Not for wimps or faddists, these steps to healthy eating success are only for those desiring energy, a permanent exit from the diet roller coaster, stealth eating habits and never being tempted to click those screen pop-ups about losing belly fat for any reason other than comic relief. It’s also for people who can actually envision self-deprecating comments about food and weight no longer being a regular part of their life. This post is long – as in, give yourself 10-12 minutes. But nothing worthwhile comes too easily – especially when talking about improved and lasting behaviour.
For many years I ran a busy nutrition counseling firm from 4 locations in Vancouver, BC. (I later sold the company. In its 25th year, it continues to thrive thanks to excellent colleagues.) In the busiest years, we met with 30 new clients each month. Many days of 7 or 8 one-hour conversations about food and eating struggles. (Shout out here to all dietitians and counselors currently doing this type of very rewarding, yet emotionally heavy at times, work.) In the same years, I did a weekly 5-minute TV segment sharing healthy eating advice that was broadcast to over 250,000 people. It generated an endless stream of inquiries. At that time, I also spoke to at least one or two groups each week, most typically sports teams and workplace wellness programs at banks, legal and accounting firms. I got a mighty clear view into the challenges of healthy eating for athletes and in the workplace.
In the individual appointments, clients would spend a minimum of 3 one-hour sessions with myself or another dietitian on the team. BEFORE any advice was offered, a detailed history of eating concerns and challenges, activity level, work and family demands impacting ability to shop and cook, dieting history, food allergies or intolerances, medical issues and health status was discussed. A 5-day record of everything consumed, whether good, bad or ugly was also provided for in depth review before the consultation began. All confidential as you can always expect from any registered dietitian (the only regulated nutrition professionals in Canada), this represents a WHOLE LOT of conversations about food and health. And an intimate awareness of what the problems and challenges out there really are.
Since that time, discussions about healthy eating amongst consumers have increased dramatically. Although a great thing, this has also led to many folks, qualified or not, offering advice, creating food products, supplement lines and more to take advantage of this consumer appetite. It’s not all bad, but some of it is downright awful. The kind of stuff based on junk-, pseudo- or no science at all, fear mongering, fast fixes that don’t last, cash grabs and trendy products pitched on reality TV by folks who know a lot about fads and novelty but nothing about actual eating challenges and lasting solutions. I get a particular kick out of the endless pop-ups on the computer screen about how to lose belly fat or specific lists of what 6 foods melt pounds and increase energy.
From those countless hours chatting about eating challenges and watching clients go on to lose weight, gain energy and maintain great health, there are a few steps they take PERMANENTLY before simply sipping a fat-melting drink to achieve their goals.
Although it’d be incredible, unfortunately, you can’t turn around years or decades of poor eating and lifestyle choices with a one weekend cleanse or a single purchase of anything. The great news though is that once you switch gears in your mind, you can begin heading in the right direction – one in which you CAN permanently stay.
There are a series of steps to conquer on the healthy eating journey. Mastering each one before tackling the next one is a strategy I’ve seen work tremendously well for people. Although you can tackle these in any order, I recommend a stepwise approach from the bottom, step 1, on the way to victory and life-altering freedom at the top! These steps identify the ‘bones’ of healthy eating. To put ‘meat’ on the bones (vegetarian or not), I recommend meeting with an expert dietitian who will have at least a couple in- depth chats with you to help get things cleared up once and for all.
Step 1: Understand that healthy eating is just one of several spokes in the ‘wheel of health’. Healthy eating can go a long way in improving health, weight and energy. But, exercise, self-worth, sleep, genetics, age, life stage, hormones, support systems, medical conditions, schedule and many other lifestyle factors will also seriously impact results. Is eating the real issue or would addressing/accepting other spokes in the wheel first be more helpful? If eating is indeed the issue and you feel ready to take full responsibility for your success, proceed to step 2.
Step 2: Identify what your core eating philosophy is. I promote and have seen the most success for people with an 80-20 approach in which most of the time (80%) you make good choices but allow room for flexibility (20%). Perhaps you’re more inspired and driven by a 90-10 approach? Or maybe a 70-30 style would be a step in the right direction? Reflect on whether or not you want to and can sustain a 100% vegetarian approach, a flexitarian style or don’t even want “tarian” in the term that describes how you eat. Spend a decent amount of time reflecting on what has shaped your eating beliefs and habits. Think back to the healthiest time(s) in your life. Why were you so healthy at that time? Can you recall what it feels like to be fit and energetic or at least imagine this? A clear vision of that is a very helpful motivator.
Step 3: Become a more mindful eater. Talk to your dietitian to learn how to tune into your natural hunger and fullness cues, eat when hungry and stop when full. Learn how all sorts of environmental triggers affect eating and how to manage them. Apply the Pleasure Maximization Principle: If indulging in something with little nutritional value, make it worthwhile. This doesn’t mean binge eating or drinking, but rather, choosing something that’ll hit the spot perfectly and take care of the craving and desire. Lessons on portion control will be part of this step and they apply to all food, healthy or not.
Step 4: Begin working on getting into a “straight-line state” instead of an all-over-the-map, zig-zaggy, high and low blood sugar pattern. This is the foundational point, the gigantic concrete base from which the staircase to eating success is built. Without this, it will ALWAYS crumble. This step involves understanding how your schedule, work, family and other demands impact food choices. For digestive system health, your teeth, weight and more, I don’t recommend non-stop nibbling all day, but I do encourage eating about every 4 hours while awake. For many, this is a pattern of meal (M) (breakfast), snack (S) (mid-morning), meal (lunch), snack (mid-afternoon), meal (dinner). This varies drastically from person to person depending on schedule. For some it’s a pattern of S-S-M-S-M, M-M-S-M-S or something different. The goal is to avoid that ravenous, “if I don’t eat immediately I’m going to freak out” situation that almost always results in poor choices like eating a bunch of taco chips before dinner or crappy baked goods mid-morning because you missed breakfast. And, I won’t even go into details about that most challenging eating time slot between dinner and bedtime.
Step 5: Learn what makes for well-balanced meals and snacks and apply this consistently. In a general sense, meals with half the plate as vegetables (a wide, rotating, variety) along with protein and whole grains, and snacks that include both protein and carbs (fruit, vegetables, grains) help ensure you’ve consumed a good mixture of the required macronutrients each day: carbohydrate, protein and fat. Tune into which foods you tolerate best and why, when or how certain foods bother you. It may not be an allergy.
Step 6: Take at least 5 supplemental products – the more, the better. JUST KIDDING! Stop. More on that in Step 12. Step 6 is time to look at your hydration status. Do you get enough hydrating fluids each day – water, milk (whether plant or animal source), herbal tea, 100% real juice, etc). And don’t only look at the amount, but the pattern of hydrating. I recommend evenly distributing the fluids throughout the day along with meals and snacks rather than waiting until you’re dying of thirst and down 4 glasses all at once. 6-10 cups is a daily goal. This varies drastically depending on your size and activity level – the kind of stuff dietitians help you figure out precisely for your unique needs.
Step 7: Fine-tune the quality of what you’re eating. Marketing makes it seem like this will never stop, but it can if you so choose. This is the step where you look at whether or not you’re getting enough fibre and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals). Choosing brown bread over white and fresh vegetables over canned are two examples of basic ways to improve quality. Adding chia seeds to your wholesome home baking and making your own yogurt are more advanced, but very do-able ways to shine up the quality of your food intake. This step can take weeks or longer as it also impacts decisions about the kind of food you grab or don’t grab on the run and will require ongoing planning and prepping to head out the door in the morning well equipped. It also involves learning the basics of reading food labels and the liberating concept that many of the very best foods out there don’t even have labels!
Step 8: Fat and More Fibre – amount and quality. This is its own step because there is much to learn about both fat and fibre. Good, bad and ugly fats. Natural peanut butter vs. hydrogenated, whether you should use butter or margarine, which cooking oils are best, eating omega-3 rich fish at least twice each week…Take a close look at this area. Fibre – soluble, insoluble, psyllium, brown vs white, pasta, quinoa, what flour to bake with – also lots to look at here in ensuring you’re getting your 21-35 daily grams of fibre depending on age and gender.
Step 9: Salt and Sugar. Neither has to be avoided entirely. I don’t recommend putting all of your (or your children’s) improved eating efforts in this area alone, especially if steps 1-5 aren’t happening yet for you. Those steps do wonders for avoiding or managing cravings for salty or sweet treats. Do look for realistic, non-bizarre and affordable ways ways to limit or avoid excess sugar and salt. Always baking everything with agave nectar might not be the long term, lasting solution.
Step 10: Polish up your shopping and cooking skills as needed. Meals made at home are almost always lower in salt, higher in fibre and nutrients than meals grabbed on the run. Most families have 5-10 go-to meals in their repertoire. Find ways to make those great quality rather than twice a year making something considered extremely healthy. Do collect inspired recipe ideas but ones that are realistic enough to actually try. Take a cooking class if needed. Cooking more at home, and teaching your kids, may be the single most important healthy eating investment you can make for your family. (A high I.K.) Take time to learn about where your food comes from, genetic modification, the importance of a varied diet, organic and local food issues. Manage as much as you can without fearing and being at a loss for what to eat. If you have garden space and can grow even a little bit of food, that’s a healthy action. Get to know farmers to understand not only their values but the challenges they face in the food system today.
Step 11: Alcohol and Caffeine. There are limits. Learn them and live them. All the great eating in the world won’t keep your ‘belly flat’ if you regularly overdose on these drugs that displace or alter appetite. Health Canada suggests no more than one drink a day for women (2 for men) and no more than 4 cups of coffee daily…that’s four one cup, 250 ml or 8 ounce coffees and unfortunately not 4, turbo-sized Grande super cups. Mindful eating strategies apply here.
Step 12: You’ve made it up 11 BIG steps. Meet with your dietitian to review how you’re doing if you want to know whether or not you’re meeting your specific nutrient needs. For example, are you getting enough vitamin B12, iron and potassium? Using professional-calibre software and your personal data (not a quick on-line quiz), she/he can help determine if you’re lacking nutrients and which supplements you require . Many people need them. Amazing food choices or not, all adults over 50 should take 400 IU of vitamin D daily. Any women who may conceive should be taking 4oo mcg of folic acid daily. Many women lack calcium and iron despite healthy food choices. Many people benefit from a multivitamin if travel, a busy life or picky eating make consistent healthy eating tough. Allergies and food intolerances can create requirements for supplements as can strict diets, vegan diets, poor gut health and certain medical conditions. But be scientific and systematic about supplementation. Add one product at a time and allow a reasonable period to assess if it’s doing anything or not. How can you possibly know what is contributing to good or bad results if 10 products are added at once. Layer and build as needed and with expert guidance. Don’t put on your lab coat and treat the only body you have like a random science experiment, especially if already dealing with multiple health challenges and medications. Remember that “using supplements without a balanced diet is like using deodorant without taking a shower.” It’s temporary coverage only. (A quote I heard many years ago from a wise exercise physiologist, Dr. Mike Houston)
Step 13: If you’re an athlete, learn about how the timing and amount of meals and snacks will impact your training, competing and recovery. Learn about the additional hydration and macronutrient needs you have compared to inactive people.
Congratulations! You’ve climbed up, or at least patiently read through 13 long steps! Critical steps that make the difference between a quick fix and permanent success. You’re awesome! (And, until I write another book, I’m relieved to have this post handy as a starting point to refer the many requests that I’ll always likely get about how to eat better and lose weight.)