January is a common time for making dietary changes. People everywhere are vowing to get fit, and eat healthier. As mentioned in a previous blog post
, drastic changes vowed in new year's resolutions seem to only last a few weeks.
Two years ago, I made some significant improvements to my diet, and I am proud to say, I am still doing the things I pledged to do 2 years ago.
Here's what I did:
Scrutinized My Current Eating Habits
I took a critical, serious, unforgiving look at what I was eating. No hiding from the truth. When I cleared away the denial, I found that my diet was heavy in starch, refined grains and sugar, and light in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, dairy products and proteins. The healthy stuff fought to make up less than half of my dietary intake.
Outlined My Nutritional Philosophy
Everyone, whether conscious of it or not, has a nutritional philosophy. Vegetarians and vegans are some obvious nutritional philosophies. There are what I call exclusionists - people who exclude a food category or ingredient. Vegetarians are a form of exclusionist, as is someone who excludes fried foods from their diet. Nutritional purists believe that everything consumed must meet a specific nutritional need, and don't believe in consuming any empty calories. And at the other end of the spectrum are gratificationists or worry-free-eaters, who eat with the primary goal of enjoyment, with little concern about nutritional value.
If I were to characterize my nutritional philosophy in one word: I'd call myself a moderist.
Here are the fundamental principles that make up my nutritional philosophy:
1. Eating serves 3 purposes: nutrition, energy and pleasure. A food might only serve one purpose at a time. I don't enjoy bananas very much, but I eat them on occasion because they offer a lot of nutrition. Bacon doesn't provide a whole lot of nutrition, but I enjoy it enough to make yummy noises on the occasion that I eat it. Once in a while, choices are limited, fierce hunger sets in, and I have to eat something simply because its there, because I am needing something in my tummy, and a food provides only energy. Often a food can serve 2 or 3 purposes at a time, that's even better.
2. No Exclusions. Food exclusions are pretty common, and work great for many people, but it is a practice that is not for me. If I like it, I am going to eat it. I may only eat a small amount, or not eat it very often, but I do not categorically exclude foods that I like.
3. Fat is necessary. I believe there is a common misconception that fat is bad and should be avoided. I've read many articles on nutrition. I believe fat is an important component of a healthy diet. It aids in absorption of many nutrients, is needed for a healthy immune system, and slows digestion allowing you to feel full longer. Though fat should be limited, I absolutely do not believe it should be excluded.
4. Carbs are necessary. No-carb or low-carb diets are a pet peeve of mine. Fruits, veggies and legumes are all carbohydrates that are very healthy.
5. Protein is necessary. I haven't really heard much anti-protein rhetoric like I have anti-fat and anti-carb, but just thought I'd include it so that it's not excluded.
6. Empty calories ARE necessary. This means junk food, desserts, snacks, chips, etc. This is covered a bit in item 1, but I want to reiterate. Some eating should be done just for pleasure. It needs to be done in moderation, and should not be done instead of eating healthy foods. But, if you eat a balanced diet that includes the proper amounts of all food groups, and exercise, I see nothing wrong with treating yourself to a modest serving of your favorite dessert at the end of the day.
7. Healthy foods don't always taste great - eat them anyway. Again, this is covered in item #1 above, but I also wanted to reiterate. Sometimes you should eat something just because it is good for you.
Set Nutritional Goals
We all have a pretty good idea of what a balanced healthy diet should be. Fruits, veggies, lean protein, low fat dairy products, and whole grains should be a part of our daily intake.
I looked at what I was doing, looked at where I should be, and factored in my nutritional philosophy - and came up with these daily goals:
1. At least 2 servings of veggies.
2. At least 2 servings of fruit.
3. At least 2 servings of protein.
4. 2 servings of low fat dairy
5. Limit refined grains (white bread, rice, pasta) and junk food (chips, crackers) to 1 serving. I could either have a refined grain, or a junk food, not both.
6. Limit desserts/sweets/candy/etc to 1 serving a day.
I decided that I should do these things 'nearly every' day. That would mean 6 out of 7 'normal' days per week. On vacations, holidays and other special occasions, I relax my goals quite a bit. I do not expect to be perfect, and some days I simply give into temptation. Having a few bad days does not equate to failure.
Monitored Intake for 2 Weeks
I decided that for 2 weeks, I would monitor EVERYTHING I ate. Yes, it's a lot of work and a pain in the butt, for 2 weeks, it was worth it.
For 2 weeks, I didn't eat ANYTHING, until I figured out how many calories the item had, AND wrote it down (ok - I typed it into a spreadsheet - ok - it was really a database that I had programmed, but we are getting away from what is important). I read the nutrition labels, measured, weighed, counted, researched, and calculated. For 2 weeks, I knew the caloric content of absolutely everything that went in my mouth. If I was going to go out for a meal, I went online, found the menu, studied the nutritional information, and selected what I was going to eat before I left the house. Two weeks. Yes, long term this is not a practical approach, but I believe anyone can do this for 2 weeks.
This was a tremendous eye-opener. I learned that a 'serving' of Chex Mix was a half a cup, and was 120 calories. I learned that some of my favorite entrees at popular family restaurants (Applebees, Chilis, etc) contain up to 1900 calories. Even popular restaurant salads, which many people think would be low in calories, could be well over 1500 calories. I learned that most standard store bought cookies are about 60 calories each.
Made Daily Changes
It's one thing to know what you should do, it's another to make changes that you will actually stick with.
I have one huge advantage over most people when it comes to what I eat: I work at home, and I can eat whatever I want at any moment during the day. Healthy foods are just 10 feet away.
I also have one huge disadvantage: I work at home, and I can eat whatever I want at any moment during the day. Chips, cookies, junk food and desserts are just 10 feet away.
Here are some of the daily changes that I have stuck with for 2 years.
1. Frozen veggies for lunch. I found a frozen veggie blend that I really like. It has broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, corn, snap peas and water chestnuts. I put a single serving in a glass bowl, top it with a tiny pat of butter, zap it in the microwave for 2 minutes. Add salt and 'Pasta Sprinkle' from Penzeys. This works great for me. Its fast, easy, cheap, and reasonably yummy. I bet I eat this 355 out of 365 days a year, or more.
2. Instead of high starch snacks, I switched to nuts. I used to eat pretzels or snack mix or crackers for a snack nearly every day. I love nuts. Though higher in fat, nuts offer more nutrition than starchy snacks. My favorite is roasted almonds. I have a small serving - about 100 calories worth, just about every day.
3. Apple every day. I really do eat an apple every day.
4. No dessert until I have had my 2 fruits and 2 desserts. Usually. Sometimes I am lax, and only have 1 fruit and 1 veggie. But overall, I am pretty good with this rule.
5. Eggs. I eat an egg + 1 egg white, nearly every day for lunch. Good protein. Fast, easy, quick, convenient.
6. Switched from white bagel to whole grain toast for breakfast.
You may notice there is not a lot of variety in my breakfast and lunch. That's true. It works for me. I have a lot of variety for dinner, and try new recipes and ingredients regularly.
These 6 reasonable changes have helped me make big improvements in my nutrition. I'd say I have about an 80% daily success rate with my goals outline above. Not perfect, still room to improve, but it is definitely better than where I was 2 years ago.
I can directly attribute my nutrition changes to one positive outcome. I enjoy desserts a lot more now than I used to. I think this is because I feel like desserts are earned, and therefore more special. I choose a dessert much more carefully, and savor it much more.
I can speculate that my nutrition changes have contributed to one other positive outcome. I have not been sick for more than a day in the last 2 years. I never got sick very often before. I'd get a flu that knocked me on my butt for a few days about every other year. In the last 2 years, I have avoided the flu. I might have had a mild cold somewhere in there, but nothing that knocked me on my butt.
My races times have also significantly improved. I have had numerous PRs in the last 2 years. This might be a coincidence, or only a partially contributing factor. Either way, it does help me stay motivated to stick with my nutrition goals.
Your Own Resolutions
As I mentioned in the earlier blog post, resolutions should be about moderate changes that improve your life. They should not be about being perfect.
Nutritional goals are a very individual and personal thing. I don't think anyone is perfect when it comes to nutrition, nor do I think that should be a goal. I think most people have a desire to improve their nutrition.
I hope this article sparks some ideas of your own for improving your nutrition, motivates you to make changes in order to achieve your goals, and allows you to enjoy eating.