I think this is a topic that could use some attention this time of year. Everyone has been indulging in treats while simultaneously vowing that this is the year that they get in shape and make real changes. How can we address this widespread cognitive dissonance in a way that is relatively painless? We can start off with some steps to fix a bad diet.
1. Focus on adding nutrient dense foods to your diet
Instead of thinking about all of the things that you can’t eat, think about the things that you can add into your diet. Most people don’t eat enough vegetables. And the people who do eat enough vegetables tend to eat the same ones cooked the same way all the time. Variety is the spice of life! Also spice makes your same vegetables taste different! Try seasoning your vegetables with different herbs or preparing them in a different way (e.g. Roasting instead of steaming) to kill diet boredom. An easy way to eat a wider range of vegetables is to pick out some vegetables that you’ve never tried at the store and try to prepare them a few different ways (it can take 9 tries before you are ready to like a food). Another easy way to get some variety is to sign up for a CSA box -you’ll be sent a bunch of veggies every week and some will be new to you!
2. Eat Real Food
It’s so much easier to not overeat if the majority of your diet consists of “real” food. This isn’t to say that you can’t indulge EVER (that would be unsustainable). Can you lose weight eating twinkies and doritos? Yes, but you will feel like garbage if that’s all you eat. Food provides you with more than just calories, it’s also a source of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. Eating nutrient dense foods will be easier to fit into your allotted calories.
Which of the following snacks is more likely to make you feel good and keep you full for a long period of time
A) A Brown Sugar Cinnamon Poptart (210 calories, 7g fat, 35g carbohydrate, 15g sugar, & 2g protein)
B) 1 can of tuna with 2 cups of spring mix and a tbsp of almond butter(225 calories, 9g fat, 7g carbohydrate, 1g sugar, 34g protein)
Personally, I think most people would be more full after eating choice B) as a snack. And even with the enriched flour in choice A) the values for many vitamins and minerals are better with choice B). Can you make the occasional Poptart fit into your diet without derailing your progress? Yes, but processed foods should not be the cornerstone of your diet.
I have also found that when I eat foods that are on the less processed end of the spectrum (meats, eggs, vegetables, fruits, raw nuts, etc.) my cravings for junk are much less than if I am consistently eating junk food. I also feel better and when I make good diet choices (more energy, clearer skin, etc.)
3. Track your food intake
Note: This tip isn’t for everyone. If you have a history of eating disorders and could find calorie tracking triggering, do not do it.
For the rest of us, tracking your food intake can provide us with a lot of insight. There are a couple of easy ways to track this. You can use the free My Fitness Pal App on your phone (it will show you the calories, protein, fat, carbs, and more that you consumed). You can go analog and write down what you eat. I highly recommend tracking your food intake for at least 1 week, without necessarily changing anything. This exercise shows you how many calories you are maintaining your current weight on and, from there, it becomes easier to tweak it to meet your goals. Most people underestimate their calories, so it can be useful to measure everything out so you can see how much you are actually eating.
4. If Hunger Isn’t the Problem, Food Isn’t the Answer
Food provides your body with fuel. People often eat for reasons that are unrelated to hunger some of these reasons aren’t a major issue (e.g. eating a piece of pie after Thanksgiving dinner), but some of them can cause weight gain and an emotional roller coaster (e.g. “I ate half a pizza because I was stressed and now I feel guilty because I’ve ruined my diet for the day so I’m going to cheer myself up with a pint of Ben and Jerry’s”). Eating for a special occasion is one thing (one day out of 365 in a year isn’t going to derail you too much), but regularly emotionally eating can set you back. “Special occasion” eating is generally more controlled than emotional eating, so you don’t rack up the same amount of calories as you do binge eating.
There are better ways to deal with difficult emotions than food. If you’re stressed, go to the gym. The endorphins will relax you! Then take steps to deal with what is stressing you out. If you’re feeling lonely, call a friend/family member. If you’re bored, read a book (or a blog 😉 ), play a game, explore adult education classes in your area and see if there is something that sparks your interest (this is how I found the art class that I’m currently taking).
Most importantly, forgive yourself. It’s not the slice of pizza that makes you gain weight, it’s the bag of chips and box of cookies that you eat because you panicked about the pizza and decided to just say “screw it, diet’s going to have to start tomorrow” that makes you gain weight.
5. Study Yourself
Your diet is an experiment with an n=1. It only matters what works for you. Pay attention to how you feel after meals and only eat foods that make you feel good. If gluten makes you feel like garbage, don’t eat gluten. I don’t understand why some people choose to rag on people without celiac disease who choose to eliminate gluten from their diets. Why are you so invested in someone else’s diet? Who is it hurting?
Know what sorts of things cause you to overeat (or under eat if you’re trying to gain weight). For example, I find that if I eat in front of the TV, I’m more likely to mindlessly plow through a huge amount of food- so I either portion out food or I eat my meal without distraction and drink tea in front of the TV.
Pay attention to the sort of things that work for you. If eating a high fat diet helps you eat fewer calories and feel satisfied, then keep the fat content of your meals relatively high (Who cares if some macro calculator on the internet spit out a limit of 40g/day?).
6. Add in Exercise
I find that exercise makes it easier to stick to a healthy eating plan. I think that it’s beneficial chemically. There’s evidence that it can alleviate depression and improve your mood.
Also, exercise will augment the results that you see by changing your diet. Diet will take the pounds off you, but you can’t build lean muscle and shape your body without exercise. Remember, diet is what makes you look good in clothes and exercise is what makes you look good at the beach. Seeing your body change will keep you motivated and inspire you to stick to your new healthier lifestyle.
I hope this helps!
What are some of your favorite ways to return to a healthier lifestyle if you’ve gotten off track?