Shifting to a healthy diet is partially about will power and partially about meeting yourself where you are. Giving up everything you've been eating right away is a recipe for disaster.
Between trying to shift from the foods you know you like, fighting the cravings for treats, and managing all the feelings of restriction that come with making a major behavior change, it's only a matter of time before it leads to giving up.
There are a couple of ways to make changes stick with as little frustration as possible. Changing your mindset around the foods you eat, why you're eating them, and moving away from an all-or-nothing approach to a gradual changes one small step at a time can set you up for longer term success. Here are a couple of strategies that you can implement today to help build the healthier diet that works for you:
1. The 80/20 Rule.
The 80/20 rule is a good guideline for breaking down food choices for the day or the week. If it's shelf life is that of a cockroach, it comes pre-packaged (wrappers, boxes, cans), or it takes five minutes to prep while you make your way through the drive-thru: skip it... most of the time.
The 80/20 rule (catchy name, right?) divides food into 2 groups: whole/natural (like meats, nuts, fruits, vegetables, etc) and the fun stuff (candy, cake, breads... you get the idea). Attempting to stick to 80% whole or natural foods means filling up on nutrient-dense food while leaving a little wiggle room for 20% of the fun stuff.
This approach can work really well in terms of getting the natural foods to help fuel you and giving yourself room to enjoy an occasional treat so you don't feel completely deprived.
2. Make the change gradually.
Committing to making a gradual change can make the actual transition easier. If swapping out the candy bar for a protein bar every day is easy, that's great! But realizing that you're trying to restructure habits that have been built up over months, years or decades, means aiming high and being okay with missing a little as long as the actual effort is there. The important part is actively trying and eventually making progress.
If the plan was to eat completely clean this week and then family dinner night was pizza, one meal of a slice or three won't make or break you (maybe that's the 20% of the fun stuff for the week). Clean it up for the next meal and move on with your life.
Issues arise when fumbling one meal turns into fumbling multiple meals throughout the week. There's a big difference in falling off the wagon for one meal during the week and falling off the wagon every other day, but over time it becomes easier if you've put priority on changing your relationship with food.
3. Be open to learning about yourself.
Every single one of us is different. Some people love tilapia and broccoli. Others cringe at the thought. There's no one meal plan or diet that works for everyone and a lot of it comes down to preference. If you are one of those that would rather starve than eat tilapia and broccoli then trying to eat that way for a week (let alone the rest of your life) is a non-starter.
Through examining what you already eat and how you like to eat, you'll learn a lot about yourself and, on occasion, will need to get creative. Can you negotiate small changes to your already existing diet and paying attention to how you feel afterwards?
Let say for example, you consistently crave something sweet with your morning coffee. Recognizing that, can you trade out your daily donut habit for a piece of fruit instead to satisfy that sweet tooth instead? Can you save the donut for Sunday after you've aced your diet for the week? Maybe after you've tried the fruit and, while the first few days of the swap were a struggle, after giving it time you're getting used to the idea. You might even be inclined to keep it and skip the Sunday morning donut.
Perhaps you like salty, crunchy snacks in the afternoon and your normal go-to is a bag of chips. Can you think of a whole food item with the same crunch-factor that might leave you feeling a little better after you have it?
Maybe you can't resist and you caved on the chips. This leads to the next point:
4. Pay attention to how your body responds.
Did you cave on the chips? Were you satisfied? Were you still hungry afterwards? Did you want more chips? Or did you want something else? All of these questions provide clues to how your body is responding and it doesn't take a lot of time to do a mental check in before, during and after you eat.
Sometimes, as daily habits are what they are, there's a lot of noise in our diets and it can be hard to notice if you're body is trying to tell you something. Remember when I said I didn't know how terrible I felt on the regular until I gave up on the daily drinking habit? That can happen with food too.
Lets say you experience a bloated feeling every day at the same time and you assume that it's normal since you just ate.
Now lets say you normally have chili cheese fries for lunch every day, but because you're trying to follow the 80/20 rule, you've switched it up for a grilled chicken salad for the past couple of days. Since you've started to pay attention, you notice that the discomfort you normally feel in the afternoon isn't happening. Now you have a little bit of knowledge to play around with. Maybe there's something in the chili cheese fries that doesn't agree with you? Maybe you'll start to notice similar side effects from similar ingredients during different meals?
Don't give up.
Rome wasn't built in a day. Celebrate the small successes and shifts you've been making. I can't put enough emphasis on focusing on how you feel in regard to diet and exercise. This is going to be a driving factor to determining your long-term success.
Creating positive associations between the habits you want to keep, how your body is responding and the benefits that you are enjoying from them is what keeps you going even when you don't feel motivated. It's learning to enjoy the process, not just the progress.
Again, by looking at how your body is responding and reaffirming that you feel better with the small changes you are creating a positive feedback loop for 'future you's' decisions. The next time it will become easier to decide between an apple and chips or chili cheese fries and a grilled chicken salad. If you feel better when you eat the higher quality foods, you will naturally start to choose the higher quality foods.