How to Embrace Healthy Eating Habits For Good
Lessons I’ve Learned From Years of Dieting
For as long as I can remember I have been trying out different diets hoping to find the magic potion that fixes all of my problems. Those “problems” have changed through the years and along with it, my idea of healthy eating has evolved as well.
For a long time, I simply wanted a diet that would make me lose weight. I fell victim to the unrealistic feminine images that are plastered on all the billboards. I thought if I could just lose enough weight to look like the models, I’d be a happy girl.
I bounced from diet to diet, all the while experimenting with new exercise programs, convinced the perfect combination was out there to be found. I have a magic number in my head of my “ideal weight”. This number is based on nothing more than what I arbitrarily decided was a number I wouldn’t be ashamed to say out loud if someone asked my weight. I was sure that with enough discipline and deprivation, I could reach this number. Once I hit that number on the scale, I could let go of the strict rules and harsh guidelines. Then I could relax.
I now weigh 10 pounds over that magical arbitrary number and guess what?
I’m okay with it. It’s taken years and years of struggle and self degradation, but I think I can finally say that I feel happy.
Do I look the models we see in the fashion magazines? No.
Do I wear a size 4 dress that I once thought would bring me joy? Not even close.
So how did I get to this place that I dare to call contentment? A lot of trial and error. A lot of falling down and picking myself back up.
But through it all, I learned some lessons about what it means to be healthy and how to make eating right part of a happy lifestyle. Deprivation and self degradation are not included. Here are a few guidelines that can help you reframe your eating habits and build a foundation for a lifelong healthy diet plan.
Body Image vs. Good Health
Throughout high school and college and even into my late twenties, my goal was to get skinny and look like the fashion models. Eventually, as I slowly began to link my mood and energy levels to my eating habits, I realized that being “skinny” was not the ticket to happiness. A number on a scale does not equate to good health or even to feeling good.
When I switched my focus to being healthy rather than some unattainable body image, it became far easier to maintain good eating habits. Here’s why.
Good health comes with other benchmarks for success, rather than just inches and pounds.
My definition of good health consists of these factors:
- Having sustained energy to fuel me through my workouts all the way to the end of my work day.
- Having little to no illness or sickness, like flu or colds.
- Feeling comfortable and happy in my clothes.
- Feeling motivated, energetic and happy to be alive.
- Having few cravings or feelings of deprivation. Not obsessively thinking about certain foods or whether I can eat them or not.
Notice that none of these benchmarks are dependent upon an arbitrary number. Yet they are all trackable.
Along the way I have learned (and am still learning) what foods help to keep these markers on the plus side. If I am starting to get sweet cravings or thinking about desserts a lot, I know I have been eating too much sugar. Or maybe my energy is slipping late in the day because I ate too many carbs at lunch. When I notice the direct effects of what I eat on my mood and energy levels, I am far less tempted to eat those foods that don’t make me feel great. Instead of focusing on foods I can’t have, I am focusing on foods that help me feel good. And those foods, not coincidentally, are the same foods that will help me lose or maintain my weight.
Is it Sustainable?
As I wrote earlier, I have experimented with all types of diets, from Atkins to low fat, to vegetarian to Paleo, to name just a few. I have done detoxes and cleanses hoping for a jump start to my best self. (I now believe that regular detoxing is a beneficial practice of any healthy lifestyle.) The problem with these programs was not the diet itself, but rather my approach to the diet. Aside from vegetarianism, I always thought of the diet as a means to an end. But unless I plan on getting to a point in life where I can stop eating all together, this way of thinking can only lead to failure.
The way you eat has to be sustainable. If a diet is so restrictive that you can’t maintain it long term, then it is not practical and not worth your time (unless you have very specific short term goals). Deprivation does not work. If after the initial acclimation period to a diet, you still feel deprived of something, this will only lead to binging later on.
However, it is important to know yourself in this situation. Are you an abstainer or a moderator? Author Gretchen Rubin defines these terms on her website in this way:
You’re a moderator if you…
– find that occasional indulgence heightens your pleasure–and strengthens your resolve
– get panicky at the thought of “never” getting or doing something
You’re an abstainer if you…
– have trouble stopping something once you’ve started
– aren’t tempted by things that you’ve decided are off-limits
A moderator is someone who can be satisfied with eating just a little bit of something, whereas an abstainer is someone who finds it easier to just quit something cold turkey and never look back.
Knowing which of these types you are can be a tremendous benefit to keeping healthy eating habits. I have discovered that for myself, I fall into a third category which is an abstainer who thinks she can be a moderator. I definitely get panicky at the thought of never being able to eat, say, chocolate ever again. Yet, at the same time, I have trouble stopping once I’ve started. What seems to work best for me is to eliminate sweets but to make some planned exceptions. According to Gretchen Rubin, a planned exception is a way to break a habit without disrupting the good habit altogether. She elaborates by writing this:
We’re adults, we make the rules for ourselves, and we can mindfully choose to make an exception to a usual habit by planning that exception in advance.
Ultimately, the best way to pursue healthy eating is to think about it as a lifestyle. Eating should be enjoyable and it should be nourishing. When you can see the impact food has on your mood, your energy, and your overall health, you are more apt to choose foods that have positive effects rather than negative ones…even if those negative effect foods taste really good in the moment.
Reframing your thinking about dieting and eating healthy is helpful as well. If you think about it as something you are doing just until you lose a certain amount of weight, you are setting yourself up for failure. You might lose weight initially, but if you don’t plan on keeping the good habits that helped you get there, chances are you won’t be able to keep the weight off.
So instead of making a huge dietary overhaul, start small, with manageable, simple habits that serve as the foundation for lifelong healthy eating.
Have You Built in Flexibility?
Your body’s needs are constantly changing. It is dealing with an abundance of stresses each and every day. There are emotional stresses, environmental stresses, physical stresses, etc. that your body is constantly adjusting to and fighting off. These stresses may cause your body to need more or less of certain nutrients in any given day. That’s why some days eating what you normally eat works great and other days it’s not quite right.
Flexibility is an important ingredient in building a successful eating plan. Tune into your body’s signals and hear what it is telling you. Be wise enough to let go of strict rules when your body may need something different. I struggled for two years on a vegetarian diet that wasn’t working for me. I was hungry all the time and constantly thought about food. I was fatigued and lacked the energy I needed to get through the day. But I had a hard time accepting that my body needed meat. When I finally listened to my body’s signals, I regained my energy and began to feel satisfied after eating my meals.
Forcing your body into a restrictive or unsuitable diet because it worked for your best friend or coworker, is only going to set you back further.
I believe in experimenting with foods and styles of eating, but it’s important to allow yourself flexibility in those styles. Allow yourself to customize for your body and the specific needs it has. Be open and willing to hear the signals your body is sending you so you can adjust accordingly.
Living the Healthy Life
Healthy eating does not have to be the struggle that it gets made out to be. It starts with defining what good health means to you. From there, it needs to be sustainable. You are not going for the quick fix. You want lifelong habits, so start small and build upwards. Finally, flexibility is your friend. Healthy eating is an evolving process. What I thought was healthy 10 years ago looks wildly different than what I think about healthy eating now.
Be proactive in your health.
Invest some time in it.
Understand that healthy eating may not always equal fast and cheap.
But if you want to perform well, feel good, and be happy, then isn’t it worth the extra effort?