Fad diets and quick-weight-loss schemes are most often more trouble than they're worth - heading toward yo-yo weight gain, malnutrition and dehydration. (More on that in another post.) Needless to say, the most reliable and safest way to getting to and maintaining a healthy weight is changing your eating habits.
There is a lot of really valuable information in the field of nutrition, and the science is fascinating, and sometimes complex. Even with a degree in nutrition or with the help of personalized nutrition coaching, it can seem daunting. Especially starting out. (These six steps don't take the place of professional, science-based nutritional advice!)
These are my six guideposts to healthy eating. They aren't hard-and-fast rules or formulas. They don't require specialized knowledge or any specific measuring equipment. These are just my light-bulb moments: nuggets that stick with me and seemed "do-able" in my often-crazy life. Hope they help!
1. VARIETY - Deliberately introduce greater variety into my diet. New or alternative grains (look in the gluten-free area), different colored vegetables, a wide variety of fruits, daring spices, a spectrum of preparation (raw, grilled, baked, pickled, fermented), and so on. A key to a healthy diet is breaking out of the habitual, narrow range of familiar foods.
Part of this step is also to mix up my "normal" plate (what I would prepare for myself if I were alone, didn't care what I was eating, and had no concern for my health - basically what I ate when I was in college). Virtually all healthy plate guidelines across the globe now recommend at least half one's plate be vegetables and fruits. AT LEAST HALF! That's a lot of veg staring back at you, if you're not used to it. You might also try going gluten-free for a few weeks as an opening salvo, forcing yourself to branch out into another aisle at the grocery store..
The key is to really diversify one's diet: this step alone will go a long way to making sure you get all the proper vitamins, minerals, fats, calories and fiber that your body needs. You may find, too, that you feel full much sooner, with a lot of roughage in your tummy than fats, oils and meat. This isn't rocket science, but it isn't all that easy, either.
2. PORTION SIZE - A lot has been said about the American diet in regards to over-eating. We eat A LOT. But I don't think many of us realize how much is properly "enough." Looking closely and intentionally at recommended portion sizes for whatever we are eating is a profound eye-opener. One typical "serving" of meat in the typical American diet could more appropriately feed a small family. A serving size of almonds is fewer than a dozen almonds. Seriously.
If you can spend a week or two looking closely at - and sticking to - the actual "serving size" of most foods you'll find the variety mentioned above to be much more attractive, and you'll begin to see how much (or rather, how little) we really need to eat.
Often, people look at the calories on the label and can assume that is for the entire package, or whatever they can scoop on the plate. As a result, even with low-calorie foods, people can mistakenly consume far more calories than they are aware of. Understanding how big the "serving size" on the label gives a better idea of the real nutritional content of the food.
Now, this isn't exact science here, and there's also the fact that the stomach is a muscle that needs time to contract (after being stretched out for so long by bigger portions). This step is a consciousness-raising one, and knowing is half-the-battle!
3. AVOID PROCESSED FOOD - This might be the most beneficial step (if you can take it). Processed food is generally profoundly lacking in micronutrients, even if it comes from a good nutritious source. What the "processing" has done is remove everything but the calories, leaving us with a lot of quick energy but not a lot of nutrition. That energy (calories) is more likely to get stored as fat when it comes in such great quantities.
More importantly, however, we fool our bodies and minds into thinking we've "fed" our body while actually starving it from essential nutrients. I'm talking iron, calcium, vitamins, other minerals - things that help with digestion, metabolism, immune system health, brain functioning, muscle regeneration... basically everything our body needs to do to stay healthy. We need the caloric energy to work, sure, but we also need the tools to do the million microscopic functions that make a healthy body. Avoid (better yet, cut out entirely) processed meats, grains and other foods. Typically these are white, while whole-grain products at brown and freckled.
Processed foods also contain excessive amounts of sodium (salt) and refined sugar. This means no sodas, no hot-dogs, no white bread (buns, bagels, sandwiches), and all their culinary cousins. If you do nothing else for your health, give up processed food.
4. THE 80/20 RULE - "Always is always wrong, and Never is never right." We don't eat and drink just to nourish our bodies. We also take joy and companionship in eating and drinking. (Of course, any trip to a vegan Thai restaurant will show you how much joy there is to be had in healthy eating!) I'll admit that I'm not very likely to stick to any plan that doesn't allow me a little wiggle room, or a religion that doesn't allow me a little sin on occasion. A good rule of thumb is the 80/20 rule: eat well 80% of the time, and allow yourself 20% of the time to eat for sheer joy. Probably, most of us are eating the inverse proportion - 80% comfort food, and 20% what we know we "should" eat. If anyone can manage to do "the right thing" 80% of the time, we can't begrudge them a little crazy dance to blow off steam or throw themselves into a beautiful moment. Go easy on yourself. You deserve it.
5. DRINK WATER - Seriously. You almost can't drink too much water, and you're almost certainly not drinking enough. It is a ridiculous absurdity of our culture that we have such abundant access to clean and delicious drinking water, and yet our population walks around in a state of perpetual dehydration. Sip water all day. Make it a point of personal pride to beat yesterday's record for glasses or ounces or bottles of water. Infuse it with fruit or vegetables (have you tried two slices of peeled cucumber and a thin wedge of peach?!). I love to have a wedge of lemon in my water bottle and nurse it all day long, refill after refill. (Coffee, tea and sodas don't count, my friends.) Water is 100% nutrient, and a nutrient our body desperately needs to function well. This is hands-down the easiest step, but it could be a game-changer for you. Brighter skin, clearer mind, better digestion, easier poops, faster healing from wounds - these have all been attributed to higher water intake. Worst case, you pee more often. (Another excuse to get up from your desk... what's wrong with that?!)
6. YOU'RE NOT "ON A DIET", YOU'RE "ON AN ADVENTURE!" - Context is everything. If you think about changing your eating habits as a punishment or as a restriction, then you're setting yourself up for failure. And, if anything, you should be trying all kinds of new things with these guidelines! What you are experimenting with isn't "a diet" - that is, you're not trying something temporarily for a quick fix and then "going back" to your "normal" habit. You're exploring new worlds of flavor, texture, vitality, nutrition, energy, and stimulation! Friends will want to be at dinners you host because they know they'll be treated to something daring and new. You will be more brave and fearless - cooking with new foods and trying new tastes. Our civilization is unique in the history of humankind in the variety of foods available to us with so little inconvenience. Your mindset sets the tone for whatever you're doing - do it with gusto!
That's it. Those are my six principles for a basic diet improvement. It isn't rocket-science, or even high-level nutritive science. These are just what I can keep in mind: simple, relatively easy, high-return on investment, and with a little grace folded in for good measure (all things in balance!). Let me know how they work for you!