“The day you stop improving is the day you start dying.”
“I really need to start eating healthier… Can you just tell me what to eat so I can fix my diet?”
I hear some version of this phrase all the time. Friends, family, co-workers – so many young people say they want to “eat healthier” but don’t know where to start.
Given how important this topic is, and how many people seem to be struggling with an effective solution, I thought i’d share five tips I’ve found to be effective when making dietary changes for improved health.
1) Define what “healthy” means to you
Before you start making any lifestyle changes, it’s important to get clear on your goals. What does the term “health” mean to you?
Don’t just think about physical goals like “lose 20 pounds,” or “bulk up and gain muscle.” Take a step back and evaluate all the factors that comprise a healthy lifestyle for you.
Once you have that clear picture in your head, pick one tangible health change you want to make today. This goal should be specific, measurable, and something you believe “healthy eating” can support.
Put another way, successfully achieving this goal should give you confidence you’re on the right path.
Then, plan to focus solely on this one goal for the next month. You may not achieve your entire goal in four weeks, but that’s okay. The idea is to focus on one positive outcome, and prove you can begin making measurable progress.
2) Gather your baseline
Now that you have some direction, take stock of where you are today. Knowing where you stand will help you measure progress, and let you know how you’re doing relative to your goal.
For example, when I was recovering from my knee injury, there was a time when I couldn’t walk up stairs without some level of discomfort. So that became my baseline from which I could measure my rehab progress. After a few weeks I was able to walk up a small flight of stairs without pain, and kept adding more each week. This let me know I was improving, and was a huge confidence booster moving forward.
Similarly, maybe you’ve decided to tweak your diet so you have more energy in the morning. Start by recording how you feel after waking up for five days in a row, using a 1-10 scale. The five day average is your baseline energy level; your measuring stick to compare future progress. You’ll want to reassess your energy again at the end of the month, to see if your improvements have worked.
Once you have a clear goal and your current baseline, you can start making food choices that will help you achieve your goal.
3) Add first, then substitute
It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of change, and start slashing things from your diet left and right. But it’s a wise move to slow things down a bit. If you’re truly starting from scratch, make changes that are sustainable for the long run.
That’s why you should start by adding food to your current diet, for at least the first two weeks.
Yup, you read that right. While it’s okay (and potentially necessary) to acknowledge your dietary weak spots early on, making drastic changes can derail initial progress if you’re not careful. Old habits die hard, especially when it comes to something as emotional as what you eat. Making manageable additions to your existing meals will help ease the transition to healthier eating, and allow you to slowly build newer, more positive habits.
A second benefit to this approach is psychological. Rather than associating healthy eating with deprivation, adding new food creates a sense of abundance, positivity, and exploration. The better you feel about this whole healthy eating business, the more likely you are to sustain it.
Once you’ve successfully incorporated at least one new healthy food into your diet, start replacing some poorer food choices with healthier alternatives. Here are some of my favorite Paleo substitutes for commonly troublesome food groups:
- Coconut milk for traditional dairy
- Sweet potatoes for pasta
- Almonds for peanuts
- Berries or apples for granola bars
Bottom line: Don’t dive in full force by eliminating things right off the bat. Start by adding healthy foods into your existing routine, then try replacing poor food choices with better alternatives.
4) Establish routines
Think about how you make food choices on a daily basis. How do you determine when to eat? What to eat? How to eat?
Hone in on the specifics, then brainstorm how can use existing habits to your advantage.
For example, maybe you know you eat better when you bring lunch to work from home. Try carving out time each night to pack your lunch in advance, so you can quickly grab it on your way out the door in the morning.
One routine I’ve developed is prepping food in bulk twice a week; once on the weekend (usually Sunday), and another time mid-week as I start to run low. This makes it easy to throw some meat and veggies together for lunch during the week, giving me complete control over what I’m eating.
Find a routine that works for you, and stick to it for a few weeks. You might be surprised to see that healthier options start becoming your default food choices.
5) Be realistic
True health changes don’t happen overnight; they require dedication and persistence over time. Recognizing this at the outset is necessary to cultivate the positive mental approach needed for long-term success.
Sustainability is key to this success. It’s difficult to achieve any health change if you’re overly restrictive and aggressive up front. Realize there are no quick fixes, and implement changes you can reasonably expect to maintain.
On a related note, take it easy on yourself. You’re fighting against years of bad habits, misinformation, and emotional attachment. Don’t expect to eat “the right food” all the time, but try to enjoy whatever you do eat. Your tastes and preferences will eventually evolve, but realize it’s a gradual process.
Focus on building positive forward momentum with sustainable changes and food choices. If you hold yourself accountable for staying on track, there’s no reason you can’t achieve your health goals.
To recap, here are five tips to get you started on the path to healthy eating:
- Define what “healthy” means to you
- Gather your baseline
- Add first, then substitute
- Establish routines
- Be realistic
In my next post, I’ll share a 3-step process to help you get started with Paleo. This is the process I used myself, so I know it’s effective.
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