’s okay to use SHOULD with eating

We all have different nutrients that we need in order to be healthy and thriving in our lives. It can be helpful to have a basic understanding of what these are in order to feed our bodies well and feel good. If we feel like we are consistently under-fueling or over-fueling our bodies, feeling sluggish, tired, or low in energy then it can be helpful to implement a few ‘shoulds’ with our meal times.

Meal and snack ‘shoulds’

One of my ‘shoulds’ that I use with clients and also for myself as a general rule of thumb: A meal should have three components and a snack should have two. I want you take this as a general guideline and not as a rule or a should, unless you feel like having it as a should would be helpful to you!

When a meal has three components it means that in order for a meal to feel satisfying and fill you up, you need three different parts to it. Examples: Eggs, Toast, Fruit; Sandwich made with PB and jelly, bread, side of chips; Stir-fry made with pork, rice, veggies. Many of us eat this way naturally, but if you’ve engaged in any kind of disordered eating or restricted calories, portion sizes, etc, you may be engaging in some restriction at meals and not realize it. Allowing yourself to eat three things (at least) at each meal means you will leave the meal feeling full and satisfied so you can go live your life and not think about food again for at least a few hours.

A snack having two components means that an apple alone or a piece of cheese by itself is not a snack. Well, we could say it is but it will not keep you full for very long at all. But an apple with cheese, chips with guacamole, or crackers with peanut butter are all snacks that could sustain you for 1-2 hours until your next meal time. 

You need all the macronutrients

The only other should that I believe deserves a place with food is around the macronutrient content of our meals. By that I mean having a balance of carbs, fat, and protein at each meal and snack during the day. And no, I do not mean you should be counting macros, which is a popular fad diet right now.

Our bodies need carbs, especially our brains to keep us fueled with energy for all the daily activities of life. So we need a lot of our meals to contain carbs. We get carbs from lots of different foods; pasta, bread, fruit, veggies, chips, crackers, cereal, honey, pancakes, etc. Fat is essential for our hormones to keep working, to help our bodies absorb nutrients (you need fat to absorb the Vitamin K in your salad!), and helps to keep our core temperature in our body stable. And protein is essential for the structure and repair of our body’s tissues and organs. You need all of these macronutrients in a steady supply throughout your day in order for your body to feel full and satiated.

When it’s NOT okay to use SHOULD with eating

I can sum up this section with “EVERYTHING ELSE AROUND FOOD”. Besides the few guidelines mentioned above, should SHOULD NOT be a part of our vocabulary when it comes to our food. When we should ourselves about what we are eating it usually backfires. For example, how many times have you had a craving for chocolate only to tell yourself that you should eat something healthier because chocolate is bad for you. So you eat an orange instead, only to feel totally unsatisfied afterwards which leads you to eat a million other things to try to satisfy your craving, and eventually give into the craving and eat the chocolate in the end. Our cravings are our body’s way of communicating our needs to us. Listen to them! Eat the chocolate and move on with your life.

Another common should I see with my clients (and one that I used to do as well) is shoulding about how often or how frequently you should be hungry again. Example: you ate breakfast at 8am which usually holds you over until your 11am snack, but today you are very hungry by 10am and know that your snack won’t satisfy your intense hunger. You tell yourself you shouldn’t be hungry yet and force yourself to wait until 11, but by that time you are ravenous and end up eating way more than what feels comfortable. This is silly! Your body is not a machine. Some days you will be hungrier than others. If you are hungry that is your body’s way of telling you that you need more fuel. It’s as simple as that. You wouldn’t be mad at your car for running out of gas, so don’t be mad at your body for getting hungrier earlier. It’s just doing its job to keep you alive and functioning.

Other SHOULDS to avoid

“I should be eating paleo, keto, low-fat, any other fad diet”. Fad diets don’t work and end up harming us more in the long term with our health and our relationship with food.  

“I should be eating more like my friend, partner, mom, sister, trainer, dietitian, neighbor.” We all have our own nutrient needs and trying to eat like someone else in your life is like trying to make yourself have different color eyes; it’s just not doable.

“I shouldn’t eat sugar, white flour, or bread.” None of these foods are bad (since no foods are good or bad) and avoiding them is not only unnecessary but could lead to eventual over-eating or binging on them.

“I should eat more raw vegetables even though I hate them.” Forcing yourself to eat foods you don’t like is unnecessary and a form of self-punishment.

If you are around someone and they say any of the above phrases, recognize that this is their life and they can live it how they want to, but you do not have to listen or obey these ‘shoulds’, and if you try, it will not turn out well. When we should on ourselves about food we are typically denying our primal hunger and cravings. When we deny our hunger and cravings our body will always find another way to stay alive. Deny your physical cravings but then you will likely be mentally thinking about food all the time. Deny your physical hunger and you will feel tired, sluggish, and won’t be able to think as clearly while trying to live your life. The SHOULDS have a very small place in our life when it comes to food.

Melissa PrestonComment