By Health & Wellness Editor Kathy Whelan
It happens every year. By now, most New Year’s resolutions have lapsed. Many involve food because we know healthy eating is important. We make promises to ourselves then feel disheartened when we fall short. It’s easy to blame our lack of willpower, but there is a lot more to it.
Our food system itself can undermine healthy eating. Well-known functional medicine doctor and prolific author Mark Hyman, MD calls it “an internal breeding ground” for chronic conditions and diseases. It isn’t easy to be a healthy eater in such an environment.
To complicate matters, less wholesome foods in our grocery stores are sometimes difficult to identify. The FDA is trying to improve this, but at present we face confusing, conflicting and misleading information about what’s healthy and what is not. Diet programs that deliver only short-term results contribute to the problem. Our bewilderment and diet disappointments can erode our confidence when we try to eat healthier.
And confidence counts. Changes we see as important, but for which we lack confidence, are hard to make. Fortunately, we can boost our confidence by approaching our goals in thoughtful, well-designed steps. Working with what we can control, we put success within our reach.
To shape a plan for healthy eating:
See where you are now. Observe your current eating habits. Keep a food diary for a typical week to record what you ate, how much and when. It also helps to observe how you felt before, during and after eating. Identifying triggers that lead to emotional eating and noticing other non-hunger cues can provide valuable data on why you eat as you do.
Set a new goal. “Eating healthier” is too broad and vague to be helpful as a goal. Rather than try to revamp your whole diet at once, focus on a particular meal, time of day, behavior or dietary ingredient. You could zero in on eating a healthy breakfast, cutting out late night snacks, curbing stress eating or eliminating added sugar, for example. Choose one place to start and imagine how you’d like it to look 3 to 6 months from now, when it’s becoming a habit. Make your goal SMART – Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Realistic and Timed – to help you track progress and define success. A SMART goal for a would-be home cook might be this: “Three to six months from now, I will be eating restaurant dinners and take-out no more than once per week.”
Evaluate your timing. Question whether your goal is currently feasible. If you’re traveling, for example, can you cook? And ask whether it’s important to make this change right now. You might be better off with a different start time or a different goal altogether.
Decide what to take with you. Strengths and successes in other areas can reveal skills you could use in reaching your eating goal. Are you organized? A smart shopper? A good researcher? Recognizing these transferable skills is a confidence-booster.
Ask what else you need. We all have different levels of knowledge about healthy eating, so meet yourself where you are. If you need to learn more, consult a trustworthy source like the Healthy Eating Plate from Harvard’s Chan School of Public Health, which explains the basics of a high-quality diet and offers more in-depth information for those who want it. By understanding food labels, you become a food sleuth, able to uncover hidden ingredients in unlikely places. If you have limited time for cooking, identify a meal delivery service that aligns with your goal.
Choose where to start. We often try to do too much too soon. A first weekly step toward a more plant-based diet could be as simple as finding one vegetarian dinner recipe. Be patient and celebrate each small step you take, knowing that with each one you become a healthier eater.
Prepare for action. To bring healthy eating literally within reach, clear out foods you want to avoid and put healthier foods in prominent places. Pre-wash fruits and vegetables to make you more likely to eat them. Create a grocery list to avoid impulse purchases. Allocate time for shopping and food preparation. Anticipate barriers to success and plan how to get around them.
Share your plan. You are more likely to succeed if you share your plan with others. A trained health coach can provide additional support and accountability.
Finally, remember that there is no “perfect” eating plan. Yours should fit your unique life and include foods you like to eat.
Good Luck and Bon Appetit!
Kathy Whelan left a successful Wall Street legal career when her doctor warned that her lifestyle of overwork and lack of self-care were not sustainable. She had always been interested in the relationship between lifestyle and health, so eventually Kathy returned to her undergraduate alma mater Duke University to become a certified Integrative Health Coach, with additional training in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction. Integrative Health Coaching is based in the neuroscience of behavioral change. Kathy calls it the missing link in addressing individual and national health crises. It’s the foundation of her unique health and wellness coaching for corporate and individual clients. Kathy’s work has been featured in media including The Boston Globe. Learn more at www.whelanwellness.com