Why is it that despite so many interesting foods in the world, we sometimes fall into a dietary rut? My family recognized how busy we all are and our health was suffering. We constantly passed each other coming and going, rarely joined together for a meal, and the grocery list was non existent. I found myself stopping at the grocery sporadically picking up what I could remember, and noticed I was buying the same things. For busy working families, lapsing into a boring menu routine may be due to a lack of time, planning, or know-how. Unfortunately, a lack of variety and a reliance on convenience foods come with unappetizing pitfalls.
The risks of a dietary rut
Eating the same foods frequently deprives you of the flavors and textures that make meals adventures and help you be a healthy eater. It also limits nutrient intake. “You need a wide variety of vitamins and minerals. In order to get them, you need to eat different types of fresh foods every day,” says Teresa Fung, adjunct professor in the nutrition department at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
Those nutrients should come from fresh vegetables and fruits, lean proteins, legumes (beans and lentils), nuts and seeds, healthy fats (avocados, olive oil), and low-fat dairy products.
Relying on prepackaged food or takeout meals can subject you to unhealthy ingredients like refined carbohydrates; saturated or trans fats; high amounts of salt; and lots of calories, preservatives, and additives. An unhealthy diet is associated with an increased risk for many chronic conditions, such as high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, and cancer.
Easy ways to bust the dietary rut
Fortunately, breaking out of a dietary rut isn’t hard.
- Get variety elsewhere. A lot of grocery stores have a good number of healthy, prepared foods, and you can pay by the ounce. Prepare the protein at home (like fish or chicken) and buying the side dishes — vegetables, whole grains, or salads — to bring home. Make it something you wouldn’t normally eat.
- Be adventurous. Try something unusual at least every other week. Make it yourself or get it from a restaurant. Caution: focus on vegetables or protein, and avoid anything with a lot of butter or cream. Need ideas? Pick a country and look up traditional dishes and recipes on the Internet.
- Try a subscription meal kit. You choose the menu on a website, and the premeasured, fresh ingredients arrive at your door. Go for something with lots of vegetables and whole grains, and a chunk of protein. There are many meal kit services. Two of the biggest are Hello Fresh and Blue Apron. Prices per person, per meal, range from $10 to $12.
- Cook in batches. Cook once or twice a week and eat leftovers in between. Make a large entree (like white bean soup), broil several chicken breasts, or cook a few side dishes (like brown rice, quinoa, or cooked spinach) that can be eaten throughout the week. It’s easier to cook 14 carrots in one day than two carrots per day for seven days in a row.
- Get your kids in on it. They’ll be more inclined to eat it if they helped prepare it.
A few more tips
We finally realized that the key to variety in our family meals was planning and shared responsibility. Now, in about half an hour on the weekend, we come up with healthy, interesting menus and shopping lists for the week.
We take turns or work together making dinner, and we batch-cook a lot of meals.
We recognized our challenges and agreed to try making changes, together. I’m not the only one planning meals and grocery shopping, we agreed to eat together at least once per week and get back on the health track!
When I reflect about ALL the ‘diets’ I have tried, followed, failed, and succeeded over the years, I realize they’re all the same. I see how they have come and gone like fads. We hope this will ‘be the one’ to shed the pounds, and quick! They are a place to start, not a place to end.
Most of the headlines emphasized the fact that the two diets researched, low-fat and low-carb, ended up having the same results across almost all end points studied, from weight loss to lowering blood sugar and cholesterol.
What’s most interesting, however, is how these two diets are similar.
What DIETFITS revealed about weight loss
The study began with 609 relatively healthy overweight and obese people, and 481 completed the whole year. For the first month, everyone did what they usually did. Then, for the next eight weeks, the low-fat group reduced their total fat intake to 20 grams per day, and the low-carb group reduced their total carbohydrate intake to 20 grams per day. These are incredibly restricted amounts, considering that there are 22 grams of carbs in my organic seedtastic whole grain bread I’m enjoying as I write this, and 20 grams of fat in half of the dark chocolate bar I enjoy (I eat one ½ inch by 1 inch square at a time).
That kind of dietary restriction is impossible to maintain over the long term and, as this study showed, unnecessary. Participants were instructed to slowly add back fats or carbs until they reached a level they felt could be maintained for life. In addition, both groups were instructed to
- eat as many vegetables as possible
- choose high-quality, nutritious whole foods and limit anything processed
- prepare food themselves at home
- avoid trans fats, added sugars, and refined carbohydrates like flour.
People were not asked to count calories at all. Over the course of a year, both groups attended 22 classes reinforcing these very sound principles — and all participants had access to health educators who guided them in behavioral modification strategies, such as emotional awareness, setting goals, developing self-efficacy (also known as willpower), and utilizing social support networks, all to avoid falling back into unhealthy eating patterns.
Participants in both groups also were encouraged to maintain current US government physical activity recommendations, which are “150 minutes of moderate intensity aerobic physical activity (2 hours and 30 minutes) each week.”
Get all that? Basically, the differences between groups were minimal. Both lost the same average amount of weight (12 pounds) over the course of a year. Genetic and physical makeups didn’t result in any differences either.
I love this study because it examined a realistic lifestyle change rather than just a fad diet. Both groups, after all, were labeled as healthy diets, and they were, because study investigators encouraged eating high-quality, nutritious whole foods, unlimited vegetables, and avoiding flours, sugars, bad fats, and processed foods. Everyone was encouraged to be physically active at a level most Americans are not. Also, this is a big one, everyone had access to basic behavioral counseling.
This study could have been called a study of sustainable healthy lifestyle change.
The best diet is the one we can maintain for life and is only one piece of a healthy lifestyle. People should aim to eat high-quality, nutritious whole foods, mostly plants (fruits and veggies), and avoid flours, sugars, trans fats, and processed foods (anything in a box). Everyone should try to be physically active, aiming for about two and a half hours of vigorous activity per week. For many people, a healthy lifestyle also means better stress management, and even therapy to address emotional issues that can lead to unhealthy eating patterns.
I don’t diet anymore. I love food that fuels my body and mind. I have adjusted my habits and routines to manage meal planning, shopping, and cooking so eating doesn’t feel like a chore. Food is on the bottom of my daily priority list, having a healthy body and mind for as long as I can is at the top. Here’s how I do that:
- I choose to live in harmony with others
- I choose to stretch and challenge my mind.
- I choose to be aware of and accept my true feelings.
- I choose to live each day consistent with my morals and ideals.
- I choose a work path that is consistent with my values, interests, and beliefs.
In addition to ongoing learning about the nutrition of food and the importance of exercise, the most important skill is mastering your mind. A re-trained attitude is the only map that can get you out of “dietville” once and for all.
Eating is a natural part of digestive rhythms set in your genes, largely controlled by two hormones, leptin and ghrelin. When these hormones are in balance, the alternation between being hungry and being satisfied is also in balance. But these simple facts about the physiology are beside the point when weight becomes a problem.
A Wellness-System Approach to Weight Control
The real problem with weight issues is holistic, involving a person’s entire lifestyle. A better approach to weight control is a wellness-system approach, which looks at everything that goes into being overweight: eating habits, sleep, self-image, core beliefs, exercise, and more. These elements are rarely isolated. Instead, they organize themselves into feedback loops. Like a train running around a circular track, letting passengers off and on at each stop, a feedback loop has inputs and outputs.
If much of your daily input is positive, you are creating mostly positive experiences. If your daily input is negative, the reverse is true. For anyone who has struggled with weight gain, it’s almost certainly true that there is too much negative input on a daily basis. Even the simple pleasure of eating can become part of the negativity, because mentally and emotionally, food has become part of a larger problem.
These feedback loops exist so that you can cope with life and hopefully thrive. Take one element—good sleep. The most basic function of sleep is to revive you when you’re tired and supply mental alertness when you wake up in the morning. But sleep can be thrown out of balance by all kinds of things: anxiety, pain, excessive noise, mental restlessness, habitual insomnia, night shifts at work, and so on. Far from being a simple mechanism, sleep adapts itself to a person’s lifestyle, and even though there is negative input, such as being too anxious to fall asleep, the body-mind will find a way to cope. Even the worst insomnia is marked by periods of sleep during the night.
Positive Coping Mechanisms
If you look at the coping mechanisms that make life positive, they aren’t a mystery. Here are the main ones that need to be reinforced every day:
- Good self-image
- Sense of purpose and meaning
- Contact with friends and family
- Giving and receiving love
- Good sleep
- Physical activity
- Alone time and quiet time
- Social support systems
- Absence of pain and discomfort
- Low stress levels
- Absence of anxiety and depression.
Coping with Weight Is Not About Diet
Although the list could also include “a nourishing whole foods diet,” let’s leave food out for the moment, because instead of attending to all of these positive reinforcements, people who struggle with weight are asking food to do too much of the work. For example, it becomes a surrogate for a good self-image or a quick fix for anxiety.
To cope with weight doesn’t come down to anything about diet; if it did, dieting would work. But only about 2 percent of dieters manage to lose at least five lbs. and keep it off for two years. Naturally, weight is much harder to control if a person indulges in a fatty, sugary diet with lots of snacking and fast food. None of that counts as healthy eating. But asking someone to give up the foods they feel compelled to eat is the same as saying, “Stop being compulsive.” If we could obey such an instruction, we’d all be at our ideal weight.
Looking from a wellness-system perspective, coping with weight means coping with how your entire life is going. Weight will come off and stay off when the other input in your daily life is so satisfying that food no longer looms as the first and foremost coping mechanism you rely upon. Overeating is a habit, no doubt, and habits stick around when they serve a purpose, however misguided. If you fulfill the purpose in a better way, the need for the habit decreases and in time goes away.
I advise taking a wellness-system look at yourself, with the intention of fulfilling your real needs in life:
- other positive elements on the list above
When you build a self that is life-enhancing rather than self-defeating, all kinds of problems decrease and vanish.
How to Add Positivity into Your Life
So, to go back to the image of a train circling the track, picking up and letting off passengers, you can start today by adding a little positive input and letting go of a little negative input. Your motivation must be positive on both sides. Whatever you choose to add or subtract, the choice must feel good. Willpower, self-discipline, being down on yourself, guilt-tripping, and denial don’t feel good, which is why the best laid plans of dieters always go astray. They are trying to force a change when the change doesn’t feel good. The inevitable result is a return to old, comforting habits, even when those habits have very little positivity left in them.
- Copy the list of positive inputs and put it up in a prominent place.
- Buy a weekly calendar with big spaces to write in.
- When you begin your day, consult the list and write on the calendar three specific things you intend to do that will add fulfillment to your day.
- At the end of the day, check off the ones you accomplished.
Positive input is easy to create. For example, under “Play” you can play a game with a child or a friend or by yourself, whatever brings you pleasure. Or under “contact with friends and family” there are endless choices, beginning with a friendly phone call.
The point is to choose something and follow through. Don’t give a thought to changing your dietary habits unless you feel good about the change, such as having frozen yogurt instead of ice cream or sharing one dessert instead of ordering two. Even fast-food chains now have healthier choices. When you become creative and at the same time maintain your positive input program, you are taking a wellness-system approach to coping with life, and that’s always beneficial.
The winter blahs can certainly get you feeling sleepy, lethargic, and downright uninspired. It’s cold and dark, and people tend to get worn down from the holiday festivities. Rather than fighting the feeling that tells you to hibernate, why not listen to your body?
According to Ayurvedic doctor Virender Sodhi, “Your body is nature’s pharmacy, it has everything you need to be healthy.” This refers to the process of listening to the signals that your body gives you and then acting on them. So, what does your body actually need when it’s saying, “Binge eat!”, “Stay indoors!”, or “Crawl under a pile of blankets and watch rom coms!”?
If you follow nature’s cues, days are shorter and nights are longer. This could indicate that a longer sleep time is necessary. When you feel tired and yet it’s only 8:30 p.m., that’s not time to muscle through and keep working, it’s time to feel your body and recognize ‘If I feel like it’s a lot later than 8:30, what can I do about this? Maybe I should go to bed?’
Getting a full night’s rest isn’t a sign of weakness—it’s a smart way to feel better and be healthier. A sure sign you need more sleep is if you are waking up already tired. Aim to get to bed early enough that you can wake up on your own without an alarm clock.
Crawling under layers of blankets can be a sign that your body is just not at its peak temperature. For some people, a warm snuggly blanket feels like a hug from a friend. If you check in with why you want that blanket on, maybe you’re trying to soothe yourself or maybe you are actually cold. When you have that desire to start snuggling under blankets, check to see what the temperature of your fingers and toes is. Then check your ears and nose. If these extremities are actually physically cold, it’s no wonder you want a blanket!
But what if you’re not cold? What if everything feels warm and you still have this desire? Maybe you need the emotional support a hug or the physical touch of a snuggle. A massage might be in order.
Humans seem to be slaves to their food cravings in these wintry months. This is a time to listen to your body. Be a detective. Think about what is it asking you to eat and then find a natural healthy alternative. If you’re craving potato chips, you could try plantain chips instead. If you’re craving chocolate, you could try carob mint bites. Your body is trying to tell you something; however, if your pattern in the past has been a quick hit of sugar, starch, or salt to fix this craving, you need to pay close attention to retrain those patterns. Winter is a time for warm, hearty, and healthy foods like stews and curries.
The days are shorter and sometimes this means your morning run or your evening dog walk are missed. Instead of removing these moments where you get fresh air, natural light, and exercise from your day, try to make time to get outside regularly during your lunch break or in the late afternoon. Schedule it! It is easier to accomplish something when it is on your calendar. The time outside will help you to feel less sloth-like.
Spend Some Time Alone
The last thing you might consider when you are wanting to hibernate is that it may be a sign that you need some alone time. The holidays are filled with parties, dinners, shopping malls, and airports packed with people. After this overstimulation it’s okay for you to want some time alone. Just because you love your family or enjoy your colleagues, it doesn’t mean you want to be with them all day, every day. If you’re feeling the need for space, give it to yourself. Alone and lonely are not the same. Spending some time alone can feel luxurious.
Cocooning in the winter means you can be freshly reborn in spring. Be gentle with yourself when you feel lazy. It doesn’t help at all to berate yourself for your lack of energy or inspiration. Stay cozy, fuel yourself with good food, and give yourself big bear hug. When you are ready, you can emerge revitalized and ready for great things.