SALT LAKE CITY — Nutrition can feel very confusing and overwhelming. It seems that everyone has an opinion and claims absolute truth with their eating style or diet plan.
Add to that possible health concerns, needing to accommodate many different appetites within a family and the societal pressures on body image, and it’s easy to choose one of two things: throw your hands up in despair or go on a diet.
That all-or-nothing attitude — not the food — is really your worst enemy when it comes to eating. That’s why I like to help people live more in the gray, and go with something that feels more moderate and flexible, while also helping them take responsibility for their health and well-being. Here are four tips for how you can honor your health without it feeling overwhelming, obsessive or preoccupying.
1. Balanced meals
Diet culture would teach you to cut out foods or food groups, which only results in unsatisfying meals. This is particularly true for carbohydrates and fats — two food groups often villainized.
However, including carbs and fats, along with protein and a fruit and/or vegetable will help to stabilize blood sugar levels, reduce cravings and prevent you from getting overly hungry. Balanced meals will give you the sustainable energy you need to push away from the table to live your life for a few hours without needing to think about food.
This means an omelet at breakfast will feel more satisfying with a piece of toast with avocado or butter. Your sandwich at lunch will keep you full longer if you use bread instead of a lettuce wrap, adding a fruit or a vegetable as a side instead. Adding rice or a potato to your chicken and vegetables at dinner will likely result in less nighttime snacking than if you had gone without them.
It’s easy in the nutrition culture we live in to equate healthy eating with restrictive eating, but I definitely maintain that healthy eating is actually flexible eating and inclusive of a wide variety of foods. When your eating patterns have variety and are flexible, you’re less likely to behave in chaotic ways around food. Feeling full and satisfied from your meals and snacks is your solution. Not feeling full and satisfied is what leads to problematic behaviors.
2. Listen to hunger/fullness cues
We are all born with tools to self-moderate food choices. This is largely done by listening to the way our body communicates its needs to us through hunger and fullness signals. Too often we get too busy to listen or we quit listening because we listen to some sort of external indicator instead like a clock, a diet, food rules or even a well-meaning caretaker that tells us when to eat or stop eating.
However, even if you have ignored those signals, they never actually leave you. With practice, you can redevelop the ability to hear and respond to hunger and fullness cues. I would recommend being intentional about doing that, by actually recording your level of hunger before eating and your level of fullness after eating. You may find that you are actually really good at knowing when and how much to eat as you gain practice with listening to, respecting and responding to hunger and fullness cues. Here is a hunger scale to help — try to stay in the green zone most of the time.
3. Eat regularly
Hunger and fullness cues could feel unreliable at first, especially if eating habits have been haphazard or chaotic. You should be intentional about checking in on your level of hunger every three to four hours. On occasion, you could probably go five hours, beware of getting overly hungry, which leaves you less than level-headed about food choices.
It’s important to be proactive in meeting your needs, especially as you are learning new ways to behave around food. Getting overly hungry could lead to chaotic eating, which would only reinforce the belief that you can’t self-moderate without rules. Keeping a somewhat regular pattern of eating each day will create more positive experiences with food where you are more likely to feel confident in your ability to meet your needs. Essentially, you’re avoiding becoming reactive with food by being more proactive.
4. Meal planning
Lastly, I would recommend having a plan for meals throughout the week. It doesn't need to require a lot of prep work or hours in the kitchen, but I do think it’s wise to plan ahead. What most people are looking for in a diet is a plan, structure and more predictability, which we can reproduce without the diet. Everyone’s meal planning techniques are different and you can work with a registered dietitian to ensure your meals and snacks are balanced, adequate and realistic for you.
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