FUNDAMENTALS OF HEALTHY EATING - PART I
Diet is one of the biggest factors affecting our health in very tangible ways. The food we eat doesn't just effect weight and digestion, but also our immune systems, hormones, cognitive function, energy, skin and so much more. Because a healthy diet aligned with your body's needs can be nothing short of transformative, more and more people are eager to overhaul their eating habits. So what's the catch? If the appetite for change is there, why isn't everyone swapping their Cheetos for kale?
From where I sit, three common hurdles prevent people from turning intention into action when it comes to diet: change, confusion and resources. First, changing any habit is difficult, and because the average person makes about TWO HUNDRED food decisions in a day, even considering changing the way you eat can seem BEYOND overwhelming. For those that can get past the mental blocks that come with any big change, confusion around what the heck to eat is the next hurdle. Will meat heal you or kill you? Is gluten the devil or totally fine? Will dairy sooth your skin or make you break out? Is eating frequently throughout the day good for your metabolism or bad for your digestion? Do grains cause inflammation or are they just excellent sources of sustained energy? So. Damn. Confusing. Finally, and perhaps most commonly, many people are convinced they just don't have the time and/or money to transition to a healthier diet.
If any of the above sound familiar, this series of posts is for you. As someone that started her health journey as a broke 23-year-old who thought Skinny Cow ice cream sandwiches and vodka sodas were healthy, I remember too well what it's like to stare down the path to healthy eating feeling overwhelmed and ill-equipped. I'm here to tell you that it doesn't matter if you start neck deep in cupcakes or encounter all sorts of tricky hurdles along the way. It IS possible to get to a place where you're harnessing all the nourishing, healing, anti-aging, disease-fighting benefits of a healthy diet every day. And it does NOT have to be overwhelming, confusing or inaccessible.
The goal of this MFW Fundamentals series is to provide the support you need to make healthy eating feel possible, in the form of a step-by-step guide. We'll start at the beginning, keep things simple and have some fun along the way. So my only question is this: are you ready to see where a healthier diet will take you?
BEFORE WE DIG IN
- Define your ultimate GOAL. Want to clear up your skin? Balance your hormones? Heal your digestive issues? Sleep through the night on a regular basis? Make it through the winter without getting sick 5 times? Make sure you're clear on why you're overhauling your diet, write your goal down, visualize yourself getting there and most importantly remind yourself of it in some way on a daily basis. I've found that a deeper connection to the purpose of any challenge makes you much more likely to succeed.
- Instead of a specific number on the scale or dress size, try to FOCUS ON HEALTH METRICS that have more meaningful impact. Yes, maintaining a "healthy weight" is important, but there are more important and more objective ways to measure health and success than an arbitrary number. The scale can't tell you if your hormones are balanced just right to conceive, your heart is healthy, your gut bacteria are thriving or your energy is where it should be. I understand it's incredibly tempting to focus on a black and white metric like weight, but I can assure you it will only lead you in the wrong direction. (I'm still working on abandoning the scale after decades of allowing it to determine what kind of day I would have and how I felt about myself. Measuring success and happiness on a scale is a deep deep hole to dig yourself into. If there's one wish I have for my readers it's that you avoid this trap.) So, what high-impact change are you hoping to see?
- Take small BABY STEPS in the right direction. "And which way is that?" you might ask. We'll get into details later in this series, but for now, pave your path with LOTS of vegetables. And remember that small changes made increasingly often decrease the likelihood that you'll find a new way of eating stressful and overwhelming. Have greens instead of fries with your Friday night burger a few times this month. Try replacing your 3 PM cookies with nuts and fresh fruit even once or twice this week. Test out a few healthy swaps like this to see what nourishes AND satisfies you. Don't start eliminating entire food groups or types of food right out of the gate (unless medically necessary). Put too much pressure on yourself or make drastic, rapid changes and I'll bet you a bag of Double Stuf Oreos that you'll eventually end up right back where you started.
- Let yourself be HUMAN. It is impossible to make "perfect" healthy food decisions 100% of the time, even if you're years into a "clean" diet, so don't make perfection your goal. You can actually do more damage to your body stressing about every morsel that goes into your mouth than you do by mindfully indulging in that piece of pizza once in a while. Trust me. Been there and done that.
- Have PATIENCE with yourself and those around you. Changing your eating habits will have a wonderful impact on your health, but it will also have an impact on little things like where you go out to eat and how often, what you prepare for family dinners and even rituals like holiday cookie bake-offs. Eating habits are DEEPLY engrained and sometimes complicated. Changing them is an adjustment. For everyone. You might encounter a lot of resistance, or in the very least moans and groans, but rest assured that with time people notice and care less and less. More often than not they'll start to reap the benefits of your healthy shift too and that's a beautiful ripple effect. Until that day though, just try to pause when you're sister throws a gluten free scone at your head and remember that building lasting habits requires time and patience. Give yourself and your scone slinging family the gift of both.
- Have a little COMPASSION for yourself when you end up face down in a pile of chili cheese fries. Instead of wasting energy on beating yourself up, use that energy for acceptance and mindfulness. Take a hot bath, go for a long walk, get a massage or meditate. Pay attention to how the food made you feel and leave it there. I know this sounds (and will feel) counter-intuitive, but the indulge-then-punish habit is one you do NOT want to create. It only encourages overeating and poor food choices, which will inevitably take you in the wrong direction. Again, been there and done that (for far too long).
- Unless you have medical or moral reasons, don't worry about LABELS like gluten-free, dairy-free, vegan, paleo, etc. Down the road you may end up discovering that one of these diets/lifestyles is appropriate for you, but for now healthy eating should be shaped by your individual needs not any specific dietary theory. You'll be more successful if you have fun with trying out different foods and styles of eating rather than restricting so early in your journey. As you pay more and more attention to how certain foods make you feel and effect your body/mind, you will land where you need to be.
- Think SUSTAINABLE. If something is too restrictive, too expensive or too time-consuming, it is HIGHLY unlikely that you'll ever stick with it. And then what's the use? You want to work your way towards a version of healthy eating that works best for your body and is palatable, affordable, efficient, and manageable enough to maintain. This is another reason you want to very carefully consider strict protocols when you're just getting started.
- Revisit this list throughout your journey. These are all concepts that will serve you well as you face inevitable hurdles and challenges. It took me about 15 years to realize how instrumental things like compassion, patience and baby steps are to success in the dietary realm. Please. Let me save you a few years of wasted time and energy:)