Have you ever felt so overwhelmed about what you CAN eat? It can be easy to feel discouraged, especially with dozens of media streams (including social media) pushing different diets or food rules. And it seems like these diets always involve hefty lists of things we shouldn’t eat. But do you ever stop and think…why aren’t they pushing what we should eat? One of the biggest turning points in my education was giving one of my first diet educations (on a very specialized diet), where I made the mistake of telling a patient all of the foods he couldn’t eat, but not what he could! Afterwards, my preceptor prompted me to include all of the foods he could still have. It was then that I first realized what a difference this makes in succeeding with any lifestyle change.
Similarly, people generally have more questions about what foods they should limit or avoid than what they should consume more of. However, it can be very beneficial to focus on the good food we should eat rather than the “bad”. If we simply focus on choosing more vegetables, water, whole fruits, unprocessed meats, and whole grains, there will be less room left for the less nutrient dense options.
Diets in a Nutshell
First, it may be helpful for us to develop a useful definition for what a diet is. A diet is not something you go on when you want to lose weight or tone up. Contrary to its usage in popular culture, a diet is not something temporary that you can either be ‘on’ or ‘off’ depending on how far away swim season is. A diet it simply what we choose to eat or not to eat.
We all are following a diet. The question is, are we conscious of it? And overall, are we making good choices day in and day out? How can we go about improving our daily diet without focusing on what we shouldn’t eat?
Simply becoming aware of our food choices is an excellent first step to having a better diet. An easy way to do this is to keep a food diary for one week, writing down everything you eat or drink each day. Many people are so disconnected from their food choices that they don’t even think about what they are eating. While I find continual tracking (day in and day out) to be too meticulous, there are certainly benefits to tracking for a short period of time through a journal. In general, increasing awareness will lead to better choices.
Assess How Food Makes You Feel
Along with tracking your diet, you can also track how you are feeling throughout the day and week. Your mental and physical state often connect with what you’re eating and when. However, instead of associating your negative emotions or physical ailments to certain foods, try to focus on when you feel your best. What did you eat that day? Did you eat regular meals or did you skip a meal? You may find you had more energy after having that green smoothie or that you didn’t have any headaches on the days you took the time to eat breakfast. You may notice that you feel full longer and have more sustained energy when you add protein to your snacks and breakfast. Keep the focus on what you do eat instead of what you don’t.
Add Nutrient Dense Foods
You’ve taken the time to assess by focusing on the good aspects of your diet. Now, it’s time to change things up! Start adding good foods into your diet. Basically, this would be any nutrient dense food. Bring some cut up veggies in lunch a few times one week. Drink a green smoothie with breakfast or after dinner. Have an extra bottle of water after your workout. Now that you’re more aware of your diet and its effects on your body and mind, you should be able to notice how small tweaks to your diet affect you.
Note that I have only suggested you add things to your diet. That doesn’t mean you can’t start having less of other things. You may find that you feel better when you eat less fast food or sugar. This process should occur naturally as you eat more wholesome foods and no longer have the appetite for empty calories. When your goal is to eat more good foods, you won’t have to try to eat fewer “bad” foods. You just won’t have room for them as often.
Don’t Overcomplicate “Good” Foods
At this point, you may be thinking, “What are good foods?” Lets not overcomplicate this. Good food does not have to be on some superfood list, nor does it have to be juicable, forkable, or eaten raw. Good food is simply real food that can in a very literal sense be easily traced to its roots. It is usually very nutrient dense and minimally processed.
Vegetables are full of phytonutrients and antioxidants, and they are easily considered “good” by every dietitian, doctor, and popular diet. If you did one thing that would drastically improve your health, mood, energy, eyesight, skin, nails, hair, cognitive functioning, and overall physical appearance, it would be this: eat more vegetables! However, a healthy diet isn’t made up of vegetables alone. That would lead most of us to feel frustrated with food pretty quickly. The best diet is the one that you can stick with and that provides you with a variety of wholesome foods such as vegetables, fruit, protein sources (meat, beans), whole (or sprouted) grains, and dairy. Obviously, those will food allergies or intolerances will need to avoid certain foods others may not. In general, a good diet keeps us satisfied day in and day out and provides us with energy to sustain all of our daily activities.
Eating Without Restrictions
There are certainly some foods and ingredients I aim to limit. For example, I haven’t bought refined sugar for baking use at home in several years and I generally try to avoid artificial food coloring. I try to encourage my family and clients to give up crisco and replace it with healthier fats and to cut back on the cookies and cake, using whole fruits instead to satisfy a sweet tooth. And these are just to name a few.
However, making certain foods completely off limits (with the exception of allergies or other special cases) or even terming foods “bad” can take the focus off of the good in a diet and even cause other issues. For example, some people find themselves more tempted just knowing they shouldn’t eat something. Additionally, food guilt is not something any of us want to feel in our lives! Food guilt can be highly demanding and even lead to mild or in some cases more severe eating disorders. In fact, as Rachel Hartley, RD writes, the worst thing you could eat isn’t a food, but guilt! Developing a healthy relationship with food is a critical component of a healthy lifestyle.
While I prefer to avoid refined sugar in my own daily life, this doesn’t mean I turn down every special dessert I’m offered (we enjoyed s’mores around the fire just this weekend!) It also doesn’t mean I will never ever buy it again. In general, I enjoy adapting recipes with my favorite healthier recipe substitutions to include less reined forms of sugar and therefore haven’t had the desire to buy it at home.
Choose To View Food in a Positive Light
By choosing to think about about how you will work more healthy, nutrient dense foods into your diet instead of leaving out the “bad,” you are changing your view of food from a negative viewpoint to a positive. It can be a start to helping you make better food choices, release food guilt, and even try new foods you hadn’t considered before.
Do you dwell more on what you shouldn’t eat than what you should? What foods make you feel good? What changes have you made to your diet that don’t involve restriction?