I love breakfast. It’s probably my favorite meal of the day. There’s something innately enjoyable and nostalgic for me about starting off the day with a delicious, filling meal.
But the food I eat for breakfast today differs significantly from several years ago. My approach to this meal has changed as I learned more about proper nutrition, and began tweaking my diet in a Paleo direction.
Taking a step back, my evolving breakfast plate is a microcosm for the larger three-step approach I used to transition to real food eating. It’s a gradual process anyone can adopt, implemented over the course of months, not days. While slow and simple in nature, it’s a reliable, realistic, and sustainable approach to making dietary changes.
It’s not an overnight fix, but it works. And there’s no reason you can’t do it too.
Here’s what it looks like:
Add, Replace, Refine (ARR)
- Add healthier foods to what you’re already eating
- Replace current staples with healthier alternatives
- Refine your already improved diet by increasing food quality and focusing on specific nutrient needs
The steps are meant to be followed in order, at a pace that feels comfortable and sustainable to you. While some people can succeed by making drastic changes at once – like cutting out all grains and dairy cold turkey, for instance – that’s not me. I stumbled upon this progression unknowingly, and repeated it many times over the course of several years before arriving at my current Paleo-centric approach.
Using breakfast as a case study, let’s take a look at how you can put this process to work in practice.
Step 1: Add
As I mentioned in my beginner’s guide to healthy eating, transitioning to Paleo doesn’t have to be about restriction and deprivation. In fact, it’s perfectly okay to start by adding healthier foods to what you’re already eating. This helps you slowly incorporate the healthy food choice into your meals, allowing you to eventually crowd out the less-than-ideal foods as your tastes and preferences begin to change.
But I’m jumping ahead just a bit. Here’s an example from own transition, using breakfast as the case study.
Eggs are my favorite breakfast food, so it’s no surprise I’ve eaten them almost every day for years. Before I began my real food journey, a staple breakfast for me was three eggs (scrambled or over-easy), with a bowl of oatmeal.
As I learned about the importance of veggies as a preferable carbohydrate source, I starting adding them to my eggs. What began as a few spinach leaves and tomato slices to create an omelette gradually evolved into a full pan of sauteed peppers, onions, mushrooms, and greens, into which I would crack three eggs to create a hearty scramble.
After adding veggies to my eggs for a few months, I started wondering whether the bowl of oatmeal was really necessary. Yes, it was a great carb source (or so I thought), but the notion that oats and grains may lead to fat accumulation and systemic inflammation made me skeptical about it’s nutritional value. So I started experimenting by not eating oatmeal a few times a week, just to see how I felt. The results were clear – I felt noticeably hungrier and more sluggish when I ate breakfast sans oatmeal.
So while I reluctantly added oatmeal back to the mix for the time being, I remained skeptical. I wanted to reduce my intake of refined carbs in the morning, but knew I couldn’t just cut it out cold turkey. I needed to experiment with alternative options, which lead me squarely into the next phase.
Step 2: Replace
In his excellent book on behavior change The Power of Habit, author Charles Duhigg states that every behavior involves three components: A cue, a routine, and a reward. His position is you can effectively change any behavior by altering the routine, while keeping the cue and reward constant.
For example, someone may be driven to drink alcohol (routine) when they are stressed (cue), in order to feel a sense of relief (reward). If they wanted to sober up, they might try to replace the act of drinking when stressed with a more positive action likely to produce the same reward, which in this case is relief or distraction from the stress. Talking to someone during stressful moments might be a good place to start.
This is the simplified science behind what really is an intuitive step #2 in our process: Replace. We’re keeping the same cue (hunger at mealtime) and the same reward (feeling full and satisfied), but tweaking part of the meal itself (routine) with a healthier alternative.
Going back to our breakfast example, when I wanted to reduce grains I decided to try replacing oatmeal with fruit and almond butter. This was a great option for me psychologically, since (a) I already sometimes mixed almond butter into my oatmeal, and (b) the fruit still provided a source of carbohydrates in the morning, making the transition appear easier.
The lesson here? Set yourself up for success! Notice that I replaced the undesirable carbohydrate food (oatmeal) with healthier carb sources I already knew I liked (fruit and almond butter).
It didn’t take long for the strawberries, blueberries, etc. to become the new staple aside my veggie and egg scramble, and after a short while I didn’t even notice the oatmeal was gone.
I had effectively altered my routine enough to change my behavior, without diminishing the reward of feeling satiated and energized after breakfast.
You can use the Replacement method again and again, with numerous cycles before you find what works best for you. I recommend experimenting for at least a month or two (if not longer) before trying to tackle the next phase. After several months you’ll eventually settle in and adjust to a healthier routine that aligns with your goals.
If you’ve successfully reached a new normal, but still want to experiment, that’s a good sign! Once you’ve replaced the biggest offenders with healthier options, the remaining tweaks will only get smaller and more specific to your individual needs. That’s when you know you’ve crossed over into our last phase, Refine.
Step 3: Refine
By this point you’ve added new foods so you can slowly incorporate healthier tastes and routines to your meals.
You’ve also replaced the big offenders in your old diet with better alternatives, and have reached a new and sustainable baseline for your regular eating habits.
Give yourself a pat on the back because it’s hard to make it this far! The heavy lifting is done at this point, and most people would probably be satisfied stopping here.
But you’re not most people, right? There’s just one final step to keep you grounded on the road to eating for health, and looking and feeling your best. And that’s refinement.
Think of this last phase as similar to an athlete who has made it to the major leagues, but now wants to become an All-Star. They’re above average fielders, can hit for power, and run the bases fairly well. But to become a game-changing player, they have to increase their range on grounders in the hole, learn situational hitting, and improve their ability to go from first to third on a line drive to right field.
Did I lose you non-baseball fans? I hope you’re still with me!
The point is, you can always tweak and refine for optimal health. Not feeling and looking like crap is good, but thriving and living vibrantly is even better. The more comfortable you become with the basics (as you’ve already done), the more you can learn and explore what works best for you individually.
For example, I’ve recently begun reducing my fruit consumption in favor of healthier fats and more veggies. With a Paleo approach, My body has become more adapted to burning fat for fuel throughout the day, so I’m experimenting to see how I feel with a less severe blood sugar spike in the morning. I’m using the familiar Replacement method to implement this change, the only difference being my focus is fine tuning and optimization, rather than eliminating harmful things I shouldn’t be eating.
It’s important to recognize a key word in that last paragraph: experiment. I wouldn’t recommend a complete beginner start with this particular replacement, since eating fruit is a much better alternative than processed grains. Nor do I believe all fruit is a fructose-laden devil, like some who view Paleo as a strict, sugar-free diet (remember, this isn’t a diet!). I’ve simply reached a point where I’m comfortable enough with my baseline to make tweaks here and there to try and improve my overall health.
Some other examples that fall into the “Refinement” category might include:
- Replacing refined vegetable oils with healthy fats
- Buying organic and local meat and produce instead of conventional
- Eating a wider variety of fruits and vegetables, according to what’s in season
- Adding nutrient-packed booster foods like sea veggies, raw cacao nibs, or goji berries to focus on specific nutrient needs
Closing out our breakfast example, one of the first refinements I made after adding veggies and replacing grains with fruit was to cook my eggs in coconut oil instead of olive and other vegetable oils. I made the switch after learning about the dangers of cooking with vegetable oils, and the benefits of eating more coconut products.
It was a painless transition, partly because it was such a small change. But I may not have given myself the space to recognize the opportunity if I hadn’t first dialed in the larger culprits. Adding veggies to my eggs was a necessary stepping stone to crowding the grains off my plate and eventually replacing them with some fruit and almond butter. This created the space for me to recognize and refine something as easy to overlook as what type of oil I use to cook the eggs.
Refinement is great, but don’t skip to it before you’re ready. Take the time to develop the right habits by adding healthy foods to your routine, and replacing your biggest offenders. Then take stock of where you are, and refine to your heart’s content.