For something to work, it has to become a habit. And for something to become a habit it has to be compatible with your life.
Nothing fits this description more than embarking on and (more importantly) sticking to a healthy eating plan. If you’ve been inspired by the current rise of healthy eating and living a healthy lifestyle – congratulations.
But with health bloggers achieving celebrity status and inspiring Instagram accounts showing skinny, beautiful, rich and glamourous young things sipping their green juice and eating their chia puddings, while casually dropping hashtags like #fitfam and #strongnotskinny, it’s pretty easy to convince yourself you need to throw out everything in your cupboards and spend your life savings on twice-weekly food hauls from Wholefoods.
Now, don’t get me wrong, if this works for you go right ahead. Obesity is a huge killer at the moment and recent studies have shown that an unhealthy lifestyle (smoking, drinking, inactivity) can increase the risk of conditions like dementia, diabetes and certain cancers. So anyone making healthy food choices needs to be applauded.
But my own personal experience with the pursuit of perfect health and my professional experience as a doctor and nutritional medicine expert has shown me that all too often making a huge lifestyle change that’s motivated by an unachievable goal is the perfect formula for failure and damage to self-esteem.
If you love your daily Starbucks, are a sucker for a Saturday evening takeaway and need a chocolatey dessert after every meal, chances are that becoming a raw vegan overnight will be a struggle. And even if the allure of looking like Beyonce or Gwyneth Paltrow keeps you focused on your new lifestyle for the first couple of days or even a week, it’s unlikely to keep you motivated in the long term.
So what can you do to find a style of eating that works for you?
1. Work out a clear goal. Decide what it is you actually want to achieve by changing your diet and although it may sound like a no-brainer, make sure this goal is actually related to food. I sometimes see clients who come to me for nutritional advice under the guise of gaining more energy or losing weight. But after a short discussion it becomes clear that they actually want to clean up their diet because it’s what a lot of seemingly happy and accomplished people are doing. Copying a popular diet trend may give you a sense of control and belonging in the short term, but is an unhelpful move if the goal you hope to achieve is emotional, not physical.
2. Once you know you have a goal that can be achieved by a dietary change (for example more energy, clear skin, digestive complaints or weight loss) work out which dietary change will help you achieve it. This is where expert advice comes in. There are too many well-meaning people unintentionally dishing out bad advice on the internet these days. Unnecessarily restricting your diet is not only dangerous, it also makes it hard to stick to a way of eating in the long term, which does huge damage to your self-esteem when you fail at an eating plan that others seem to be able to stick at with ease. This doesn’t mean you have to shell out hundreds of pounds on a nutritionist or dietician, just make sure that any free resources you do use are provided by a qualified expert.
3. Don’t aim for perfectionism. If you’re keen to cut out sugar from your diet because you’re experiencing out of control sugar cravings, weight gain and low energy levels, while it’s a good idea and likely to give you good results, I’s going to be hard to switch from drinking nothing but soft drinks and eating dessert three times a day to having no sugar at all. Don’t set yourself up for failure by trying to white knuckle it, instead try the 80-20 rule. I always tell my clients to eat well 80% of the time and throw caution to the wind the other 20%. By doing so you remain on the right track without feeling deprived.
4. Don’t listen to the haters. When you decide to fix anything about your life, people around you often feel uncomfortable because a change has also been thrust upon them. If you’re eating in a healthy manner, they may feel guilty because they ‘should’ also be eating better but aren’t ready to do so. The quickest way to alleviate that guilt is to get you to change back to your old ways and you may find they do this by mocking you or watching your mealtime habits closely and pointing out with glee when you’ve eaten something that seems unhealthy. The interesting thing is that the perpetrator’s actions are usually unconscious – it’s a knee-jerk response to feeling threatened. If you’ve got a friend, colleague or family member who falls into this category, rather than arguing with them or changing your style of eating to make them comfortable, simply limit food discussions with them and carry on doing what works for you.
5. Finally, don’t forget to do a stock-take. If you’re trying a new style of eating you need to check in with yourself every two weeks for the first couple of months. Are you getting results? Are you finding it easy to stick to? Are you actually sticking to it? Do you want to stick to it? If the answer to any of these questions is no, you’ll need to have an honest conversation with yourself. There is no shame in admitting that something you were initially passionate about isn’t working as you anticipated.
Lauretta Ihonor is better known as The Health Trend Doctor, You can find out more about her work here.