“Wow, this oat milk has no sugar.”
My back held open the cold fridge door in the grocery store as I turned the cream colored carton around in my hand inspecting the nutrition label to confirm there was no sugar or added sugar substitutes.
“Let’s get it!”
I was sold.
My sister craned her neck to take a look for herself.
“Hmm, it has rapeseed. Some people say that’s not good for you.”
My mind flashed to the “buy one, get one” Big Mac sale that had been running in our town for the last month.
“Seriously? We’ve been eating McDonalds like everyday,” I pointed out, placing the oat milk into our cart as she burst out laughing.
In this moment, I appreciated how sometimes, in striving for perfection, good habits can feel as though they have to be binary. Either we make the best decision or we make a bad decision.
With the oat milk, we wanted a milk option that was low in sugar to make green smoothies. Sugar is a big no no for my sister and I as almost everyone on our dad's side has diabetes.
The 2% milk at our grocery store has 15 grams of sugar. Outrageous!
We don’t always eat healthy though. As we both started to get busier, we found ourselves cooking at home less and less often and the buy one get one deal at McDonald’s became too alluring.
So to give up a healthy drink option because of a nuanced critique of seed oils seemed silly to me.
But are we healthy eaters or not?
I often complain about this binary with good habits when looking at the discourse around drinking alcohol.
I quit drinking alcohol over two years ago and have been quite happy with that decision. I strongly believe that everyone would be better off if they drank less.
Less is the key word. Abstaining is great, but less is good too.
Oftentimes, when I tell people I don’t drink, they share that they also have quit.
Then, like a churchgoer in a confessional, they will sheepishly clarify, “well, sometimes I have a drink at a wedding or a couple times a year.”
So if they drink again, do they lose their status as a sober person?
Feels hard to say without asking more questions. But if the world is sorted into drinkers and non drinkers, I find people feel as though they have to choose a side.
“I can’t give up drinking, I still enjoy red wine with dinner sometimes,” is something I’m often told unprompted.
Part of the reason I mull over this is because I’m motivated by identity based habits. I like being someone who doesn’t drink. I like being someone who doesn’t eat sugar. The pride I feel in those identities complement my healthy habits well.
Identity based habits can feel binary since they are defining who you are based on the choices you are making.
Sometimes the identity isn’t as important to me though.
I don’t really care about being a healthy eater, it’s not an identity that’s ever resonated with me. Growing up in the Midwest, I wasn’t surrounded by many people who were conscientious about their diet.
However, as I’ve gotten older and wiser, I do try to make more good food decisions over bad ones. More green vegetables, less Big Macs.
For example, I love eating meat and never wanted to be vegetarian. Growing up, people often assumed I was vegetarian because I’m Indian. Some people have even jokingly accused me of being a bad Indian when they saw me meat. I’ve always found this a bit annoying so I’m sure I had a chip on my shoulder with the actual label of vegetarian.
However, over the last decade, I’ve been convinced that a vegetarian diet is good for me and good for the environment. Still, I didn’t want to give up meat so I assumed there was a tension here that couldn’t be solved.
As I grew older though, I made more and more friends who fell on the spectrum of strict vegan to “flexitarian,” aka mostly vegetarian but sometimes ate meat.
I started to experiment myself. One year I gave up meat for lent, and another year I lost a bet and went vegan for a month. Both times I saw that I could live without meat and also learned more about the benefits of cutting down on meat and dairy.
These days I’m more cognizant of how much meat I eat and try to choose better options. Swapping tofu for chicken every now and again or paying a little extra for grass fed beef are ways I have aligned towards a healthier diet and lifestyle.
Does my love of two beef patties in between three buns slathered in secret sauce conflict with this?
But I’ve learned good habits don’t have to be binary. I can incorporate them into my life in a way that makes sense for me.
Sometimes I go all in. Sometimes I dip my toes in first. Sometimes I simply dabble in a good habit.
To me, choosing a healthier decision some of the time still has a lot of benefits. Not only is it good for me, good habits also feel a bit addicting in their own way.
As I incorporated more spinach based smoothies into my life, I appreciated how energetic I felt afterwards. I compared that to the lethargic feeling I got hit with after eating McDonalds and knew it was time to cut myself off.
Plus the buy one, get one deal ended.
Now my sister and I are experimenting with meal prepping again and buying some pre-made salads when we go to the grocery store.
Perhaps this time we will stick with healthy eating habits.
But even if we don’t, it’s still worth doing.
Thanks for reading Michelle Varghoose! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
Love this kind of thinking Michelle! Completely agree, it's not binary at all, more of a spectrum, and if you get it right at least 80% of the time, it's enough.
It made me think of this recent Huberman tweet:
"Myth 1: thinking we can go w/o daily sun (even if through clouds), exercise, sleep, quality nutrients & human connection & still be healthy.
Myth 2: thinking we’ll dissolve into a puddle of tears/cancer/dementia/early death if we don’t.
Nailing the basics 80% of the time works."
Really enjoyed all the little details about the Indian side, McDonald's and also, laughed a lot with the "Binary Drinks", so perfect 😂😂
I totally agree here :) it’s so easy to think that a habit has to have a streak but I think that it’s more mature to acknowledge getting off the wagon and recognizing even more strongly why you have a habit (or lack thereof) in the first place.