I think I went home and cried the day my doctor told me I needed to cut gluten and dairy out of my diet. So, believe me that I know how hard it is to make a lifestyle change.
Behavior change is something I’m studying in my Nutrition master’s program. I have a lot of empathy for my hypothetical dietary clients. I’m a quarter of the way through the program and am not qualified to give you dietary advice, so I’m telling you what has worked for me.
Here’s what I learned through the program and my own experience. The No. 1 thing I’ve learned is that proper nutrition makes our bodies operate so much better. We recover from illness quicker, things don’t hurt as much. Even mental health issues can fade. Here are some tips I’ve learned:
- Don’t try to be perfect. Even trained professionals struggle to put together diet plans with the perfect balance of macro and micronutrients each day. Just aim for 5 servings of fruits and vegetables and some whole grains each day. Add in couple handfuls of nuts and servings of legumes and lean protein each week. Try to cut down on red and processed meat and sugar. I’m sorry to tell you that there’s really no good that can come from red and processed meat or sugar. A little is fine, but a lot is really not.
- If you’re not getting your 5 servings of fruits and vegetables, pop a multi vitamin. Getting your vitamins is that important. Though, in my opinion, it’s better to supplement just the vitamins you need, which you would know from a blood test.
- Making diet and lifestyle changes is never going to be easy. It’s totally OK to mourn the loss of your beloved whatever-you-love. But, making changes before you have a diagnosis really is key. Once you’re diabetic or have heart disease, you’re likely to have to stop cold turkey. If you can learn to eat more beans now or make your beloved food more of a once-in-a-while treat, it won’t be so hard later.
- It’s not all or nothing. How about trying to consume 30% less meat and dairy than you currently do? That could be as simple as swapping breakfast meats for oatmeal (I looooove oatmeal with its fun toppings!) or trying some Mediterranean dinner ideas. Mediterranean cooking incorporates more grains and veggies than the standard American diet. Meat is stretched over a few meals instead of a slab on each person’s plate.
- Don’t make it a habit: If you have a cookie Tuesday at 3:00 and you crave a cookie again Wednesday afternoon, don’t eat it. Tell yourself you can have it tomorrow. If you make it routine to eat sugar (or alcohol or coffee or whatever) every day, it won’t be a treat anymore. It’ll be a habit.
- Carbs are good. Bread and potatoes aren’t evil. Refined and white breads aren’t great. Most cereals are 30% sugar, so they’re no good. But whole-grain breads, rice, oats, potatoes (not the fried ones) are good. Eat them, guilt-free (assuming you don’t have a health condition that restricts your consumption).
- Once I started watching what I eat, I became much more tuned-into my body. I now notice how my skin feels tingly after a dairy milk latte. After a sugary dessert, like a cookie, I struggle to keep my eyes open. Two or more alcoholic drinks lead to a sleepless night. It’s been much easier to pass on things when I know how they’ll affect me. Before I didn’t take the time to notice.
- Expect to revert. Sometimes when Nick is away, I like to treat myself with dinner from the market hot bar and cupcake or tiramisu. Sometimes I crave one more glass of wine when I’m home writing. About once a month, I want a really good burger. I’m not even ashamed about any of this.
Know that you’re not alone. Diet and lifestyle are hard for everyone to change and most of us could really benefit from some tweaks. I’ve been there. I still am.