The taxing challenge of eating right

Which is harder, to do your own taxes or to eat what is best for your health?

If you say healthy eating is harder, you have a lot of company. About half of Americans think it’s harder to figure out what to eat than to figure out your own taxes.

My own inclination, reading the headline, was to nod my head in agreement. But why, I asked myself, do we see it that way?

To begin with, there are two kinds of “hard” involved. There is the conceptually difficult aspect, knowing the proper information to do my taxes, and knowing the facts about nutrition and health. Then there is the challenge of doing what I am not fond of doing.

I don’t like sitting down with a mess of papers and trying to find the relevant numbers and copy them without error. I don’t like reading through pages of instructions in small print, wondering if I’m even reading the right thing, wondering if I’m missing some important step or key piece of information.

I don’t like discovering, partway through, that I don’t have an important form, and wondering if I never received it or if I mislaid it. And I certainly don’t like having to give so much attention to the state of my finances, which are never nearly as good as I had hoped they would be at this point in my life.

Only the part about wondering if I’m following the right instructions or if I’m missing some important step really has to do with “figuring out” how to do my taxes. But it’s pretty hard to think about the difficulties involved in doing taxes without the other parts coloring my view of the whole unpleasant chore (even though the other aspects are just as much of a problem when TurboTax solves the first part for me).

When I think about eating right, knowing what is good for me is only one piece. There is the challenge of coming up with actual plans for meals that I can prepare given my daily schedule, using ingredients that fit in my budget, and that my family will be more or less agreeable about eating. (My husband has made clear his dislike of whole wheat pasta and whole wheat tortillas.)

Since I have to do the shopping and cooking, eating right also means spending the time and effort finding the right foods (reading labels, deciding whether it matters more to have low-fat or low sugar or low sodium – it seems that decreasing one means raising the others to compensate in flavor) and deciding whether they are worth the money (I buy eggs from hens fed a natural diet if the price difference per dozen is only twenty cents, but what if it’s a dollar or more?), and cooking more recipes from scratch rather than using prepared foods (usually higher in sugar and sodium, more likely to contain trans fats, etc.).

Beyond that, eating right means resisting the temptation to snack on cookies at my co-worker’s desk, leftover cake in the break room, chips my husband bought, as well as all the treats beckoning to me from every aisle in the supermarket. It means sticking with what I planned to cook instead of grabbing a pizza because I don’t feel like cooking, or just because I feel like eating pizza.

As much of a chore as it is to do taxes, at least it’s only once a year. If I had to do taxes every day, I would probably rate the difficulty of doing it much higher. If I only had to figure out what to eat once a year, I’d probably think it a breeze. (I’ve long thought that if someone picked out healthy meals for me and prepared them for me, eating healthy would be far easier.)

Then there’s the matter of results. When I finish my taxes, I know exactly how much I have to pay, or how much I get back. I put it off, fearing I will have to pay, but most years (once we got past the initial hurdle of when Jon became a self-employed pastor) we have gotten money back. Once I submit my return and start planning what to do with the refund, the whole tax issue seems much easier than it had a few weeks earlier.

With food, on the other hand, there are no quick results. Dr. Ann says that when we eat fresh fruits and vegetables, our bodies benefit immediately. That may be true, but the benefits are far from immediately apparent. Maybe the antioxidants in the fruits and vegetables I ate today (fresh broccoli, cauliflower, radishes, carrots, celery, and an apple at lunch, spinach, tomato, and avocado salad before dinner, frozen berries in my yogurt for a snack, and a bunch of grapes for dessert after dinner) fought off some nasty cell that would have become precancerous or something like that, but I can’t tell.

Between good food and exercise, I continue to lose weight, but very slowly. I know that I can occasionally allow myself a bite of candy or ice cream, or a brownie or a handful of chips, and I won’t do any serious harm to my health or my figure. But how much becomes too much?

As complicated as the tax code is, it really doesn’t give me a whole lot of choices, compared to the overwhelming quantity of food choices that surround me every day. I could choose not to itemize, but I know I’d lose money that way. I could choose not to file my taxes, but that’s a recipe for way more trouble than I even want to think about.

Realistically, as far as I’m concerned the choices are to do it myself, to pay someone to do it for me, or to pay for software to do it for me. These days I choose the software, but I’ve done my own taxes enough times to know I could do it if I really had to.

There’s also the matter of how the experts’ advice on what to eat keeps changing, but that’s one of the lesser problems from my point of view. They teach the best with what they know now, and I do my best with what I know now.

Picking among competing views is somewhat more challenging. Low fat or low carb? Do I need to count calories, grams of fat, or servings? Does it matter whether foods are “all natural”? Are omega-3 fats really all that wonderful or is it just the current nutritional fad?

But even once I’ve settled on a plan to follow (since September I’ve been following Dr. Ann’s advice, for the most part), the big challenge is still turning it into meals three times a day. Meals that aren’t so much work that I decide to buy fast food instead. Meals that my family will like enough so I won’t be tempted to make a standby favorite such as Kraft mac&cheese and chicken nuggets instead.

Figuring out what makes my body healthy isn’t harder than doing taxes. Figuring out what to eat every day that is healthy, though – that is a lot more taxing.


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