Even though the literal meaning of the word diet is “way of eating or lifestyle,” it is now generally associated with something extreme that includes both a starting and a stopping point. Getting back to thinking of a diet as a “way of eating” is not only more accurate but more helpful and sustainable.
The following tips are designed to help you stay positive (not perfect) and make progress (and not regress) in your “way of eating.”
- Enhance your desire for healthy food. Too many people believe that you can either enjoy tasty food that’s bad for you or resign yourself to eating unappealing food that is good for you. In reality, healthy food can be both delicious and extremely satisfying. Begin with foods you like that you know are healthy and then start seeking out similar healthy foods to try. Avoid forcing yourself to eat food you intensely dislike just because it is good for you. At the same time, reduce your exposure to oversweetened, oversalted, and overprocessed foods that train your tastebuds to think healthy food is boring.
- Make it harder to make unhealthy choices and easier to make healthy ones. Snacks are often appealing, not so much for their taste, but because they are available, and they are easy. And while it’s far easier to eat candy than peel an orange, the point is moot if the candy is not easily available. Keep it out of the house or put it in an inconvenient location in your kitchen, pantry, or some other far away part of your home. Improve your odds of eating healthfully by making healthy choices easier and unhealthy ones harder.
- Pick a limited number of your favorite treats and only indulge in those occasionally. While “everything in moderation” is a popular mantra, the concept of moderation is lost when we face countless opportunities to indulge every day. Indulging in moderation leads too many people to eat too many unhealthy foods too often, but only any single one infrequently. Instead, a better approach is to pick two or three treats you really love and enjoy them, on occasion, without guilt.
- Exercise is not punishment for the sins of eating. Exercise and healthy eating are not moral choices—they are simply healthful ones. Your eating habits and your exercise behaviors are meant to point you in the same direction rather than work against each other. The power of both physical activity and good nutrition together is greater than either one alone.
- Disrupt old habits and replace them with new ones. No, you don’t need more willpower—you need better habits, which can be viewed as behavioral shortcuts for your brain. These shortcuts develop around any behavior you repeat often. If you always have a bowl of ice cream while watching television at night, simply sitting down to watch a show at night can create the craving. Disrupt the habit by replacing it with healthier behavior. For example, you might brush your teeth before you sit down or eat a breath mint. Anything that disrupts and delays the automatic response (eat the ice cream) to the stimulus (sitting on the couch) can trigger your ability to consciously control your behavior rather than letting it be automatic.
- Avoid the extremists. Healthy eating is not flashy, trendy or weird. Drinking pickle juice or putting butter in your coffee, eating a lot of a single food or almost nothing at all (i.e., a “cleanse”), can be safely dismissed as folly. Sensible rarely makes headlines and it does not make good clickbait. Stay grounded by centering your eating plan on real food, consisting of plants, nuts, seeds and appropriate animal products that fit your lifestyle and preferences and are healthy for you. Anyone who believes that all humans should be omnivores or that all humans should be vegan is wrong. Like most areas of life, steer clear of extremists and you will find your way to nuance, truth and better health.
- Enjoy the meal and the people with whom you eat. A Mediterranean-Style dietary pattern is frequently recommended due to its focus on whole foods, but one part of it that is rarely mentioned is the Mediterranean approach to the experience of eating. It is focused on communing with others and enjoying food through all of the senses—the aromas, tastes, textures and appearance. Regardless of what we eat, there is much to be learned from this long-standing tradition of valuing the experience of eating and doing so with others.