5 places to start making eating changes

So you’re ready to make some changes.  You’re convinced an overall eating plan is the way to go, and that it will be created one step at a time.  You want to make some tangible goals to guide your efforts this week.  Where to start?

For some people this may be obvious, as they have a good sense of what they need to cut back on or change.  For others, it’s an overwhelming question because there are so many areas that could be changed that it is difficult to pinpoint the best place to begin.

Generally, most people are doing well in some aspects of their eating habits, but could make improvements in other areas.  It is very, very rare to find someone who has no area for improvement.  In my experience, there are five general areas where most people start to make changes, and when I performed diagnostic assessments in our first meeting, I would usually ask about all of these at some point.

If you’re not sure what area to tackle first take a look through this list.  Even if you know what you want to start with, read through this list anyways.  It will point out areas you aren’t yet focused on, and will give you ideas down the road.   Again, don’t feel pressured to make more than 1-2 changes right now.  I’ve worked with plenty of people who built up their weekly routines to hit all of these after 3 months, and they felt better doing it in a stepwise fashion because it was a gradual, controlled process.  Better to train for a marathon than to go out and run 26 miles on the very first day.  These are not listed in any particular order.

1)    Getting enough servings of fruits and vegetables.  5-A-Day, 5-9 servings, we all know we should be getting a lot, but most of us don’t get quite enough.  Don’t know what one serving looks like?  For now, don’t worry about that.  Ask yourself: do I get a piece of fruit or vegetable in with every meal?  More than one?  If you’re not then that’s a great place to start.  Generally speaking, swapping fruits or vegetables for other foods in your diet results in eating fewer calories, because the high bulk (from fiber) means that for the same space in your stomach, they pack in fewer calories.  Note this doesn’t mean to eat fruits or vegetables on top of what you normally have, it needs to be a substitution to be effective.

Possible SMART goals include:
-Get a piece of fruit or vegetable in with [pick a meal: breakfast, lunch, dinner, midafternoon snack, midmorning snack, etc.], and do it [choose a frequency: daily, each day of the workweek, every other day].
-Have a salad with [pick a meal: lunch, dinner], and do it [choose a frequency: twice this week, a small salad daily, on the weekend].

If you choose a non-daily frequency, think through now which days to make your change.  Do you want to space it out, say Tuesday and Thursday?  Does it make more sense to do this on a weekday, when your schedule is more regular, or on a weekend, when your schedule may contain more free time?

2)    Not eating at regular intervals.  To keep your body’s metabolism most active it must be fed every couple of hours.  Otherwise it becomes unsure when the next meal is coming in and goes into conservation mode, burning fewer calories, storing more calories when you finally do eat.  This is the idea behind the “eat many small meals” mantra touted by nutritionists and celebrities alike.  Also, spreading meals out through the day helps reduce large spikes in blood sugar.

So what does this look like?  It might mean not eating breakfast (more on breakfast in a later post), skipping lunch, going more than 4-5 hours between meals, having a tiny breakfast and lunch and consuming most calories during dinnertime.  This can be one of the hardest areas to change because food habits start young and stay with us for years.  Still, if you are open to building in a midmorning piece of fruit or 100 calorie snack bar, or a similar midafternoon snack, the results can be dramatic.  No rumbling stomach when you get home that prompts you to overeat at dinnertime, reduced afternoon drowsiness, more energy all day long, these all can happen when blood sugar levels are evenly distributed through the day.

Just remember, the idea isn’t to add more food on to what you eat daily, but to redistribute the calories over an additional “snack” or small meal, or two.

3)    Eating too many sweets or other junk food, including soda.  This is huge.  Junk food and soda are empty calories because they provide no nutritional benefit, but take up calories anyways.  They also tend to be pretty dense in calories, so cutting out a few will have a big effect.  One soda has 150 calories.  One soda per day is 900 calories each week, which is about a pound per month, or 12-13 pounds every year.  Cutting out that one daily soda is a small change with a big impact.

Again, if you find yourself eating too many sweets or junk food, ask yourself:
What do I tend to eat?  Salty?  Sweet?  A favorite?  Anything that’s around?
When do I tend to eat these?  For breakfast?  To stave off late afternoon drowsiness?  After dinner?
Where am I at this point?  Home?  Work?  In front of the TV?
Why do I tend to eat them?  Boredom?  No time for a real meal?
How am I feeling when I eat them?  Am I stressed, tired, angry, sad, frustrated?

Even if you know exactly where your weakness lies when it comes to junk food, these questions identify additional factors that come with this eating habit.  We never act in a vacuum.  Our environment, the people around us, our life histories all impact what we eat, when we eat it and why we eat it.  If you always have a bag of chips or popcorn immediately after work and before dinner, is it because you’re starving because you didn’t eat lunch or go 6 hours between lunch and dinner?  Is it your way to unwind after a long day of work?  Do you associate popcorn with certain emotions or times of the day?  Or do you just really, really like popcorn?

Once you answer these questions it becomes easier to see what accompanying changes need to be made to support a change in this early evening popcorn habit.  Maybe a small snack on the way out the door from work to home will satisfy the munchies until dinnertime, eliminating the need for popcorn.  Maybe there are other ways you like to unwind, like a bath and a magazine, gardening, or otherwise tinkering with your hands.  If popcorn is associated with certain emotions, think about where that link comes from.  In the past, what other activities have helped when you feel those emotions, and can you incorporate one of those into your early evening routine?  And if you just really, really like popcorn, my suggestions are twofold: healthier popcorn, and smaller serving sizes.  You can buy the no butter individual –serving packages and then drizzle a bit of olive oil over the top, which acts like butter but is healthier for you, and is certainly healthier than the artificial butter they use.

As you can see, some food habits require “supporting habits” or accompanying changes.  If you set a goal to stop eating popcorn after work but don’t create any supporting habits, this creates frustration and

4)    Portion control.  Even if you’re eating the right foods, if you consume too many of them, weight control will be an issue.  More tips on portion control in a later post, but possible SMART goals include limiting seconds to a couple times a week, ordering smaller portions when eating out, serving food in smaller plates or bowls,

5)    Frequently eating out or eating impromptu vending machine meals.  This generally speaks to lack of time or lack or advance planning so that we are forced to grab food from the nearest available source.  Restaurant meals and vending machine snacks are higher in fat, oil, sugar and salt than foods prepared at home.  If this is a problem area, if the goal is to cut down on the number of impromptu vending machine meals or meals eaten out during lunch or dinner, a supporting habit is advance planning around grocery shopping.  Half an hour a week of planning results in healthy meal or snack items that can be stored at work or at home.  By stocking up on healthy alternatives, there eliminates a major driving force behind the problem.

Pick one or two items off this list to try, or maybe this post sparks thoughts of other eating habits to tackle.  Set a goal for this week for yourself.  Be specific, right down to the time of day.  And let me know how it goes!

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