Spring has sprung, summer is quickly approaching, and you are likely dreaming of salad and sparkling water at your upcoming Memorial Day get-together. We know that a healthy diet and regular exercise are the two best ways to prevent or delay 80% of the chronic diseases we see in our country, but why is it so difficult? The answer (even if I had it) would require chapters, but what I would like to impart today is this: the biggest thing holding you back from getting started is starting.
As long as I have been on this earth, we have had a scape goat for our dietary woes. “Butter is bad, eat margarine,” “carbs are evil, go Atkins,” “the soda industry duped us, sugar is the worst” are just a few of the dietary themes over recent decades. With all of the fad diets to choose from, it can be overwhelming even deciding where to begin – is the Intermittent Southketocabbagepaleoterranean DietTM the right one for me? But nutrition doesn’t have to be so complicated. Many of the researched healthy diets that you hear about, have more in common than they do different – the differences get highlighted for the sake of marketing.
Veggies for half of every meal: Aim for a primarily whole food, plant-based diet. The easiest way to know: if it arrives in more than one layer of packaging, or is from one of the center aisles in the grocery store, it likely does not fit these criteria. Aim to have at least half of every meal include a fibrous vegetable. If you need inspiration, try googling the “MyPlate Method” for a list of vegetables (hint: potatoes don’t count).
No sweet beverages: Sweet tea, sugar-filled “sports” drinks, soda, and Starbucks need to be rare treats, not daily staples. Try substituting flavored sparkling water, adding lemon or mint to your water, or drinking your coffee with less milk and sugar.
Create a healthy snack toolbelt: I call this a toolbelt because you need the right snack for the right time. If you search 101 healthy snack ideas, you will have more inspiration than you need. What snack is in your glove compartment when you are hungry after a stressful day of work? What is in the front of your refrigerator when you feeling like “grazing?”
Remove temptation: My wife and I don’t keep chips in our house. I love chips. If they are readily available, I will invariably come home from a long, stressful day and eat a whole bag in one sitting on the couch. If I have to drive 15 minutes to the store to fill my chip craving (and I have!), I am much more likely to choose the healthier snack that I have on hand.
Keep track: This is the first step to being real with yourself and holding yourself accountable. Especially in the first weeks or months of making healthy changes. I encourage you to keep a food diary to build awareness for what you are putting in your body. You can do this on paper or download one of the many free apps such as MyFitnessPal.
Find a structure that keeps you accountable: As always, accountability is key when we are making changes that involve our behavior. I encourage you to find a friend or loved one who you give permission to help you stay accountable to your goals. If you don’t have someone who fits the bill, programs such as Weight Watchers or Noom have accountability as a big part of their structure.
Big results require big changes, long-term results require long-term changes: I encourage you to start with small substitutions and changes that you feel like you can maintain. I see so many people in my office who have lost 20-gained 25, lost 15-gained 10, and have yo-yo’ed over the years without being able to maintain. Nutrition is about much, much more than weight, but if your goal is to lose weight, it has to be something you can stick with.
Buffer against stress and social pressures: You wouldn’t bring vodka over to your friend’s house who you know regularly attends AA meetings and is in recovery from alcohol. You wouldn’t share your pain medicine with the family member who is trying to quit snorting opioids. Why do we get our feelings hurt and create so much social pressure around sharing unhealthy food with each other during gatherings and holidays? I encourage you to practice saying “no, thank you” – if you feel better simultaneously sharing your health journey, great, but this shouldn’t be a requirement.
For certain disease processes such as diabetes, high cholesterol, or autoimmune inflammation, these dietary generalizations may need to be honed to greater specificity. But for most of us, we just need to start. Why not invite your family to a Memorial Day celebration where everyone is encouraged to bring their favorite healthy dish, you all spend 20 minutes taking a brisk walk or swim, and share something you are grateful for in each person as the sun sets over the gorge.