Deciding to go on a diet is easy. Sticking to one is a completely different story. Countless diet books and infomercials promise slimmer waists and longer lives. More legitimately, doctors and news articles deliver (sometimes conflicting) suggestions for you: decrease your portions, drink more water, eat more greens and so on. Too often, none of it works. Why? Because we make ourselves miserable trying to change our diets in a way that's supposed to be good for us but makes us unhappy. We took the issue to our nutritionists to figure out how we can make those healthy changes without hating every meal.
Title photo remixed from Yuri Arcurs(Shutterstock).
We sat down with our friends, nutritionists and registered dieticians Alannah DiBona and Andy Bellatti, whom many of you will remember from our food myths posts and asked them how those of us who want to embrace healthier eating can do so without driving ourselves insane.
For example, it's frequently said that a portion of meat in a meal should be no larger than a deck of cards. If you're used to eating a huge cut of meat, or two chicken breasts in a sitting, eating that on Monday and a deck of cards-sized portion on Tuesday is just going to make you frustrated. So how do you get from here to there? Here are some tips.
Start Slowly and Make Gradual Changes
The first thing to remember if you're trying to reform your relationship with food is that it's not going to happen overnight. You have to make gradual, positive changes in your diet that eventually turn into habits that come naturally. Most of us are unlikely to commit to multiple major dietary changes overnight, and even if we stick to them for a short time, we'll eventually get so frustrated we give up and go back to our old ways. Photo by William Warby.
Portion control, for example, is one of the hardest things to adjust. We're used to being overfed at restaurants that offer heaping plates of food, and often cook too much at home too. When you get that heaping plate, make a mental note to eat half of it at the restaurant and box up the other half for lunch tomorrow — or even ask for the box before you start eating so you're not tempted to eat it all.
Still, scaling back is tough, so Andy suggests eating foods that give you the most belly-filling bang for your caloric buck. "A cup of blueberries clocks in at roughly 85 calories. A cup of Haagen Dazs ice cream? Approximately 600 calories. If you're looking for a snack around the 200-calorie mark, this matters (you could have one cup of blueberries AND 25 almonds or one-third of a cup of ice cream — guess which one will leave you feeling more satisfied!) Eating tiny portions of highly caloric items in an effort to ‘control portions' is a recipe for disaster. Your eyes will see the tiny amounts and go, ‘That's it?' — and you'll be hungry a half an hour later. Similarly, dipping vegetables (instead of chips and crackers) into peanut butter/hummus/guacamole is a much better idea than dipping crackers into a pea-sized amount of those dips. Not only are vegetables lower in calories, they also offer much more nutrition."
Focus On What You Get, Not What You're Giving Up
One way to do this, according to Andy, is to think in terms of inclusion instead of exclusion. Essentially, instead of focusing on foods you shouldn't eat, focus on the foods that you enjoy eating and fit well into your new, healthy regime.
"Rather than make a goal of ‘no more mashed potatoes at dinner', think ‘I'll add dark leafy green vegetables to my plate three times this week.' The idea is to ‘crowd out' less healthy foods, rather than attempt an overnight change," he explained. I can vouch for this — I remember watching an interview with Alton Brown where he emphasised the same point: the only way he was able to commit to his dietary changes was to think about all of the great foods he could eat lots of instead sitting around missing the things he had to cut from his diet. If you're going to make positive changes, find some healthy foods that you enjoy and fall in love with them — include them in your meals as you like, and make them your new best friends. Photo by Natalie Maynor.
Similarly, don't force yourself to eat something you hate "just because it's healthy". Alannah says only choose foods that you love: "If I had a nickel for every time a client said to me, ‘I hate egg whites, but they're really good for you,' I wouldn't be worrying about this lottery business. Most of us are not born adoring every vegetable, craving flax or mainlining salmon. If you try to force an undesirable food into your diet, you're simply going to end up grumpy and underfed (chances are always excellent that you'll opt not to eat the offending item, or at the very least, eat less of it.)" If you catch yourself eating something you hate just because you think it's good for you, stop. Too often we associate healthy eating with plain, boring, dull, tasteless eating, and it doesn't have to be that way.
Experiment, Innovate and "Eat Weird"
If you're going to get past the mental block that healthy food is boring food, the first thing you'll have to learn to do is experiment with your diet. We mentioned that one of the best ways to commit to positive changes is to fall in love with healthy options — now it's time to find some new loves. Andy suggests you enlist the help of the experts: "When it comes to eating healthier foods, you NEED recipes from the pros," he explains. "One of the biggest mistakes people make is adding foods like broccoli, brussels sprouts, lentils and quinoa to their diets in ways that are bland and tasteless." Andy also explained that foods people consider "boring" are often because they're being poorly prepared. If you hate oatmeal, for example, stop cooking it in water and adding raisins and calling it breakfast. He suggests a tablespoon of coconut milk, a little vanilla extract and some cinnamon to spice it up. Stir in a tablespoon of peanut or almond butter when it's finished. Sound good? It's also good for you. Photo by Julie Magro.
He suggests picking up cookbooks and recipes for vegetarians and vegans — even if you're omnivorous — because they often include interesting and tasty new ways to prepare foods you may not discover on your own. Many of them will also lead you to experiment with new spices, fresh and dried herbs, and dressings you would never have tried before. Talk to your friends, check out some of your favourite recipe sites, plug in the names of ingredients that you want to eat more of, and marvel at the myriad of delicious ways to prepare and serve it. You're sure to find some options that work for your palate, pantry and aptitude in the kitchen.
As you experiment, remember that your relationship with food is a personal one. If you enjoy something that's a little weird, embrace it. "Just because most people don't often combine raw pineapple and seared tuna as a snack doesn't mean that you shouldn't pack it for lunch with reckless abandon," Alannah explains. "If it looks good to you, appeals to your personal tastes and is a known entity in terms of nutrition — go for it. Variety and unusual new flavour combinations are going to help keep you engaged in your new habits, and rearranging familiar flavours is a simple hack." She's right — experimentation with flavours and combining healthy options in new ways is part of falling in love with food all over again, and if you can fall in love with something that's really good for you, delicious and fun to eat at the same time? Well then, you've already won.
Hack Your Brain with Healthy Substitutions and Snacks
Cravings and mid-day hunger pangs are the worst and have led to many a diet derailment. They don't have to. Your willpower is limited, so stop spending it fighting cravings or resisting the urge to eat in between meals. If you want a snack, both Andy and Alannah suggest you have one — just make it something that's good and good for you. Photo by John Loo.
"Waiting until you're hungry to decide what you'll be eating is often the kiss of death for someone trying to reform his or her habits," Alannah noted. "Always, always, always carry at least one snack, if not two! Single serving baggies of nuts, pieces of fruit, jerky and sliced vegetables can help you bridge the gap between breakfast and lunch, or address an attack of "mouth boredom" that might ordinarily send you running for the vending machine." Andy agrees: "Listen to your body. Trying to ignore hunger until the next meal usually leads to disasters (overeating, picking whatever is most convenient rather than what is healthiest and so on)." Andy suggests stocking a spare desk drawer at your cubicle so you don't even have to get up. Already-popped popcorn (so you can dig right in!), dark chocolate (80 per cent cocoa or hither, please!) and low-sodium jerky are some of his additions to your office pantry shopping list.
Battling cravings? Forethought is key. Andy points out that the best way to deal with cravings is to find good alternatives that are both tasty and satisfying. Really want a peanut butter cup? Andy has a better version: "Take two squares of the dark chocolate we just mentioned and put two teaspoons of natural (as in, no added sugars or oils) peanut or almond butter in between them. The dark chocolate provides minerals, antioxidants and fibre, while the natural nut butter adds vitamins and heart-healthy fats." What about when you want a creamy, savoury addition to your sandwich? "Forget nasty fat-free mayo. Instead, mash some avocado with lemon juice and a sprinkle of salt, and smear that on the bread." If you must have your craving though, try to use it as an ingredient instead of the main dish, Andy says. If you're craving tortilla chips, don't just tear into the bag, he says. Instead, have a veggie chilli or some guacamole and put the chips on the side. Want chocolate? Grate some and put it on top of your oatmeal.
One of the easiest ways to eat healthy without making yourself miserable is to take a more active role in your relationship with food. Don't let your meals turn into things that just happen to you every day at specified times. You don't need to start living to eat as opposed to eating to live, but use those times when you're full of energy to prepare for when you're not. An hour on the weekend when you're rested and relaxed can be used to prepare a crock pot full of a healthy, hearty chilli that will feed when you don't even want to think about lunch because you're so busy at work, or after a long hard day when dinner is the last thing you want to fuss over. Photo by K.I.T..
Alannah offers up a technique that's been instrumental to me personally: Find a recipe every week that interests you, and make enough of it to last a while. You'll stir up an interest in cooking (no pun intended) and you'll have lunches or quick dinners over the course of the week. "Basic cooking is going to be necessary in order to feed yourself well and sustainably, but make it a goal to find one recipe each Saturday or Sunday that looks especially intriguing to you. Shop accordingly and make multiple servings that can be easily packed and heated over the course of the week."
Speaking of crock pots, "I'm a firm believer in the power of the crockpot — this month, I've made large batches of turkey chilli, bison and cauliflower mash, and chicken coconut curry stew. I've been alternating these lunches in frozen, single servings — the end result is a very satisfied nutritionist and a fuller wallet as I'm no longer running across the street each day for an $8 sandwich or salad." If you need more inspiration, Andy suggests splurging on some quality ingredients in your kitchen to help you fall in love with the healthy meals you're making, like good quality olive oil for your salads and dressings, or even vanilla bean powder instead of extract for a fancy yoghurt or oatmeal topping that'll keep you coming back to a healthy dish.
Keep Your Eyes On Your Goals
Finally, the most important thing to remember is to stay committed and stay motivated. If you've followed along to this point, you've read a number of ways to fall in love not just with healthy food, but with food in general. Don't be afraid to explore new, healthy options, and accept the challenge of working in your favourite bad for you foods into dishes that are better for you, and substituting good, satisfying foods and flavours that are good to be addicted to in the place of the bad stuff. Photo by John O'Nolan.
Take it slow, and be mindful as you progress. Andy suggests you keep your eyes on one goal at a time, "Reducing your sugar intake is challenging enough without adding on the pressure of eating a dark leafy green vegetable every night with dinner, replacing refined grains with whole ones, and eating less fried food." He proposes you make a list of a few goals, commit to one for a few weeks, and when you have a handle on it and have made it a habit, then move to the next one. Unless you're the type who just needs to throw up your hands and reboot everything, you're much less likely to feel overwhelmed and give up if you tackle them one at a time, instead of trying to make sweeping changes to your lifestyle in one weekend. Alannah agrees, and says you should keep your goals front and centre. "Whether it's to be a more active parent or partner, lose weight, improve your sleep or take control of your health, keep a visual reminder of your goals at all times. A photo in your wallet, or a magazine clipping on your fridge or desk of your powerful motivator will help you to remember what choice you're making whenever you face temptation. When you can see the fruits of your labour, it's easier to be strong when you'd otherwise cave in." We couldn't agree more.
Alannah Dibona, MA, MS, is a Boston-based nutritionist and wellness counsellor, and the woman behind mindbodysportconsulting.com.
Both graciously volunteered their expertise for this story, and we thank them.