In the past eight years of my experience as a nutrition professional, I have encountered many people struggling to stay “on track” when it comes to eating.
One person I recall came to me several times a month, asking for advice about her diet. Sometimes she would explain how “on track” she was because she had started cooking all of her meals, cut out many large food groups — such as grains, sugars, and dairy — and was experimenting with some of the more expensive “health” foods. Inevitably, within a week or two, I would see her eating a processed, sugary, snack food, and it usually only took a few days before she was back in my office asking for advice again.
So what went wrong? Certainly, her goals of cooking more, cutting out some of her problem foods, and trying new health foods were not inherently wrong. But ultimately, they were wrong for her if you consider the following factors.
This person struggled tremendously with time management. She already worked long hours and faced a long commute every day, but any given week she would become distracted by new projects at home, and even a trip to the grocery store could become a multi-hour experience exploring new products.
In addition, cutting out many of the foods that made up her diet, like sugar, dairy, and grains, all at once, left her feeling extra challenged by this new diet. So when her poor time management skills got the best of her, these were the first foods she would turn to. Adding to her struggles, she really couldn’t afford to eat the expensive “health” foods she wanted to experiment with like kombucha, organic flax seed, raw milk, and specialty protein powders. Fundamentally, this person struggled with sustainability in her diet.
Sustainability comes up often, and is sometimes a buzz word, among environmental circles or other groups of conscious consumers. Dictionary.com offers two definitions for the word “sustainability.”
1. the ability to be sustained, supported, upheld, or confirmed.
2. the quality of not being harmful to the environment or depleting natural resources, and thereby supporting long-term ecological balance
If you have read the Lettuce Living blog long enough, you probably feel well educated on how to make your diet more “sustainable” in terms of the second definition and your diet’s environmental impact. But do you know how to make your diet more “sustainable,” something that you will stick to, uphold, experience success with?
I have worked for eight years helping others tackle diet-related goals and changed my own life along the way. I was once a teenager and young adult struggling to maintain a consistent weight while eating cheeseburgers and sugary snack foods. Today, I am a healthy mother in her 30s who is often the healthiest eater someone knows, rarely craves dessert, and absolutely NEVER sets foot in a fast food establishment. I have maintained this lifestyle for the last 11 years.
So here are my tips for a “sustainable” diet:
Practice the basics.
People often ask me what advice I would give if I had to consolidate all of my diet advice into three points. In the past, I have answered, “Eat more vegetables, eat less sugar, and exercise more.” While the last point is not really about diet, it is critically important as well!
Balance proteins, fats, and carbohydrates in every meal and snack. These three macronutrients are the building blocks of satisfying, satiating meals… and many people struggling with a sustainable diet are struggling not to feel hungry and deprived. While nutritionists disagree slightly on the ideal ratio of proteins, carbohydrates, and fat, virtually all professionals agree that people need all three macronutrients to maintain a healthy diet.
Fats (like those in avocados, grass-fed beef, salmon, olive oil, and nuts) signal to your body, through hormones, that you are satisfied and help to subdue cravings.
Proteins (like those in eggs, beans, and pastured chicken) help provide satiety or a sense of feeling full because your body takes a while to break down and digest them.
Carbohydrates (like those from vegetables, fruits, nuts, and whole grains) provide fiber, an important bulking agent (among many other positive attributes), that passes through your digestive systems slowly, providing greater satisfaction with meals.
For the person eating a donut for breakfast, a (nothing but) greens salad for lunch, and then binging at dinner time, a lack of balanced meals, with all three macronutrients, is surely culprit.
Eat regularly and do not skip meals. As I mentioned before, many people struggling with a sustainable diet are struggling with feelings of hunger and deprivation. Skipping meals or waiting too long before eating the next meal is a surefire way to overeat and crave foods that are not healthy later. To add fuel to the fire, when you skip meals or wait too long before eating, you signal to your body that food is scarce. Your adaptable body responds by slowing your metabolism to conserve energy. Unfortunately, if you this is your norm, your body will hold onto calories more efficiently in the form of stored fat and make it harder to maintain a healthy weight or lose weight if you are overweight.
Do not overly restrict foods. This takes me back to the story about the woman who decided to restrict sugar, dairy, and grains, even though these foods made up a huge part of her regular diet. While I fully support people identifying problem foods for themselves and adopting a diet based on their personal needs, I know from experience that over-restriction often leads to failure, making it impossible to commit to the diet in the short term or leading to a spiral of weight loss, weight gain, and then trouble to maintain their original weight.
Instead, I encourage people to find ways to enjoy alternatives to the foods that they avoid or to develop systems for enjoying the foods they limit in moderation. For example, as someone who eats squeaky clean for most meals, most days of the week, I sometimes find myself craving something a little less healthy towards the end of the week, particularly if the week has been stressful. I typically respond to this in one of two ways; one, I make a healthy alternative to what I am cravings, such as baking “fries” in the oven and serving with a homemade honey mustard or garlic aioli dipping sauce or making a bowl of warmed berries served with a drizzle of peanut butter and a few dark chocolate chips on top. Or two, I purchase food from somewhere that I know uses, real, local (and organic, if possible) ingredients and don’t worry too much if I have “real” french fries or some bacon.
In the second option, my meal does not turn into a multi-day binge, I rarely overeat from that meal, and by the next day, I am craving my squeaky clean diet. This is because I have established healthy lifestyle changes and built a little bit of opportunity within my diet to enjoy some foods that aren’t textbook healthy without derailing my entire diet.
Commit to realistic changes.
Adopt a diet with the foods you plan to eat long-term. As a golden rule for sustainable diets, do not make changes that you do not plan to maintain long-term. If you do not think that you can say goodbye to bread, brown rice, carrots, and watermelon forever, then don’t adopt one of the popular low carb, high-fat fad diets. If you plan on eating solid food again someday, then don’t adopt a juicing diet.
I encourage people to adopt principles from some of the diets that interest them (so long as they do not conflict with the advice given in “practice the basics”) and give that a go, for more realistic, long-term sustainability. For example, eat Keto two days out of the week, eat Paleo another two days, and eat a healthy Mediterranean diet the rest of the week. Or, eat vegetarian during the weekdays, and convert to an omnivore diet for the weekend. Or “juice” for breakfast every other day (but add a little protein and fat). Or, adopt any other number of possible diet medleys that work for you by allowing you to sustain healthy habits long term.
Consider other factors, such as money and time. Can you really commit to cooking all of your meals at home when you already feel busy and cooking meals means doing all of the meal planning and grocery shopping (which is not your expertise) as well? If not, maybe look for services that make this easier. Or in the case of a family member of mine, bogged down with PhD work, an active social life, and already tackling some big personal growth goals using up a lot of her energy, I recommended that she move some things around in her budget and pay the extra dollar for a healthy, prepared meals service.
In the case of the woman I mentioned at the beginning of this blog article, she strove to incorporate foods that she heard were healthy, but they were also, trendy, and expensive, and ultimately, she felt very thinly stretched by buying these foods. My friend would have fared much better by sticking to healthy foods like whole grains, vegetables, fruits, and vegetarian and meat-based proteins that were more cost effective.
Adopt a “don’t give up” approach.
For all of the people that I have met struggling with a sustainable diet, I always encourage them to never give up. A sustainable diet involves a lifestyle change and counters the idea that you can adopt a diet for a few months, get the results you want, and then return to your previous ways of eating.
If you fall off of the bandwagon of healthy eating for a meal or two, or day or two, don’t throw the whole diet down the drain and quit. Go back to the healthy habits you have been trying to enforce and start over again. This is the only way of truly sustaining a healthy diet over time. Even for those who go months not eating according to their health standards, I encourage them to return to their healthier ways and understand that adopting a sustainable diet means standing up again after their failures. By giving up, the only thing that people sustain is long-term weight gain and negative health consequences.