If you’re still buzzing from sugar overload and feeling the irritable effect of one too many Christmas cookies, welcome to the club. Pants a little tight? Tired and fatigued? Headaches and mental fog? General feeling of yuck?
It’s not surprising that the gym is packed by the second day of January. Most of us are coming off a holiday high that has left us feeling miserable and desperate to get healthy. But working out isn’t going to do much good if your eating habits don’t change (more on that later).
Changing your eating habits can be difficult and frustrating, not to mention confusing. What’s more, each person has a different biochemical make up and what might work for one person may not work for you. For more on that, check out my post on When Healthy Food is Your Enemy.
While eating habits ought to be personally customized, there are still a few general rules you can follow.
Don’t just try any fad or detox out there.
Don’t just look for the quick fix. Just because it says “diet” does not mean it’s healthy. Not all diets are created equal. And not all of them are good for you. If it offers quick results without all the effort, it’s likely a sham.
Want to eat healthy this year? Not sure how to begin? Here are 5 basic guidelines to get you started on cleansing your cravings.
1. Take Inventory.
Everybody is different. When changing your eating habits, keep in mind there are multiple factors in play: age, hormones, genetic predisposition, degree of inflammation, exercise habits, environment, stress level, etc. Do you struggle with chronic disease? Do you have digestion and gastrointestinal issues? It’s important to take inventory of your symptoms and evaluate where you are in overall health. For example, wheat may be considered “healthy” but for those with celiac disease it can be detrimental. If you have IBS, loading yourself with lots of “healthy” fiber and beans will keep you confined to the bathroom. One woman read about the benefits of vitamin D. In an attempt to be “healthy” she took 10,000 IU a day and ended up in the doctor’s office with toxic levels of vitamin overdose.
Just because it’s a fad or the latest superfood doesn’t mean it’s healthy. Be smart. Do your research. Listen to your body. Keep a food journal so you can track your symptoms and see what foods may or may not agree with you. Take a look at your current eating habits and make a note on what needs to change.
2. Focus on Overall Health, Not Just Weight Loss.
Most people turn to exercise or dieting for a quick fix. But as a medical professional wisely said, “Exercise is not primarily for weight loss, but for optimal health.”
Too many times we focus on the result we want (weight loss, energy, healthy skin) and do whatever we can to get it. Instead, focus on what your body needs for optimal health and function. The body is like a machine. Healthy input, healthy output. When you provide your body with the essential tools like optimal nutrition, exercise, and vitamins & minerals, weight loss and improved function will naturally follow as a result.
3. Get Back to the Basics.
You are what you eat. And more times than not, what you eat directly coincides with how you feel. So if you want to feel better, optimal nutrition is always likely to reward you with better results.
If you want to change your diet, you need a quick crash course in the basics of nutrition. Understanding how food works will help clue you into the “why” before doing the “how”.
Stay with me here. This science stuff may be boring but it’s your first insight on how to get healthy. Your diet should consist of protein, fats, and carbohydrates. Here are some essentials to know about:
Protein is essential for life. It repairs and builds tissue, muscles, organs, bones, hair, skin and nails. It also makes up the enzymes that regulate your metabolism.
Fats get a bad rap but they are vital energy reserves and help the body transport vitamins, provide insulation for regulating temperature, and is a source of essential fatty-acids that manage inflammation, clotting, and brain development.
Carbohydrates are the body’s primary source of fuel. This is why no-carb or low-carb diets drive me nuts. Using carbs for energy frees up protein for other uses. Your central nervous system exclusively uses glucose as energy, which comes from carbohydrates. Complex carbs are more nutritious because they take longer to digest and won’t spike your blood sugar level.
Vitamins & Minerals are needed in small amounts. They work together to keep everything in balance. It is possible to get these requirements through food alone. Supplements are never intended to be a substitute for a healthy diet. For more info on the specific nutrients you need, their roles and food sources, check this out.
Water makes up 60-70% of your body weight. Every system, tissue, and organ depends on water for survival. It’s kinda a big deal. Water moistens your tissues, expels toxins, prevents constipation, and carries nutrients and oxygen to your cells. You need about 2 liters a day but don’t drink in excess or it can cause hyponatremia which leads to life-threatening conditions. Don’t like the taste of water? Put a lemon in it. Adding lemon to water provides a dose of potassium, vitamin C, aids in digestion, and helps prevent both oxidation and kidney stones.
Processed Food are stripped of their nutritious value and packed with additives, preservatives, artificial flavors and chemicals. It’s the American way. Rule of thumb: if it’s not found in nature, don’t eat it. Or if you must, go for the short list of ingredients that you recognize and can actually pronounce.
This is not rocket science. We all know that french fries and processed foods are not nutritious. Focus on foods that are good for you. And while that may sound simple, it’s not always easy. Which is why you need to…
4. Make a Plan.
Four years ago I decided my eating habits needed a massive overhaul. I was tired of the chronic fatigue, mood swings, joint aches, and GI issues. At the time I knew virtually nothing about cooking or nutrition but was determined I needed a change.
My first step? To do a 2-week cleanse to jump start my way to healthy eating. I’m not talking about drinking dirt and self-deprivation here. I’m talking about 14 days of focusing on fresh, nutritious foods while eliminating the bad. Think of all that junk food as noise that is adding to the inflammation in your body. You want to rid your body of all the noise so that it can better function properly. Eliminate foods from your diet that are well-known “bad guys” for a few weeks to get your body back to a baseline. Then slowly reintroduce each food group to see how you feel. You will be able to better judge the effect those foods have on you overall. If you’re curious about the specific plan I followed, click here.
When creating your healthy eating plan…
- Eat 3 balanced meals and 2 snacks, one in the morning and afternoon.
- Eat 3-4 oz of lean protein at every meal and a small amount with each snack (meat, eggs, yogurt, legumes, nuts & nut butter, seeds, soybeans, oats, quinoa, etc.).
- Drink eight 8-oz glasses of water a day (try a lemon)!
- When planning dinners include a protein, vegetable, complex carb, and healthy fat.
- Shop the outer aisles of the grocery store – meat, dairy, produce, grains.
- Choose high quality meats like grass-fed beef, wild caught fish, and hormone-free, antibiotic-free chicken and eggs. Consider purchasing from the local butcher or farmer in your area!
- Choose complex carbs over simple carbs (fruits, vegetables, whole grains).
- Choose fresh produce over canned and always wash before eating.
- Replace butter in cooking with a healthy fat like olive oil
- Limit or completely eliminate processed foods from your diet. Instead, replace with fresh fruits, vegetables, meats, eggs, and whole grains.
- Limit or eliminate your intake of sweeteners, caffeine, soda, processed meats, spreads and salad dressings with high fructose corn syrup.
- Consider adding fermented foods to your diet to help aid digestion (kefir, yogurt, sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha tea).
- Try a form of gentle exercise daily and get plenty of rest. Even if that means going for a walk after a meal and getting to bed by 10:00 PM!
5. Keep it simple, not stressful.
Food is a big part of your daily life. You have to eat to live. And a lot of us live to eat. Like it or not, food is emotional! It tastes great, makes us feel good, and encourages fellowship. So when you suddenly can’t have all the foods you crave, it brings out all kinds of emotions. Changing your habits is stressful enough so don’t add more anxiety to your plate by making it complicated.
Cutting yourself off cold turkey may bring faster results but it also comes with side effects: caffeine headaches, nausea, mood swings, irritability, and fatigue to name a few. If you are used to eating a lot of sweets, caffeine, or simple carbs then cold turkey might not be for you. Purging your house of all the goodies is bound to make you a crazy, stressed out ball of nerves until you finally break by hiding in the closet binging on a bag of M&Ms. On day 3. Obsessing over the do’s and don’ts and depriving yourself of foods you crave can do just as much harm to your body and is likely to lead to cheating and binge eating. So take it slow! Go easy on your body and mental state. Start with a few important changes. If you try a more moderate approach and don’t notice a difference within a week, consider being a little more strict with your eliminations. But don’t beat yourself up if you cheat. Just start again!
The good news is that your body and taste buds are adaptable! When you eliminate foods over a period of time, you can actually retrain your body to crave the good foods. For example, I loved soda and drank it all the time. But when I eliminated it from my diet for a few months, the craving went away. A year later I finally tried soda again and was shocked how horrible it tasted! I couldn’t even drink an entire glass without feeling sick. It amazed me how something I once craved was no longer appealing.
Changing the way you eat can take over your life, but it doesn’t have to. One thing I’ve learned from all my food experiences – the key to cleansing is balance. Everything in moderation. If that means you need a piece of chocolate to keep your sanity while you’re cutting out other forms of sweets, by all means go for it. If the idea of never drinking coffee again makes you want to cry, for all our sakes please just go for the decaf.
Healthy eating is not about stealing your food joy and making you eat cardboard. Nutritious eating is not solely a weight loss program or about counting calories. Rather, the goal of a 2-week cleanse is to jump start your system and help you learn how to eat in a way that improves your overall function and health as an individual.
Whatever you do, stick with it! Habits don’t form overnight so give yourself time to change! It will make all the difference and will increase your energy, give you better function and mental focus, and get you feeling better overall.