How to eat healthy in a world of fitness fads?
The diet hype is real. How many times have you heard of a friend or coworker trying that new fad diet? The truth is, most diet fail, and for good reason: nutrition is tough. After all, while you are training 3-5 time per week, you are eating at least 3 times a day. So much of our lives revolve around food. How many meetings or events have you been to that included food? Most of my meetings involve free pizza or a sub. Food is everywhere, and most of it is unhealthy. There is an insane amount of info on the internet on getting in shape. Where do you even begin?
I was just like you. My knowledge of nutrition was nothing and I was overwhelmed with the sheer amount of information out there. I basically ate what I wanted, when I wanted. It was fine in high school when I was constantly exercising in one sport or another, but college was a different story. I blew up in college and gained 40 lbs. My diet consisted of beer, Taco Bell, and pizza. After college, I took a good, hard look at myself and realized I wanted to change.
How to Eat Healthy by Focusing on Small Habit Changes
I researched everything out there (my nerdy side coming out) and found a plan I could stick with. It helped me lose weight, but it was incredibly unstainable. I was eating 6 times a day and I was still incredibly hungry. I had no idea how to eat healthy.
After a bit of backsliding and the common weight gain after a successful diet, I realized it the small habits were the key to success. That is what nutrition really is. It is not a “diet” you stick to for a few months to lose those extra few pounds; it is small habits that you develop and tweak to maintain health for your whole life.
I didn’t realize this right away. The journey from diet hype to habit is a process. It started small, with me making small, incremental changes. I quickly saw the benefits of good eating, and as I gained momentum, I created a nutrition plan that became part of who I was. My momentum slowly built until finally, I had lost that 40 lbs. I had learned some of how to eat healthy, but my journey was just beginning. Check out more about my story.
Start with Building Simple Healthy Habits
So where do you start? I struggled with finding the right “plan” for years when the solution was right in front of my nose. When I started creating small habits everything fell into place. Make one change at a time and slowly add in other changes as you get used to that habit. Just like learning anything, good nutrition is a process. You have probably been eating a certain way your whole life, creating a lifelong habit. Changing a lifelong habit takes time. Don’t expect to be perfect to start with; you will just burn yourself out. Remember, good is often better than perfect, and practice makes progress. Keith Richards didn’t start playing with the Stones, he began learning how to play chords.
Learning how to eat healthy is far more important than losing weight. Weight can be an indicator of health but is not the true gauge of health. How you feel every day is a much better indicator. Since changing my diet, I wake up feeling amazing and I have noticed a significant improvement in my mood and energy levels. Vegetables used to be a passing thought for me, but now I crave them.
There are many paths to good health, but I’ll list some simple ones I started with.
Start with Drinking More Water
The first step to good nutrition is simple. Drink more water! You should be drinking at least half your body weight in ounces per day. For a 200 lb. person, that would be 100 ounces or about 3 liters. This may increase or decrease depending on your level of activity. There are countless studies on the health benefits of water (after all, we are 60% water). Drink it before you’re thirsty and drink it when you think you’re hungry (you might actually just be thirsty). I also highly recommend drinking a cup of water right when you wake up. Your body has been dehydrated all night, making that first glass so important for optimal health. This is the first step in learning how to eat healthy.
How to Eat Healthy: Eat An Insane Amount of Vegetables
So what’s next? The next step is just as simple: vegetables. Most people do not eat nearly enough vegetables. In fact, I probably eat about eight times as many vegetables per day as the average person. Vegetables have countless health benefits beyond what most people can even imagine. They can help prevent cancer and clear the body of toxins.
When I’m talking about vegetables, I’m talking about the leafy green kind. Things like spinach, kale, brussel sprouts, green leaf lettuce, and broccoli. Others include beets, green beans, squash, cauliflower, carrots, etc. Your shopping cart should basically contain all the colors of the rainbow so you can get all the necessary vitamins and minerals. Not included in this category are starchy vegetables, such as potatoes (although these are healthy in a different way).
So how many vegetables should you be eating? In truth, you can eat an unlimited amount since it is really hard to fill up on them. Vegetables are so high in fiber and water that they will fill you up quickly. They are also super low in calories, making them super efficient. You could call them the superheroes of the food world! You should fill half your plate with vegetables or measure two fist-sized portions. If you do this one thing, you will be amazed at how much your body will love you (I know mine does).
How to Eat Healthy: Protein is Your BFF
Next is our friend protein. Protein is the building block for muscles and it keeps you full. Most people do not eat enough protein. Lean sources are best to start out with since you can separate the effects of fat and protein on your body. That does not mean fatty protein is bad for you, but it can be damaging if you don’t get the right type. When buying fatty protein, it is really important to get organic, grass-fed varieties. Fat often harbors all sorts of toxins, and cheap meat can be the worst. This is even true of leaner cuts of protein.
Fill a fourth of your plate with protein (about 2 palms for guys and 1 palm for girls). Great lean sources include chicken breast, white fish, egg whites, turkey breast, and steak rounds. Fatty sources include gamy meats (bison, elk, etc.), sardines, salmon, whole eggs, and certain cuts of pork. It is also really hard to overeat protein since it is very filling, making it an important staple of your diet.
Starches and Fats: The Mean Girls
The last two components are starches and fats. These are a bit more difficult since their recommended consumption depends on your training volume. You can think of them as your fuel source. The more you exercise, the more carbs and/or fats you will need. The combination is very individual and you have to find the right amount that you need. In fact, if you are fairly sedentary you may need very little. Most people overeat starches!
Start with a ¼ portion (2 cupped handfuls for guys and 1 cupped handful for girls). Keep it simple by eating whole food starches such as potatoes, rice, or beans. If you’re still hungry, add a little bit of healthy fat (a palmful of nuts, half an avocado, a tablespoon of coconut oil, or a tablespoon of olive oil). Good fats can keep you satisfied all day. They are not “unhealthy” as has been the label for years!
Not all starches are created equal! Focus on water-based starches, such as sweet potatoes, brown rice, oatmeal, quinoa, apples, berries, oranges, and beans. These are much more filling than starches like bread, chips, or pasta. Remember: keep it simple! Add more starches and/or fats if you find your energy levels to be low. Avoid sugars and processed carbs since they don’t fill you up! Think of the times you’ve been able to crush a bag of chips or a bag of candy. Try doing that with 10 apples.
This is not an exhaustive list for good nutrition, but it’s a great start. You really have to find what’s right for you. Think of yourself as a diet detective. Start with the baselines I have laid out, and figure out where your body feels best.
Cravings: The Redheaded Step-Sister to Nutrition
Cravings can destroy any good, nutritional habit. How many times have you thought, “I really want that candy bar”? You know it’s bad for you, yet you still crave it. Left unchecked, cravings can cascade into poor eating habits, breaking any healthy habits you formed.
Controlling cravings begins with staying mindful about what you put in your body. Many people eat just to eat: “It’s lunchtime, so it’s time to eat.” Keep it simple, and eat when you are actually hungry. There are very healthy people that eat once a day. Figure out if you are hungry or having a craving.
Cravings can be controlled by getting to the root cause of what causes them. Did you have too much wine last night? Did you eat something that upset your stomach? Why do you really want that cake? Really think about what you are putting in your body and how it affects you. Take your time while you are eating and absorb all the flavors. Sit down and eat without any distractions! Take a deep breath before you decide to give in to a craving. You likely won’t want it anymore.
Cravings are really tough to control. By being mindful with what you put in your body, you can see where they come from, but sometimes you need to give in for your sanity. Dark chocolate can be a powerful tool for getting through tough cravings. A cheat day once a week can also limit cravings.
If you are healthy 70% of the time, this is better than not at all. One cheat day a week can satisfy your cravings, allowing you to eat better MOST of the time. Find your tolerance. Some people cannot have even one cheat day because the effects cascade. If you need to let loose, go for it!
Enjoy Your Food
Remember to enjoy your food. Eating healthy can be fun and fulfilling. Some of the best meals I have eaten have been healthy. Healthy food is delicious. Don’t be afraid to try new things and experiment to find what works!
I hope I was able to simplify nutrition for you. Good nutrition is the most important skill you can add to your utility belt. It will ensure you live a vital and healthy life. When in doubt, stick to natural food sources (one or few ingredients). Remember, abs are made in the kitchen, not the gym. In summary:
- Start with drinking lots of water, especially when you wake up.
- Eat every meal with a significant portion of veggies (half a plate!).
- Make sure at least one-quarter of your plate is protein (palm-sized portion).
- Add starches and fats according to your exercise level.
- Eat when you’re hungry.
- Control cravings by figuring out how different foods and activities affect you.
Remember, learning how to eat healthy is an incremental process. Changing a lifetime of habits is not easy. You have to walk before you can run, so focus on setting small goals first and then work on larger ones.
What trouble do you have with eating healthy? Where does nutrition fit into your training plan? Please let me know if you have any questions.
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