Tip #1: Diets don’t work. Lifestyle changes do.
Growing up in the 80’s and 90’s fat free and reduced fat food was all of the rage; the theory being that it was the fat in foods that made you fat. Then it was Atkins and Paleo, which teach it’s the carbohydrates you eat that make you fat, and fat is actually good for you. Before that in the 50’s and 60’s you had Macrobiotic and the Hollywood Diet. (Fun fad diet timeline here.) Every diet thinks they have the answer, just ask them. Whether you are a Juicer, Vegan, Paleo, or on a Raw Food diet- the people on them will rave, telling you science has finally found the solution. The diet industry is a billion dollar industry in the US alone, and every diet has books, seminars, programs, and products to sell you. I’m sure they all have some merits, but I am also sure they are all bullshit in the end. (If you are a vegan for political reasons, I get it, and respect it- but I don’t think you are necessarily healthier than your meat-eating counterparts.) I am not a nutritionist, but I do have common sense, and when common sense is applied to eating, the result is healthier living.
Tip #2: Prioritize healthy eating.
It costs more, and requires more time to eat healthy than not. If you really want to be healthier, you must make it a top priority. When a fast food hamburger and french fries costs two dollars and takes five minutes to obtain, of course it is easy and cheap to eat that way. The fast food chains (and convenience foods of your grocery) are banking on you valuing your time and money more than your health. This is where you must put in the effort and money to prove them wrong. Expect your food budget to go up 8-20% depending on what you currently eat, and how many changes you choose to make. You will also need to carve out time to prepare your food. You can choose to do this by making thirty minutes per night to cook fresh (and eat the leftovers for lunch the next day), or carve out a few hours on your day off to prepare your meals for the week, and portion them out into individual containers and refrigerate. You have to decide that your health is most important when planning your meals and put time and money into your convictions. (Links provided at the end of article for further reading on making it easier to eat healthy as a broke and busy person; but don’t expect it to be as easy as driving through to the next window.)
Tip #3: Create a true connection with your food.
It’s amazing how far removed we are from our food. We are no longer consuming food, but food like products. Unless you want to spend hours researching and reading labels, follow this simple rule of thumb: avoid pre-made, pre-packaged, boxed and ready-made foods as much as possible. The entire middle section of your grocery (everything not on the parameter) is full of one or more of the following for flavor: salt, sugar, fat, artificial flavoring/colors, and/or preservatives. They provide very little nutritional value when compared to the caloric content, and the cons almost always outweigh the pros on the label.
Stick to buying food that actually looks like food: raw and fresh ingredients that can be used to create healthful meals. You’d be amazed what preparing your food will teach you not only about what’s in what you’re eating, but an appreciation for the food itself, which can combat over-consumption. Being mindful when you eat, and not distracted by television, etc, will help you realize when you are full faster and prevent you from mindless chewing.
The same goes for restaurants- be conscious of your food decisions. Almost anything you eat out isn’t as healthy as you would make it if you were following these guidelines at home. Start with a raw salad, order as light and fresh as possible, and never eat the entire portion. It is almost always too much. Opt to share an entrée or bring half home in a doggie bag for tomorrow’s lunch.
Tip #4: Eat a ton of veggies.
Don’t go hungry, or focus on eating less, focus on eating right. I grew up with the four food groups, which has since been replaced by the food pyramid. One quick Google images search will show that even that cannot be agreed upon. Let’s start with the one thing every diet can agree on- vegetables are really good for you. They have a super high nutritional content, and generally a low calorie count- meaning you can eat a ton of vegetables, feel full, and still have not made a dent in your caloric intake needs for the day. Try eating a small salad before every meal, and making half of your plate vegetables, and eat them first. This way, you fill up on the good for you stuff and not the not-so-good for you stuff. Juicing will give you the nutrition, but not take up near as much room in your stomach, meaning you don’t feel full, so you will continue to eat not so good for you things. If you are a juicer, make sure you are still eating a ton of veggies as well. Make sure to eat a variety of veggies, not only to fight boredom, but because the color of the vegetable is insight into its healthful properties. Think you don’t like vegetables? Try roasting them.
Fruits are also good for you and are highly nutritious verses the caloric intake. You need less of them daily than veggies (generally, two cups of fruit and two and a half cups of veggies are recommended daily), and they do contain natural sugars, so if you are diabetic or have another blood sugar related condition, please follow your doctor or nutritionist’s advice on which fruits are best for you. More on fruit in your diet.
Vegetables that aren’t: Corn, potatoes, peas, and carrots all count as starches. This does not mean they are not “healthy” – they are perfectly healthy, they just don’t get filed into the “eat an unlimited amount of these and you are good to go” group of veggies.
Tip #5: Make sure you are eating the right amount of lean protein.
Depending on which diet you are following protein can be a sensitive subject. Here’s what everyone can agree on: a healthy diet should include at least two servings of lean protein daily. Protein provides long term energy and leaves you feeling fuller longer. What qualifies as lean protein? Chicken, turkey, fish, nuts, beans, low fat or fat free milk, soymilk, tofu, egg whites, quinoa, and soybeans all count as lean protein. A proper portion or serving of protein is the size of a deck of cards. Portions today, both in the grocery, and served in restaurants are generally way too large (more on why in our next tip). Any diet that tells you to eat unlimited amounts of protein or not to pay any attention to the fat content in your meat is ridiculous. We certainly need fat in our diet, but very little, and Americans generally have no problems getting enough fat in their daily intakes. Healthy sources of fat include nut/seed oils, cold- water fish, nuts, and avocados.
Tip #6: Eat organic as much as your budget will allow.
The additives, pesticides, antibiotics, preservatives, and hormones added to our food supply simply isn’t good for us. Everything that has been added is to increase production and cost effectiveness, not elevate our health. It is common sense that if you eat an animal that has been engineered and injected to become larger, produce more, that you are eating something intended to make you larger. Just how much this affects us still remains to be seen, needs more research done, and is a topic of great debate. Everyone agrees that if there were no price difference, organic/ all natural foods would win every time. The fact is, there is a large price difference, so choose you battles and eat as organically and pure as your budget will allow. Here’s more reading on the issue:
Tip #7: No food group is “evil”. Omission of a food group is difficult to maintain at best, dangerous at worst.
Right now, carbs are enemy #1. According to the fad diet timeline, this was also true in 1825, 1863, 1985, 1994, 2001, and many versions of the low or no carb diet have made the rounds in and out of popularity. Common sense (and history) tells us that mankind had been eating carbs for thousands of years. Carbohydrates provide energy, elevate mood, aid your memory, and are a good source of fiber- which promotes digestive and heart health. Many studies also show they support weight control, and prevent your body from burning muscle as a source of fuel. There are simple carbs (fruits, honey, some vegetables) and complex carbs (bananas, potatoes, corn, chickpeas, wheat flour, etc). The trick here is to choose natural starches over refined ones (sugar, pasta, white bread, alcohol) and to limit your intake. Carbohydrates are something many Americans find it easy to go overboard on. Know your portions. Unless you are an athlete, two fist-fulls of carbs per day are generally enough. If you really feel you must jump on the low-carb bandwagon, try moderation- if you have carbs at lunch; avoid them at dinner, or vice-versa.
Now the second biggest dietary debate right now: dairy. Neither Paleo nor Vegan diets are milk friendly. However, most of us grew up being told to have 2-3 servings of dairy daily. So do our bodies need dairy? The short answer is our bodies need calcium, potassium, and Vitamin D daily, and it is hard to consume enough without dairy, but it’s not impossible. Soymilk substitutes, fortified juices and cereals, fish, and many vegetables contain lots of all of the vitamins and minerals that are healthy in dairy, but you must be diligent. You cannot drop a food group without making a huge effort to replace it, and often omissions are hard to commit to long term.
Tip #8: Minimize.
There are foods you should minimize at all costs thought, and they aren’t entire food groups. Butter, lard, sugar, heavy cream, mayonnaise, corn syrup, and salt all have high risks and almost no nutritional value. Use them extremely sparingly.
Tip #9: Avoid the altered traps.
As a child of the 80’s, “reduced fat” and “fat free” products were all the rage, and if you were a child of diabetics like me, you were also well acquainted with artificial sweeteners and diet sodas. So many diets were based on subbing out your “regular” whole calorie/whole fat/sugar recipes with modified ones. While the debate on whether or not these substitutions and “free” products that often contain lots of chemicals are actually more healthful or not is up for debate- one thing is clear. These altered products do not give you a free pass. Artificial sweetener, margarine, soda, and the like are not good for you, and should be used as sparingly as their “whole” counterparts.
Tip #10: Be strategic in your cheating. Reward progress.
Allow yourself to “fall of the wagon”. You are going to slip up and have an unhealthy meal/day/ or week here and there. It takes time to change habits. Acknowledge the slip-up, move on, and get back on track. Beating yourself up about it, actually serves to defeat your intentions even more with feeling of guilt that can lead to emotional eating. Give yourself twice as much encouragement and pats on the back when you do well, as negative self-talk when you do poorly. Celebrate each little victory and smart dietary decision. Keep a food notebook or blog, or simply acknowledge each smart decision as you make it. Set goals for yourself (An example could be: double your daily intake of vegetables for a month) and give yourself a reward when you reach it.
More helpful links: