It’s over, diet culture.
Has the ‘clean eating’ and keto-crazed diet culture overwhelmed you at all? I always get asked the question “what should I eat to lose weight,” with the notion that weight loss is automatically affiliated with optimal health. We set ourselves up for failure when the goal is to lose x amount of pounds by summer. We’re over-promising ourselves and often under-delivering, which leads to subsequent feelings of disappointment and stress. I think the missing link is we don’t realize that if we shift our focus towards improving our health, we will likely reach our goals without the emotional attachment to the number on the scale.
*ATTENTION* this is my PSA that I will never encourage dieting for the sole purpose of fitting into that dress you haven’t worn since college or looking “summer ready.” Instead, what I subscribe to is eating for health, vitality, and wholeness. I encourage eating intuitively and mindfully and eating for enjoyment of the flavors and the nostalgia certain foods bring. It’s time to break up with the stigma that having extra fat makes us lesser than. Our worthiness is not contingent upon a smaller waistline or a slender physique. It’s time to realize we can be healthy in the body that we are given. However, I welcome the desire to be healthier because I believe it takes courage to admit you have work to do. The first step is the willingness to make improvements in your life. Living a healthy lifestyle is certainly easier said than done (which is likely why the U.S obesity epidemic exists) and I do not have a one-size-fits all answer. If I had to create a template though, it’d probably sound something like this: eat intuitively, engage in joyful movement, prioritize sleep and stress management, and set SMART goals.
1) Eat your favorite foods intuitively and eat healthy foods abundantly
All food fits. I’m not saying that if we eat bags upon bags of chips that we will achieve our health goals. I’m saying that a handful of chips will not undermine all efforts made towards a healthier lifestyle. I remember when I was in my internship at Georgia State, I shadowed a private practice dietitian who told his patient that he enjoyed a small serving of chocolate chips at bedtime because it reminded him of his childhood. I’m glad I got that exposure as someone in training to consult my own patients one day, because it taught me that we shouldn’t restrict those foods that bring us joy. Just like Marie Kondo encourages we hold on to items that spark joy, we should keep those foods that make us happy in our diet and let go of those foods that don’t serve us. The key is that we do this mindfully. There are a few key rules to mindful eating: 1) Eat when you’re truly hungry and drink plenty of H2O since thirst mimics hunger in your brain. 2) Reduce distractions, turn off the TV, put away the phone, and notice what is in front of you. 3) Eat slowly and savor the flavors and textures of your meal. Dark chocolate is a good way to practice mindful eating. Purchase some good quality chocolate (the darker the less added sugar) and place a square on your tongue. Allow it to melt on your tongue and notice all the flavor notes: maybe it’s got maple flavor or coconut or mint? Start to do this with all your snacks and meals, eventually making it a habit to eat mindfully.
In the 21st century, it’s no wonder our fast paced lifestyle is often matched with quick, easy convenience foods. Some of these convenience foods are wreaking havoc on our health. It’s pretty simple; I call the culprits of an unhealthy diet the triple S. Added sugar, salt, and saturated animal fats as well as trans fats are those additives in foods that if eaten in excess, may negatively impact our health. Excess is hard to define but if you look at the list below and enjoy foods in all categories on a daily basis, that may be excessive. Intuitively, we know if we have too much of something versus enjoying it from time to time. So, if you’re interested in fine tuning your diet, then start thinking about which triple S foods you can concede on. That means if you aren’t crazy about bacon, replace it with fruit at brunch or if you can do without the candied pecans on the salad, leave them off. Here’s a list (not comprehensive but a good start) of triple S foods to be mindful of. The foods denoted with an asterisk (*) may fall into 2 or 3 of the categories. For example, a piece of cake may have loads of sugar and butter in it, while batter for fried chicken may be made with a lot of salt and then deep fried, making it high in salt AND saturated fat. With that being said, if there’s a food you adore, work it into your meal plan!
Sweetened beverages: soda, juice, tea, coffee, lemonade
*Baked goods: cake, pie, muffins, donuts, brownies, pastries
Saturated and Trans Fat
*Processed meats: bacon, cold cuts, sausage, hotdogs
Palm oil, butter, lard, beef fat
Dressing, creams, cream-based sauces
I’m not saying a scoop of ice cream can’t be a part of a healthy diet. I’m saying if you analyze this list and realize that you are eating quite a few of these items on a regular basis, you may want to start making substitutions where you see fit.
Now you may be thinking, well what is TRULY healthy? Think about foods that don’t have an ingredient label or have 5 or fewer ingredients. If you’re confused on what foods are actually healthy versus being deemed healthy, I’m with you. Be careful about foods labeled “gluten-free” “fat free” “vegan” “organic” “trans-fat free,” because a lot of this is a marketing scheme and falsely makes us believe it is good for us. The more foods you can eat that are grown in the ground, the easier meal planning should be. Most of these foods are plant based and can offer many health benefits due to their high levels of antioxidants and phytonutrients. They most likely will not have a label. Over time our bodies succumb to oxidative stress, which increases our risk for chronic disease and cancer. That’s why eating foods that fight oxidation in the body: fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, fish, eggs, lean proteins (beans, chicken, turkey, low-fat dairy) and perhaps fermented foods (see older article on gut health) can help sustain us and improve our overall vitality. Don’t worry, just because a food is packaged or processed does not make it unhealthy either. My next post will outline all my favorite packaged foods and how they can accompany a healthy diet.
Another important piece of importance when it comes to meal planning is our portion size. Over the years, we’ve supersized our portions to feed a village, not one person. Using the plate method (1/2 plate filled with colorful veggies, 1/4 plate filled with starches or grain and 1/4 plate filled with lean proteins) could be a helpful tool to aid with portion control.
In addition, limiting soft drinks, juices, and other sources of added sugar and replacing those beverages with water is a great way to stay hydrated. Water recommendations vary, especially depending on your activity level. Be sure to drink plenty during the winter months, since it is common to stay dehydrated due to the colder temperatures and not sweating as much. A simple formula you could use is your kg (lb/2.2) x 1 oz = oz of water/day.
2) Invest in a ‘joyful’ movement
When I was younger I was self-proclaimed as athletically challenged. I still can’t aim for the life of me, enjoy a 10K, or swim in any other fashion than a frog swim. However, over the years I’ve pushed myself in various ways physically; I competed in weight lifting in high school, got into jogging, cycling, high intensity interval training, yoga, boxing and kickboxing in college, and coped with the stress of grad school with yoga and meditation. I love hiking and being outdoors as much as possible as well. I realized over the years that the movement that brings me joy the most is yoga and that is why I invested in a transformative teacher training and got certified last year. Since then, I’ve been doing a regular yoga practice and my partner and I just invested in the Peloton (replacing my $108/mo yoga and pilates membership with this). Here’s why: the Peloton has the added feature of floor activity, including yoga sessions. Plus, I still have the ability to do a drop-in in any yoga studio I want. My advice: integrate the types of activity that you seem to always come back to. Mine are yoga, cycling, hiking, and high-intensity interval training. The best way to stay consistent with movement is to find joy in it. Plain and simple. If money is a barrier, there’s a plethora of exciting YouTube videos that offer anything from cardio classes to pilates. However, I’ve realized that I can cut corners with finances in other places, but when it comes to my health I don’t mind splurging. Just like you invest in stocks or take out a mortgage loan, do so with your health!
3) Sleep like it’s your job
Everyone has different priorities in life. One of mine is getting enough sleep, which is why you will rarely catch me at a bar or club during the week (or on the weekends anymore, let’s be honest). Throughout all my consultations, I often hear sleep is put on the back burner when it is SO imperative to health! According to the National Institute of Health, sleep helps regulate our metabolism, immune system, and heart health. On average, we need 7-8 hours of sleep per night but it’s important to realize that quantity does NOT trump quality. We could go to bed at 9 PM and wake up at 8 AM but if our sleep is interrupted often or we toss and turn half the night, we could still wake up feeling irritable and fatigued. What gives? The quality part of our sleep means how many cycles of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep we engage in. This is a sleep cycle that stimulates areas in the brain involved in memory, learning, and protein synthesis. What can disrupt sleep or prevent one from getting enough REM cycles throughout the night? Stimulants such as caffeine and distractions such as electronics—especially the light from TVs, cell phones, tablets and e-readers—can prevent you from falling asleep due to the blue light emission from these handheld devices. Blue light can reduce melatonin (hormone that helps with sleep) and increases alertness. Practicing sleep hygiene may help with improvement in sleep and subsequent feeling of restfulness in the morning. Taking a long bath by candlelight, drinking herbal tea (chamomile and peppermint are great options), dimming lights, shutting off electronics at least 1 hour before bed, reading, meditation, and diffusing lavender oil or putting on lavender lotion are all great ways to encourage good quality sleep.
4) Be intentional about stress management
Do you ever feel like you put yourself last because there are other people depending on you? Caretakers especially feel the burden of ensuring the happiness of others while stowing their own happiness away. I highly discourage this. My favorite quote from Ma Jaya (world-renowned spiritual leader and activist) is “drink as you pour.” Those four words are so profound to me. I think it’s time to stop feeling guilty for putting ourselves first. We have to tend to ourselves and our needs before we can effectively help others. The impact of chronic stress is well known; it can elevate blood pressure, blood sugars, and blood fats, attributing to overall chronic disease risk. That is why tending to stress intentionally is so imperative! *See my earlier blog post on stress management for tips. In short, make an intention for a busy day to take 5, 10, 30 minutes to do something that relaxes you. I enjoy painting by numbers (working on Starry Night by Van Gogh), watching shows, and restorative yoga to relax. Practicing mindfulness daily may also help with alleviating the impact of inevitable stressors. Late Ram Dass (American Spiritual Teacher) urged us to “Be Here Now.” Such a simple task yet so often ignored, especially in society today. We can blindly walk down the road and not even realize how we got from A to B because we are perpetually glued to our phones. We get overwhelmed with anxiety over all the responsibilities and deadlines and multitask as a reflex, instead of prioritizing. Sure, some stress is unavoidable and we don’t bring unto ourselves, but I do believe a lot of anxiety and stress is cultivated by not allowing our minds to take pause and be still. So let’s “be here now” and “drink as we pour.”
5) Set small goals but avoid ‘number’ fixation
It’s the same story each time: “My doctor told me I had to lose X amount of weight by the next visit.” If I had a dollar for every time I heard this phrase, I’d be buying myself a Gucci bag. The exasperation and defeat I notice in my patients after saying that statement makes me sad. Don’t get me wrong, I get the problem central adiposity (fat around our major organs) poses as we get older. However, I do believe there is a healthier approach to sustainable weight loss. Telling your patient they need to lost weight fast is not that approach! A number attached to the goal can set unrealistic expectations around weight loss and lead people towards unsustainable practices. Another statement that grinds my gears is when doctors tell their patients to “avoid all white foods…” EXCUSE ME? Are you telling your patient that garlic, onion, cauliflower, rutabaga, turnips, and mushrooms are bad for you? Not only is the weight loss prescription flawed, it is dangerous as well. Many adolescents and teens feel the pressure to lose weight quickly, which leads them down a slippery slope and all too often lands them in eating disorder clinics (assuming they seek help eventually). How about we talk about practical ways to improve health and subsequently reduce risk for disease with the aforementioned examples of eating more mindfully and moving? If we do this, we can nip the obsession of being a certain size or number on the scale in the bud.
Setting SMART goals is a great way to practice healthy habits in a practical way. S stands for small, meaning if our end goal is to run a 10K, we’re not going to sign up for next month, we may just start with training a few times a week and progress until we are ready. M stands for Measurable, which means there is a number attached to the frequency and duration of said goal. I will go to a 60 minute yoga class 3 times per week is more tangible than I will do yoga more. It’s easier to be consistent with a goal if we are specific. A is for Attainable and R is for Realistic. Notice whether you truly feel ready and have the means to work on your goal. If you’re working with an injury, training for a 10K may not be realistic. Lastly, T stands for time specific, set a deadline to your goal so that you can reevaluate it and add on to it or set another SMART goal.
I hope this post inspires you to work towards a healthier lifestyle and realize it can be enjoyable and rewarding without being daunting. Figure out what motivates you and the reason you’d like to make changes. If you know your why, it makes the how much easier. And remember, taking baby steps is better than staying stuck!
Until next time,