This post will not be a scientific presentation, nor does it replace consulting with a professional (your doctor, a nutritionist, etc.) but rather stems from my personal experience and readings.
Whether we want to look good, feel good or both, eating healthy foods (and avoiding the bad) is the first step to take. Yet most of us (including myself) find this extremely difficult. Why is that?
1) Don't oversee the psychological factors
Information on nutrition is widespread. Everybody knows what's healthy and what's not. Or at least the general guidelines: more fruit and vegetables, more lean protein, more fiber. Less fat, less sugar, less salt. Small portions. We know all that. We still don't eat healthy. It's not from a lack of information. Eating unhealthy is not the sign of a lack of willpower, either. Everybody wants to be healthy, to feel great, to look great. But there is a variety of psychological factors that lead us to bad foods (or too much food). Some examples: feeling bored, feeling stressed, feeling frustrated, feeling sad, needing love (hence the widespread syndrome of breakup-followed by-Haagen Dazs ice cream-binge). The first step we have to take is to equip ourselves with non-food, non-drink strategies when those psychological needs ask to be fulfilled. Out of respect for ourselves, let's find healthy ways to feel better: walking, reading, writing, talking to a friend, working out, singing, listening to music, petting a cat, taking a bubble bath. Find yours. Make a list on the fridge.
It may seem unnatural to plan ahead the food we're gonna eat, but you know the saying: if you fail to plan... you plan to fail. It's just too easy to go for the wrong foods in the whim of the moment. This is why, even if I work from home, every week day I "make a lunch". I decide ahead of time what I will eat on a given day. I prep it, too. There's no excuse to eat junk when there's clean and cut veggies waiting for you in the fridge, ready to be eaten. To be efficient, I always prep more food than I need at any given moment, then store it (or freeze it). That applies to everything from fresh fruit and vegetables to muffins and hot meals. I also pre-measure my portions, to make sure I will not eat too much carbs or too little protein (my natural tendency). I try to see my food as fuel, i.e., I pay attention to the nutrient contents of most of what I put in my mouth, instead of going for "emotional choices". This does NOT take the pleasure out of eating. What it does is bring back awareness into eating. Is this time consuming? To be honest... not that much. The time you spend prepping, you save it at meal times and snack times. It's ready: you grab it and eat it. Easy.
As fellow blogger Mark from Mark's Daily Apple puts it so well, we have to avoid "the slippery slope of just eating a bite". We all have foods that we can't resist. For some it is salty stuff (hence the chips adds that challenge you to "eat just one"). For some it's the sweets. We all know our weaknesses. I have noticed that when I eat something sweet, I just can't stop at one (cookie, candy, pudding, piece of cake or pie, doughnut, bowl of ice cream). When we indulge in our weakness food(s), it opens a huge gateway, and we find ourselves eating more, more and more of the bad stuff... until the bag is empty... or until we feel nauseated. In light of that, I have decided to treat my sugar addiction like an AA: if I'm unable to control the amount, then I shall not have any. (Of course there are exceptions to this: I do cheat occasionally, and one could argue that sugar overloads are not as damaging as alcohol overloads; but as a general rule, if I do not want to binge, I don't take the first bite. Not even a small one.)
4) Don't be a tease...
... to yourself. Don't put yourself in tempting situations. Don't be cruel to yourself. Especially if you're like me and don't trust your own self-control. I know people who can be very disciplined about food even when it's right in front of them. I am not one of those people. It might be sad, but I just don't have the ability to resist. Better to acknowledge it than deny it. All-you-can-eat buffets are a disaster for me. So. If I don't want to eat something... I just don't buy it. Period. How could you eat it if it's not in the house? I also do not walk through the "sweet aisles" at the grocery store, and I don't stop in front of any sweet counters or vending machines. I walk by... eyes closed if necessary!
To prevent cravings in the first place, here are some tricks: eat every 2-3 hours. Include some source of protein and some healthy fats. Avoid large quantities of carbs, especially simple carbs. Now if you do have a craving... a strong one... willpower and knowledge will not be enough. You need a strategy. One of mine is to chew gum. I always keep a pack of gum handy. After one cookie, if I hear my body scream for half a dozen more, I quickly throw some sugar-free gum in my mouth. It calms it down.
Your body is telling you something. Why are you craving this unhealthy food right now? Are you really hungry? Could you simply be tired or thirsty? Also, how do you REALLY feel after junk food, sweets, alcohol, and big meals in general? (If you feel great, this probably means you have to relearn all of your body's signals - it takes a little bit of time and hard work, but it can be done.) I have noticed that I really don't enjoy feeling very full. If I eat any more than a cup and a half of food in any one sitting, the pressure in my belly is uncomfortable. Also, as much as I love the feeling of sweets in my mouth, I know it usually ends up ruining my energy levels (and sometimes my mood) for the next few hours. Sugar lows do NOT feel good. I try to remind myself of that when I feel a craving.
All of us have a deficiency of some kind. Protein, healthy fats, vitamins, minerals, fiber, and even plain water... there is something you don't get enough of. Figure out what it is (MyFitnessPal website could help you with that), then find ways to add some to your diet. Many things can be "hidden" in foods you like, to help you get what you need without even noticing it. Vegetable purees, legume purees, fruit purees, frozen berries, seeds (pumpkin, sunflower, hemp, flax), bran, wheat germ, whey protein powder, plus spices like turmeric and cinnamon... I put them in my pasta sauce, soups, casseroles, stews, muffins, yogurt, smoothies, cereal, etc. Another strategy I have adopted: to improve my general hydration, I drink a tall glass of water first thing in the morning (before I shower), and another one about an hour before bed (closer to bedtime would impact my sleep for sure!) The rest of the day I drink normally. This still increases my total daily intake by 2 cups!
8) Avoid liquid calories
As much as we "work" on eating the right things, we sometimes self-sabotage with caloric drinks, that most often we oversee. What do you put in your coffee? Did you ever google your favorite drink to see what the nutrient contents are? You could be shocked. Same thing for pop, and even fruit juice! Fruit juice is NOT necessary in a healthy diet (fresh fruit is). I have gotten used to drinking my coffee with skim milk only, to dilute with water the very occasional glass of juice I have, and to drink plain water (or herbal teas) most of the time. Pop? I don't even like it, so it was an easy decision to leave it out. Now there is wine. I truly appreciate good wine with a good meal. But I have learned to make this very occasional, too. When I do pour myself a glass, I savor it fully. (And I make sure I cut down on other carb sources that day.)
9) Find your healthy pleasure
We eat for pleasure as much as we eat for fuel. This is just a fact. Good news: some things are pleasurable AND healthy. Find out which are yours. Then indulge daily. My healthy pleasures include Greek yogurt, plain almonds, salmon, mixed greens with olive oil, mixed bean salads (chick peas etc.), homemade vegetable soups, homemade guacamole, tomato sandwiches, ratatouille, sauteed bok choy, steamed spinach, asparagus or artichoke or endives with vinaigrette, and all kinds of fruit. I also love vegetables belonging to the Amaryllidaceae family: garlic, onions and leeks. They make everything taste better (and are super good for you).
No food should be a taboo food. Everything can be consumed in moderation. Nobody lasts very long on an unrealistic food plan. You can eat birthday cake on your birthday. But you don't need to eat some every single time a family member or a friend (or your kids' friends) have their birthday party. And you don't need to eat 2 pieces, then some on the following day. Also, if you fail, do not self-loathe. Do not let yourself feel discouraged. Learning to eat right is a process. It takes time. There will be successes and relapses. When this happens, don't look back. If it's in your belly, it's already too late to waste precious energy regretting. Just get back on track and make things right. Have a tall glass of water (or a cup of herbal tea), chew some gum, then plan your next meal better. And remember that an occasional slip does not ruin it all. In the long run, if you are reasonably consistent, you will get results. Just be patient.