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Four Steps Toward Healthy Eating

By: Melissa Swank

Are you looking for easily achievable habits that help you step closer to the healthiest version of yourself?

In my experiences coaching people from all walks of life, one thing I've noticed is that knowledge about what's healthy isn't always the issue. While we do discuss healthy eating in coaching sessions, I often find that my clients weren't naive to the information we've discussed. Instead, they find themselves unable to act on the knowledge they have. There appears to be a disconnect between knowing and acting.

There's a disconnect between knowing what do to and acting on it.

It may come as no surprise that people don't act on what they already know they "should do" (and in fact, you may have experienced this yourself.) Action requires changes in behavior and habits, and our brains have already invested lots of time into trying to find the easiest, most painless way to keep ourselves going. Your brain has no interest in undoing the habits it created ⎻ it developed them for good reason. Habits allow the brain to think about other, more acute and time-sensitive issues; they provide a sense of security and certainty to our day; and they provide a confidence in pleasurable outcome (e.g., you know you'll enjoy that bacon cheeseburger you always order.)

It's this last component of habits that, I believe, is easiest to pacify.

1. Crowd Out

I completed my coaching training through the Institute of Integrative Nutrition (IIN)®️ and one of the key tenets they propose is called Crowding Out. While most diets suggest that you remove the unhealthy culprits from your diet, crowding out proposes that you add in other, healthier foods to eliminate the space typically left for less healthy foods. I love this concept for multiple reasons.

First, the concept makes sense. Our brains don't like being told what to do. In fact, the brain perceives this as a challenge to its freedom (a clinical phenomenon called psychological reactance). Think back to an instance when you received an unsolicited suggestion from someone (for example, your spouse saying "Aren't you on a diet? You shouldn't eat that."). What effect did that have on you and your motivation? Often times, the comment has the opposite effect it aimed to engender ⎻ it makes you defensive. While their statement might be correct and said with good intentions, the mere challenge to your brain's freedom is enough to send you reeling.

Additionally, eliminating foods might not give you the results you seek. Aside from removing soda from your diet (which has zero redeeming qualities), making the decision to remove specific foods or food groups without medical supervision might deprive your body of the nutrients it needs to stay healthy.

Instead, focus on how you might be able to add healthy foods into your diet. For example:

  • When you make your eggs in the morning, consider serving them to yourself on a bed of greens.

  • When you make dinner, serve your salad on your plate, then follow with your proteins and grains.

  • When you go to grab chips for lunch, start with some cut up carrots and sweet red pepper first.

2. Start Small

When faced with a large, daunting task, I've frequently fallen back on the old quip, "How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time." While I'm not suggesting that anyone should take up the consumption of pachyderms, it has always resonated with me that even achieving large and seemingly insurmountable tasks starts one step (or bite) at a time.

Speaking of bites, this mentality translates well into healthy living, too. We live in an immediate-gratification society right now; one where most people want to solve large health and wellness issues by taking a pill or addressing it once. Yet, like most things in life, solutions that seem "too good to be true" usually are. Changes to your health happen with changing your intentions and seeing progress over time.

Yet, there's good news.

As it turns out, actions don't have to be large. For example, I recently read in a study about the health benefits of nuts that just adding a handful of unsalted nuts to your diet each day (even if you change nothing else!) reduces your risk of developing cancers or other chronic diseases. You may be thinking, "What could a handful of nuts actually do to help my overall health?" And how would I see those benefits in real time? The answer is simple: the results add up over time. In the meantime, consider making these small changes to your mentality and the way you approach your lifestyle habits.

Let's take losing weight as an example. The overarching idea of "losing weight" is fairly daunting as it lacks specifics and measurability. You put it on without realizing it, so it'll take conscious effort to reverse the runaway train. I've heard from clients before, "there are so many things I could be doing better!" and my response is always, "Which one would you like to try first?"

Note that I said which one. Start by figuring out just ONE thing you could do differently. My husband has been making some small efforts to change his eating habits, and first change was to simply switch his mayo for avocado. This might not seem like much of a change, but for him, it was a place to start -- not only physically but also mentally. If he could handle this change without too much struggle, he might be able to tackle the next thing on his list.

So, how do you make shifts toward a more whole-food, plant-based approach to eating? One bite at a time.

3. Honor Your Bioindividuality

I asked someone once what healthy options they might enjoy bringing for lunch, and the person replied, "I don't know. You might be able to just eat salads, but I can't." Another time, a client mentioned some frustrations with a particular dietary theory, noting, "I don't understand. I did it 'by the book', but my friend got such better results."

The common thread between these two conversations is this: we aren't all the same and we shouldn't try to fit ourselves into the diets that work for others. Each of us requires a different dietary approach that meets our individual needs. This theory, called Bioindividuality, submits that everyone reacts differently to food based on their own genetics and microbiomes.

Let's back up for a minute and think about what food does for the body. After eating, your body breaks down food into smaller components and uses the nutrients to fuel body processes, rebuild tissues, and sustain function. In essence, your food helps create who you are. Similarly, your unique needs dictate which foods help your body function best. You would never look into a friend's medicine cabinet and think, "I should be taking THAT” -- you don't have the same needs as her! Similarly, looking at your friend's plate and assuming yours should be the same makes just as much sense.

There are a few irrefutable things in the field of nutrition and one of them is to eat more vegetables. All leading dietary researchers and governing bodies agree that everyone should consume more plants. But which ones? That's where the bioindividuality comes in! Just because your cousin loves brussels sprouts doesn't mean you need to force them down. Try broccoli or cauliflower instead.

The main message? Learn about what makes your body feel its best. It might take some trial and error, but eventually, you'll notice what makes you feel good and what doesn't. It's ok if the new "baby-food diet" (yes, that was once a thing) doesn’t work for you. It's better to think of what does work for your body and start from there.

4. Reframe "Diet"

What's the first thing you think of when I say "diet"? (Before you answer, did you take a deep breath and exhale to prepare?) Most of think of words like "fad", "deprivation", "complicated", "NO", "don't"...

As a culture, we've taken a perfectly normal word -- diet -- and villainized it. If you look it up in the dictionary, the word "diet" simple denotes the kinds of foods a person eats. Yet, we now think of "diets" and restrictive, dietary plans come to mind, such as Keto, Paleo, South Beach, Mediterranean, and even the Cabbage Soup Diet.

The thing about these restrictive "diets" is that going "on" one typically leads to "coming off" at some point. Whatever benefits you derived from going on a particularly restrictive diet will eventually fade away and you'll likely return to where you started. In fact, while the statistics vary, somewhere between one-third and two-thirds of individuals who lose weight on these diets put it back on within one year.

So, where does this leave you?

The key with diets is to think about making small changes to your dietary habits. What would happen if you just started including healthier options into your meals? How might it change your success if you changed your perspective -- from "I'm on a diet" to "I'm eating healthier now"?


In case you need a handy-dandy reminder of these tips, here's a quick graphic that you can post on your desk. Ultimately, it's about changing your mindset and your approach in small, manageable steps that, in the end, lead to big changes in your overall health and wellbeing.

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