To start off being clear- there is no one size fits all approach to healthy eating. Every body (and mind) has a different reaction to certain foods. Many of us may be limited in access to fresh produce due to preparation time required or due to financial constraints. The goal of improving our eating habits is to get us all thinking critically about how and where we learned our habits and to create new routines that work FOR us. Flexibility and open mindedness are key in re-learning our approach to food.
Forget calorie counting and diets
First things first, forget calorie counting and diets. Science shows that while diets may help people initially lose weight, they do not work long term. The goal of many diet programs is to make money off the consumer. Healthy living doesn’t have to be a secret pay-to-enter club and instead can be something inclusive that we all learn together and support one another through. If you belong to a diet program that works for you- Great! Most, however, focus on selling product or restriction and not teaching the individual about how and why they are making certain food choices.
We’ve all seen “low fat” or “low calorie” food advertised in media or at the grocery store. What these really mean is low nutrient or low energy! Calories are units of measurement that equate to how much energy a food is going to give us. Some of these calories may fuel our bodies for longer or in different way than others, but generally a food labeled as such will be filled with non-food additives that our bodies cant break down resulting in them having little calories (cause I mean how many calories does cardboard have, right?!). Cars need fuel to run. So do our bodies! A nice entry into healthy eating is starting to think about how much energy certain foods will give us or how foods will power our bodies through the day to do all the important and wonderful things we want to do.
Add instead of subtract
Another common habit is restriction or thinking of what foods to avoid. Instead of maintaining a limiting mindset- try looking for foods to add to your body! Want some vanilla ice cream? How about adding a handful of fresh berries filled with antioxidants and delicious flavor. Constantly looking at what to cut or restrict can feel limiting and sets us up to equate restriction with pride. Looking for foods with high nutrient density can add to making our bodies work more efficiently and comfortably throughout the day. Simply put- focusing on what we can add versus subtract from our diets is better for our mental health and relationship with food. It’s more fun to seek than avoid!
Increase attunement with how foods make you feel
Many of us are disconnected with how certain foods make us feel- and foods make us feel a LOT. Food may make us feel a certain way physically, emotionally, or both. There's nothing wrong with comfort foods or nostalgic recipes making us feel happy! All bodies however were different and respond differently to certain foods. Some of us may have allergies or intolerances that result in different relationships with specific foods. Each of us have an individual journey so start paying attention to how you think about foods and what kind of messages you are sending to yourself. Fear in relation to food is common and fear of fullness can be a struggle for many. If you are hyper critical of how your body looks you are not alone, but lets use that focus to look at how we feel instead of how we look. We may be out of touch with how our bodies feel when they are full (or gassy or bloated!). Ultimately- there's nothing wrong with a full tank of gas or a full tummy. Getting more attuned with how your body feels physically and emotionally will help increase awareness to hunger cues which keep us learning more about WHY we are eating. We tend to
Try new foods (and what's in season)
A fun way to incorporate healthy habits with food is to try new ones! Eating seasonally and exploring what's at your local store (or farms!) is a great way to explore new foods or recipes. Depending on where you live certain foods will be fresher as the seasons change. Trying new foods can be scary for some but potentially have a big pay off in terms of nutrient diversity and keeping you interested. Seasonally fresh fruits and vegetables can be less expensive as they've had to travel less far and they actually taste better. The better the foods taste the more we can incorporate mindful eating into the equation. Focus on how the foods look (bright colors!) and taste. Learning something new is never bad for our brains so start researching! Follow some local farmers markets and support your neighbors while adding wholesome food to your fridge.
Set fun goals (new recipes or challenges using fresh ingredients)
Setting goals in relation to diet isn't a new concept to many- but having them be fun goals can be a foreign concept. Work at making food fun and interesting by adding starting small and adding a new ingredient to a favorite recipe. Taste tests are another fun way to add interest and encourage sticking to new habits. Ever really sat down to taste the flavor different between an heirloom, cherry, or plum tomato? You may find you like one better than the other and come up with a few surprise along the way. There's no avoiding it- we have to eat to live. We may as well make the ‘have tos’ fun. Cook and create together with family or friends! Even if you are new to cooking or feel like a novice in the kitchen, confidence grows with practice and patience and the reward of a nutritious and delicious meal or snack is enough to encourage many of us.
Shop around the perimeter of the store as much as possible and have a plan!
Now plenty of non-perishable food is find and is a healthy staple in any diet. Shopping around the outside of the grocery store instead of the aisles (where most things are boxed or packaged) is most likely to get you adding fresh and nutritious ingredients. Processed foods or foods with synthetic ingredients are broken down differently by our bodies and result in low energy or other side effects that may be less than ideal. Remember- low fat or low calorie tends to mean low nutrient. We may be filling our bodies with non-food ingredients that just pass along through rather than add any true benefit. If you love those boxed foods- add them! Just try to be mindful and balanced when adding items to your cart. Going in with a general plan and knowing what you are looking for can help limit impulse buying and keep us from spending on things we may not end up having a use for.
Examine your current relationship with food (diet culture myths, ‘rules’, standards, comfort and discomfort)
Fatphobia is everywhere. We tend to fear the concept of ‘fat’ in general not due to health concerns but due to how we perceive fatness and how society treats overweight people. Fat is energy! Where did you learn about what's healthy and not? Food information can go along with food trends and may not always be true or have the same effect on your body as it does on someone else's. Have you ever questioned whether what you’ve learned about food is true? What food groups do you label as good or bad? Our caregivers unconsciously have a huge effect on how we see and think about food and often times the messages ingrained in us were unintentionally not helpful or focused on health.
Think about what kind of ‘rules’ or standards you have internalized about food. One common one is that fruit is too much sugar in it. If you’ve ever heard that one, ask yourself ‘what kind of sugar?’ and is it a sugar that will fundamentally be bad for my body? If you were to eat a completely ‘healthy’ diet do we really think strawberries or watermelon will be what has us gaining unwanted weight or having a negative impact on our overall health? Critical thinking is key to health so use these tips to start looking at what sort of habits you have developed and where you could use some change!