Temporary Eating Patterns Have Minimal Impact on Long-term Health
By: Katy Keogh, MS, RDN, LD
As the world seems to change minute by minute lately, you may feel that your eating habits are a little “off.” This can lead to concern about the long-term impact on health, and the concern about how or when you can ever get back “on track.”
As you find yourself being faced with a change in your eating habits, whether due to available food, new routines or even stress, take comfort in the fact that changes to eating patterns for a few days, weeks or even a few months likely won’t impact your lifetime health. Here are a few reasons why:
1. You are designed to withstand hardship
Humans have withstood periods of famine and inadequate or unbalanced nutrition and have survived. In ancient times, there were periods with no protein to eat, and likely little access to fruits and vegetables in the winter. Any nutritional inadequacies experienced now are likely to be short-lived, as we are exposed to a stable food supply with much more nutritional diversity. Just as our ancestors had large fluctuations in their eating patterns from year to year and season to season, we can also handle those changes.
2. Homeostasis – biological science to the rescue
When changes to eating habits occur, the human body is designed to pursue homeostasis, otherwise known as balance. Most bodily systems will do whatever they can to try to maintain a stable state despite small or large changes in the system. Our systems are designed to use small fluctuations to counterbalance other changes in order to balance the whole system. Hormones, digestion, metabolism, blood pressure, etc. – they all can alter when needed to create balance.
For example, if your iron intake or storage is low, you’ll generally absorb or digest iron better. On the contrary, if you have good iron stores, you’ll excrete more and absorb less iron. This is the case with other vitamins and minerals, and other systems in our body. Due to the body’s pursuit of homeostasis, short-term changes in eating patterns are generally insignificant in the long run since the body tends to create its own balance.
3. Long-term averages matter most
When it comes to measuring health, the gold standard is typically blood lab values. Many important nutrition-related lab values are long-term averages. For example, the hemoglobin A1c test shows the average of blood sugar levels over three months. Even with labs that do change in the short-term, healthcare providers tend to look at long-term trends. They often compare two or more measurements of the same lab work before recommending a change in medical treatment, with the whole process occurring over the course of months. This means that even if we adopt a less-than-desired diet for a short period of time, our long-term lab values may be unaffected.
All of this does not mean that nutritious foods and eating habits don’t matter to our health. They do. However, especially in this moment, it’s a reminder to be gentle with yourself. Reflect that this may not be a realistic time to expect yourself to be 100% nutritious with every single meal. When you have more realistic expectations, you can begin to move forward and quite possibly make a small but sustainable change even during challenging times.
In times of change and stress, working toward an optimal eating routine can be great, but give it time, make it flexible and don’t forget to pay attention to your body. Bodies are highly skilled at communicating cues about what and when to eat. The key is to listen and learn. And remember that the little blip in our eating habits that we experience during a big life change are only a small footprint in the path of the overall wellness journey.
*The viewpoints presented here are only intended as general advice and is not intended to treat, cure or be a substitute for professional and personalized medical or nutritional advice. For some people with a serious medical condition, diabetes, chronic kidney disease or food allergies, etc. this advice may not apply. Discuss your particular scenario with your healthcare provider.