Today I wanted to write a little bit about the incredibly confusing and complicated subject of eating. There are many great resources about diet, food choices, and the food production system and I'll list a few of my favorites at the end. Unfortunately, there seems to be far more information about 'healthy eating' that ranges from the silly and absurd to the just plain dangerous. Often, when people try to change their eating habits for the better, the choices become overwhelming. What to eat and what not to eat explodes into a rabbit hole of information that you will never again emerge from. So, this blog post will be dedicated to simple changes people can make in their everyday eating habits that will improve their overall health and well being.
Now, I am not a doctor, nutritionist, or dietitian. The advice that follows is simply my opinion and is based on information I have encountered and applied to my life over the past ten years. Let me start out by saying that ten years ago my diet was abysmal. I hate to even admit it, but I survived mostly on fast food, takeout pizza, and microwavable food-like substances. I didn't care about my eating habits, I didn't exercise, and if anyone had talked to me about living a healthy lifestyle I would have laughed and said something like "I'd rather be happy than healthy." I probably thought that eating healthy was a miserable experience that people forced upon themselves so that they could feel superior to everyone else. Part of this attitude came from living in a culture that doesn't even try to promote true healthy lifestyles. You either get fast food commercials or magazine covers of impossibly ripped men and women with the latest '30 days to a six pack' article. The other side of the coin here is that, when trying to contemplate what it meant to "just eat healthier" it seemed there was such an overwhelming amount of information it was easier to just stick to my 'happy versus healthy' mentality and avoid the struggle all together. However, over the years my eating habits did change for the better and it almost happened without me even knowing it. And really, that's first bit of advice for changing your diet - It needs to happen slowly.
People in our culture are conditioned to want instant gratification. I could go into a lengthy discussion on the origin/reality of this incredibly disturbing problem, for the purpose of this post I think it suffices to say that many people are hard wired to only accept change if it happens quickly and easily. This isn't anyone’s fault; it's simply what we are exposed to. I find myself constantly bombarded by online articles promising that I can lose 15 pounds in 4 weeks, or get totally ripped in just 60 days. But when it comes to diet (and exercise), it's much better if the change you attempt happens slowly. Why? Well, it's simple really. In order to change a habit you need to be able to focus on a realistic goal. If you want to be able to set a goal that's achievable, that you'll get results from, and that will continue to motivate you, it's important to keep it realistic. If the goal you've set for yourself is one that you can actually accomplish, then focus on that and don't worry about the million other changes you've got bouncing around in your head.
How about some examples? For a healthier lifestyle choose goals that you know you can reach. Instead of stepping on scale and thinking "I just have to lose 20 pounds!!" try picking something from your eating habits you know needs improvement and focusing on that. Cut out all Soda for one month and see how you feel. Have a salad for lunch every day for a few weeks. If you're pressed for time, instead of swinging into Burger King for lunch try packing a meal the night before. What's most important is that you set yourself up with an objective that you can achieve. The first change might be a small one, but the effect of achieving a small goal will help motivate you to set bigger goals. With the momentum you build from all the victories all of a sudden you’ll discover that you've made the BIG change you've always wanted.
I didn't change my diet and fitness habits overnight. It happened like this - I wanted a road bike and because of some budding environmentalist attitudes (and other various circumstances) I was going to become a bike commuter. My first ride was a harsh wake up call to how much I had let myself go, but riding the bike was something I could still do. I didn't have to lose weight or start going to the gym. I just had to keep riding. This goal basically set itself, the motivation was the first ride and the objective was to just get better. I also became a vegetarian around the same time. This was the result of watching several disturbing documentaries regarding how animals are treated within our modern food system. Now, I don't have any moral issue with eating meat. An animal eating other animals is just the way the world works. Having said that, what I saw in those films (and subsequently learned through more research) was that our food system was, and still is, severely broken. One of its major malfunctions is the incredibly disturbing way in which animals are treated. So, this presented me with another goal. Remove meat from my diet (this one maybe considered a bigger goal, but at the time it seemed like a very necessary one). After making that change I started to become aware of other elements of my diet I wanted to change. These didn't all happen at once, it was more of a cascade of small decisions that years later developed in regular and enjoyable eating habits. I decided to cut out fast food, then I started adding more fruits and veggies, I would pay more attention to how much water I drank, I tried to focus on not over-eating during my meals (did I really need a third serving?). Little goals and small victories lead to big change.
The next piece of advice would be this - Focus on creating habits that will last a life time. People love to diet. They hear about a miracle 28 day diet that can help you lose weight fast, detoxify your body, and all you have to do is follow an incredibly specific set of guidelines that are totally unrealistic (or even worse, take some supplements that have who-knows-what in them). But hey, 28 days later the diet is finished and you can jump right back into the negative eating habits. This method, though wildly popular in most fitness magazines, is total s$#@. Shocking the body with extreme diet changes may produce superficial results, but it is not good for your body. Just because you lose weight does not mean that a diet is healthy for you. You can lose weight by starving yourself for 30 days too, but I wouldn't recommend that either. These crash diets, fad diets, and fitness magazine cleanses can put a tremendous amount of stress on your body and though you may see 'results' there is no way of telling what damage might be taking place on the inside. Instead of focusing on 30 days, look toward the next 30 years. If you make a single positive change today that you stick with for the rest of your life you'll be far better off than trying to follow an unsustainable diet.
This brings me to another important point. Diet changes should first be about feeling better rather than looking better. As you make small changes to your diet don't focus on the scale or the mirror. Instead, focus on how your body feels as the changes start taking place. Weight loss and muscle gain take time if they are going to be sustainable. But positive changes to your everyday energy levels, emotional state, and various physical issues you may be experiencing will happen much sooner. Cleaning up your diet with long-term positive habits will most likely result in you having more energy on a day to day basis, sleeping better at night, feeling less stressed throughout your day, dealing with less heartburn and indigestion, and just overall 'feeling better.' These are the important benchmarks to be aware of when improving your eating habits. Who cares how you look if you feel like crap every day? Make those small changes, start to feel better every day and the rest will follow.
So, let's pick out some goals that are attainable and can help keep up the motivation momentum.
Remember, this list is not something to be tackled all at once. Pick one or two out (or even come up with a couple on your own) and try them out. If you start to feel better, it's working. These aren't all food related, but all are directly related to a healthy body.
Cut out soda (including diet)
Cut down on sugar intake
Eat more vegetables
Make time to cook a meal a few times a week
Pack lunches to avoid fast/junk food
Go for a 30-60 minute walk a 2-3 times a week
Drink more water
Meditate for 10 minutes a day
Eat less processed food
Get 7-8 hours of sleep a night
Stop eating fast food
Work on portion control
Purchase humanely treated meat products
So there's a place to start. Some are easier than others, but all will be beneficial. Just don't get overwhelmed but the BIG changes that you think need to be made. Chip away at it bit by bit and before you know it you'll have created lifelong healthy eating habits.
One last thought on how to change your eating habits for the better - Join a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture). If you're not familiar with a CSA it's a type of farm share where you pay an upfront amount of money for a share of the farm’s product throughout the season. It may seem expensive at first, but the price for what you'll end up receiving is better then what you'll find at any store. CSA's are a great way to get more vegetables (as well as cheeses/meats/breads and more depending on what the farm offers) in your diet. And even better, you'll be supporting your local farmers for a healthy community as well. We've got a lot of farms in the area that have CSA offerings so check them out.
Now a few resources worth checking out:
In Defense of Food – Michael Pollan
An Omnivores Dilemma – Michael Pollan
Fast Food Nation – Eric Schlosser
Food Fight – Daniel Imhoff
At Home in the Whole Food Kitchen – Amy Chaplin
True Food – Andrew Weil (Non Vegetarian)
Salad Samurai – Terry Hope Romero
Thug Kitchen – Anonymous (This cookbook is filled with amazingly simple recipes. Also, it’s hilarious…but beware, lot’s of curse words)
Forks over Knives