Healthy eating is something most of us have heard or read about. Yet, many of us are still eating the Standard American Diet (SAD) and are a little lost as to how to transition to a healthier way of eating.
It should be noted that a healthy lifestyle is not just what foods we consume. It also includes getting plenty of appropriate exercise, good amounts of sleep, and taking care of our mental and emotional health.
In this guide, we will explore some strategies for turning your eating habits around. This is intended for you to be able to make lifelong changes that will hopefully improve your health and quality of life with better nutrition.
Identifying Health Issues and Setting Goals
Before you begin on this journey of better eating habits, take stock of why you want to do this. There may be one particular reason or many. Keeping a daily journal is so helpful in this process. It also allows you to reflect on your habits and progress. Begin by writing down what it is about you that is not currently working for your health.
Here are some reasons for feeling that it is time to change your eating habits:
- Weight gain
- Cardiovascular concerns, such as high cholesterol, high blood pressure, elevated blood glucose and triglycerides
- Erratic sleep patterns and low energy
- Chronic disease or illness
- Concern about recent news reports on obesity
- Wanting to prevent future health problems
Set goals based on your list of issues and concerns. Prioritize the areas of your life that you would like to improve. If you are good with spreadsheets and charts, you might consider designing a daily progress report that reflects how you feel each day on your journey. There are websites and apps that can help you track your health.
Take Stock of Your Pantry and Fridge. Purge.
1. Dry and Canned Goods
You have likely spent good money on the food in your home and don’t want to face that some of it might have to be gotten rid of. You can take baby steps with this process.
Start by setting aside one day to clean your cupboards and pantry. Don’t think of it as a purge, but more as a cleaning day. Wipe down the shelves as you take stock of what is in your cabinets. Place everything on the kitchen counter or table and look at ingredients and expiration dates. If it has more than 10 ingredients, especially ones you have never heard of, or it has expired, place these items on a separate counter.
Throw out the expired items. Then, take a closer look at the other questionable products. Unhealthy things to look out for are:
- Grams of added sugar and artificial sweeteners
- Trans fats, saturated fats, and hydrogenated fats
- Synthetic or chemical ingredients, such as food coloring, preservatives, nitrates, stabilizers, and msg
- Nutrient amounts, such as vitamins and minerals, compared to carbohydrates and fats
Should you throw out “perfectly good” food? Well, for one, it is not food that will sustain you. If you don’t want to toss the bad stuff, make a plan to eat what you do keep slowly and less of it each day. If some of it is so-so in terms of nutrition, consider donating it to a food bank. This is a tough decision because, while you are trying to get healthier, are you really contributing to the health of those less fortunate by giving your junk away? That’s your call. People do need to eat, even if they can only get food that is given to them.
Set aside another day to clean out your refrigerator. Take everything out and wipe down the interior, including the freezer. Again, check expiration dates and ingredients. Purge what isn’t good for you. Or, plan to eat what you have, reducing the quantities each day.
Take a good look at your fresh produce. Is it moldy or smells funky? If so, throw it out. Is the produce organic or locally sourced? Organic produce is costly, so do some homework on what conventionally farmed foods are okay to eat compared to the ones that are not. You can find a list of foods that should be purchased as organic on the Good Housekeeping website.
What Should You Eat?
Now that you have started the process of getting rid of processed foods and non-organic produce and proteins, you want to figure out what you can eat to get healthier. Basically, junk food, fast food, soda, and most overly processed or packaged food is not especially healthy. You don’t have to go cold turkey or give up all of your snacks. Here is a list of what you might want to transition to eating for 90% of your food intake. Modify if you are vegan, vegetarian, kosher, etc.
- Fresh fruits
- Fresh vegetables
- Fermented dairy with probiotics
- Non-dairy milk
- Lacto-fermented vegetables
- Whole grains (unless you are going Paleo)
- Raw nuts and seeds
- Legumes (not Paleo compliant)
- Lean proteins, such as free range chicken and wild caught fish for omega 3 fatty acids and B-12
- Snacks with minimal ingredients, such as homemade trail mix, organic popcorn, cassava or kale chips, and 75%+ dark chocolate
- Homemade granola – here is a recipe from The Paleo Mom
- Healthy fats, such as olive oil, coconut oil, and a little cultured butter
- Pure maple syrup or raw honey (in moderation)
- Water, water, and more water
Make a point of preparing your own meals, if possible. This will give you a better relationship with what is going into your body. A great way to do this is to set aside time to make enough meals for a few days. For instance, on Sunday afternoon cut vegetables for salads during the week and make dressing, roast a whole chicken, cook up a pot of beans or brown rice. Midweek, place some vegetables and protein in a slow cooker before you leave the house for work or start your day. Make enough of a one pot meal to last a couple of days or to freeze.
Aim for a plate of mostly vegetables or fruit, a handful size of lean protein, and a small amount of whole grains (if you are eating grains) for each meal. Try not to go for seconds. Enjoy 2 healthy snacks of fruit, yogurt, or nuts 2x per day. You are not depriving. You are nurturing.
This is not a one day transition. Your body, especially your brain, is likely dependent on the feel good results you get from a high-carb, sugary, or salty snack. You will still crave these when you start to change your habits. Give yourself permission to have a “bad” but tasty snack once in awhile. But, don’t sit down with a bag of chips and binge until it is empty. Fill a small bowl with your kryptonite of choice and eat it slowly. The cravings will start to subside.
Give yourself a timeline that is realistic and map it out. Make a schedule that shows how much or how little of an offending food item you will be eating until it is completely out of your diet. This process could take a few months or a year. Low and slow is the key to long term success.
Remember to get plenty of sleep, exercise, and personal time to balance your new lifestyle.