Discovering the surprising health benefits of cake | Winnipeg Health Region

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Discovering the surprising health benefits of cake

Photo of a square of chocolate cake.
Photo of Kaylee Michnik.
KAYLEE MICHNIK
Winnipeg Regional Health Authority
Published Friday, May 11, 2018

As a public health dietitian, I often find myself engaged in conversations with my clients about how our perceptions about food affect our health and well-being.
In a group discussion with clients on family nutrition a few weeks ago, I asked whether they thought it was okay to eat cake.

After a moment of silence, one individual piped up, “Well, there are no nutrients in cake (and) it has empty calories.”

“There is too much sugar in it!” a second person asserted.

And a third person, possibly looking for compromise, offered: “Only if you eat a tiny piece.”

I asked the participants a number of other questions about their eating habits, such as when did they eat cake and how did they feel about it when they did.

Many in the group responded that they ate cake during family celebrations or outings with friends, but that they often felt guilty or anxious about eating it because it wasn’t “healthy.”

Others said they also felt bad about not eating cake, because they wanted some, but knew that it didn’t fit into their diet plan.

As the conversation continued, it soon became apparent that everyone in the group – those that occasionally ate cake and those that didn’t eat it at all – felt poorly about themselves. Their diets, and feelings of self-worth, were being dictated by the message that some foods are “good” and some are “bad” based on the nutrients food provides.

Unfortunately, this message is widespread in society. We are taught, informally through magazines, websites, discussions with friends and family, and, more formally, through educational institutes and health professionals, to count how many calories, nutrients and vitamins are in food and to use that number to determine how “healthy” food is.

The problem with this approach to eating is that it suggests the main value of food is in its physical aspect – how many calories, nutrients and vitamins are present. It does not acknowledge how food and eating contributes to other aspects of our well-being, including our social, mental, spiritual and emotional health.

For example, if eating a piece of cake connects us to our friends, family, and culture through its acquisition, preparation, sharing, and celebration, then it is adding great value to our lives, and should be appreciated as more than simply consuming calories and sugar.

Ellyn Satter, an internationally recognized expert on food and eating, had it right when she said: “When the joy goes out of eating, nutrition suffers.”

Her point is that all foods can be rewarding, nourishing and healing, and there is nothing wrong with giving ourselves permission to enjoy what we like to eat. We must remember that physical, mental, social, emotional and spiritual health is interconnected. If we eat food only for the sake of our physical health, we risk jeopardizing the health of our complete being.

Rather than having a list of “bad” food that we avoid and “good” food that we consume, we should instead focus on eating a variety of food that we enjoy. This creates pleasure in eating, especially if we slow down and take the time to savour the taste, texture, aroma and appearance of food.

Labelling food as “good” or “bad” also takes away our own innate sense of knowing what is best for our bodies. We become so focused on the value judgments we place on food that we forget that food is just food and all foods fit.

The bottom line is that there is no need to avoid foods. Sometimes we will want cake, and at other times we would be better satisfied by a meal. Paying attention to how food makes us feel allows us to find the right match. No matter our size, our history, or any illness we might have, we all deserve to nourish our complete selves with food we enjoy, including cake.

FYI:

Interested in learning more about the emotional effects of food? Why not participate in Craving Change, a program designed to help people develop a healthier relationship with food. For information on program sessions, visit: www.wrha.mb.ca/community/primarycare, and click on: Health Management Group Program Guide.

Kaylee Michnik is a public health dietitian with the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority. This column was originally published in the Winnipeg Free Press on Friday, May 5, 2018.

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