What is ‘healthy’ eating?
The concept of healthy eating extends FAR beyond food choice alone. We need to look past the physiological aspect of food and address the psychological & emotional aspects of nutrition.
Sustainable, healthy eating is NOT about deprivation, restriction, or dichotomizing our food choices into ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Rather, it describes our overall diet pattern, ‘how’ we eat (not just ‘what’ we eat), and our collective eating behaviors. Healthy eating also extends far beyond just weight-loss.
Due to the ambiguous nature of the word ‘healthy’, we don’t have a clear, or conventional definition of what constitutes ‘healthy eating’.
That being said, healthy eating generally describes a mindset, and dietary pattern that emphasizes a variety of nutrient-dense foods in appropriate portions, and promotes a pattern of intake that is conducive to long-term health & well-being.
Sustainable, healthy eating can be summarized as a diet that:
- Improves your health and increases your quality of life
- Provides the body with adequate fuel & essential nutrition
- Delivers a diverse and robust nutrient profile
- Allows you to live a balanced & active lifestyle
- Makes you FEEL good
Reject the ‘Quick-Fix’ diet
Before going any further, check out our article on How To Spot Red Flags in Diets,
Unfortunately, many of quick fixes not only fail to address the underlying problems but may also negatively impact your overall health.
On the other hand, sustainable healthy nutrition is a multi-faceted, long-term approach to food and eating that emphasizes food quality, behavior change, and mindfulness. It is not a quick fix or a fad diet, but rather a sustainable approach to nutrition that can be incorporated into a well-balanced lifestyle.
What is a ‘Quick Fix Diet’?
A quick fix generally refers to an immediate remedy, especially a temporary one, that requires minimal effort.
In the context of nutrition, especially when it comes to weight management, a quick fix might be referring to a ‘special’ diet, or supplement that promises quick and easy results.
Long-term nutrition is based on the principles of a balanced and varied diet that includes a wide range of nutrient-dense foods. There is also an emphasis on whole foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats. It also means reframing our approach to fast food and convenience items by regulating the frequency at which we are consuming heavily processed foods, added sugars, and saturated fats.
Sustainable healthy eating is NOT about restrictive eating or dietary elimination, but about striking a balance that can be maintained for a lifetime. It is about making small, sustainable changes over time that we can successfully integrate into a fulfilling, healthy lifestyle.
Integrating healthy, sustainable eating habits into our lifestyle isn’t easy, and it often necessitates behavior change and a shift in mindset. Although it takes more time, and a lot more effort, these changes are far more likely to be sustained and lead to long-term success.
‘Good’ vs ‘Bad’ Foods
It is human nature to categorize and ‘label’ things to simplify, organize and quickly understand new information.
We often do this with food by assigning labels ‘good’ or ‘bad’ to quickly evaluate the nutritional content of a given item. However, food labels can be problematic for many reasons.
Firstly, labels imply that certain food items are inherently healthy or unhealthy, when in fact, the nutritional value of any given food is dependent on MANY factors (portion choice, frequency of consumption, method of preparation, degree of processing).
Additionally, one person’s perception of ‘good’, or ‘healthy’ may be quite different from another person’s perception of ‘good’ or ‘healthy’. Furthermore, the utilization of food labels can be detrimental to our relationship with food, and foster an unhealthy mindset toward nutrition.
Instead of using food labels, it may be more productive to focus on:
- Food quality & nutrient density
- How certain foods make you feel
- Diversity and variety in food choice
Inclusive Nutrition Mindset vs Exclusive Nutrition Mindset
Many of us intuitively gravitate towards an exclusive, or avoidant mindset when it comes to nutrition. This is likely attributable to the popularization of diet culture in the media and elimination type diets that promise quick results.
As a result, we are conditioned to believe that we need to exclude certain foods, particularly those that we perceive as ‘bad’ (i.e carbs, sugar, fat, bread, etc.) to improve our eating habits.
As we know, restrictive eating patterns are problematic for several reasons and can be extremely difficult to adhere to long-term.
Instead of an exclusionary mindset, it may be more productive to adopt an inclusive approach that encourages balance and flexibility in one’s diet by including more nutritious foods. Actively seeking out and increasing our consumption of nutrient-dense foods not only improves the quality of our dietary intake but inherently decreases the proportion of less nutritious foods.
“Include foods high in micronutrient content rather than exclude foods that aren’t high in micronutrients.”
This approach can be more sustainable and can help to foster a positive relationship with food, which is crucial for long-term success.
Behavior Change Around Healthy Eating
Long-term success and sustainability are contingent on our underlying nutrition habits. To ensure long-term adherence, we need to reframe our mindset and address those underlying food behaviors. We can’t expect to make meaningful changes to our nutrition choices without changing the way we think about our nutrition choices.
Keep in mind that behavior change takes time, and it’s not going to happen overnight. To increase your probability of success, you need a plan, patience, and commitment.
Start by establishing SMART Goals
We’ve all heard it before, but establishing SMART goals provides us with a valuable framework for success.
After all, a goal without a plan is just a wish.
Start by defining your goal, and digging into the ‘why’. This allows us to identify what you want to achieve, and why you want to achieve it (building intrinsic motivation). It also provides insight into what changes need to happen to achieve those goals.
Make sure your goals are realistic, and that you identify the desired outcomes and subsequent markers of progress. Make sure your goals contain a time element and are ACHIEVABLE, that way you are building momentum and setting yourself up for success.
Make Small, Sustainable Changes to Your Diet
We need to ditch the all-or-nothing mentality. Rather than trying to overhaul your entire lifestyle, start by making simple changes that are easy to sustain.
Radically changing every component of your diet and lifestyle, all at once, is a near-guaranteed way to burn out before we’ve had the chance to make these changes a habit.
Implement Self-Monitoring Strategies for Healthy Eating
Keep track of your progress. If we don’t keep track of progress and small indicators of success, we may not even realize how well we’re doing! Additionally, this is a great way to stay motivated while you work on your habits & behaviors.
Identify & Reduce Barriers To Success
Reduce friction and increase your likelihood of success by clearly identifying, anticipating, and removing barriers that may prevent you from achieving your goals. This is one of the first steps that Dietitians and Nutritionists will initiate.
For example, simply planning your meals & snacks the night before can reduce reliance on convenience items, and reduce the likelihood of impulse eating. In turn, this may help you stick to new eating habits, even when you are busy.
Also consider the stakes of each metric for success. If you’re dealing with chronic disease or heart disease, there might be some strict guidelines to manage that aspect of your health – for good reason!
Make it easier to access healthy food
Once you’ve identified potential barriers, you can now work on increasing access to the tools and resources you need to integrate a new habit successfully. This can be done by replacing undesirable behaviors with a new, more positive behavior.
If you struggle to eat enough fruit, make it more accessible by keeping a bowl on the counter. If you forget to drink enough water, make it more accessible by keeping a water bottle by your side.
Mindfulness at meals
Be present, engaged & mindful of your eating. This will help you increase your food awareness, and be more in tune with your hunger & satiety cues. By being mindful, we are more likely to make better food choices, consume more appropriate portions and reduce incidences of overeating.
This might mean turning off the TV, putting away your phone, and limiting distractions when you’re eating.
Health professionals across many disciplines are now seeing the importance of mindset and mindfulness.
Patience and Consistency
We’re in this for the long game, right? Remember that sustainable nutrition habits aren’t built in a week.
Many of us perceive small changes as insignificant, or not worthwhile. This is often because we don’t see, or feel an immediate benefit from making the ‘small choice’.
But making the ‘small choice’ consistently is what leads to BIG change over time.
Be patient, and understand that we’re striving for consistency, not perfection!
Keep in Mind…
Comparison is the thief of joy! Stop comparing yourself to others, we’re all on our own journey. Progress is relative to you, and your baseline habits (we all have different starting points!). Our relationship with food and nutrition get much better if we’re not holding it to unrealistic expectations.
The changes we make, and the resulting progress is relative to where we started. Just because you don’t look like Jason Mamoa after a couple of weeks doesn’t mean you aren’t making progress or great strides toward it!
Rigid vs Flexible Constraint
The concept of rigid versus flexible constraint is very similar to the idea of quick-fix versus long-term sustainability.
In the context of nutrition and eating behavior, a rigid approach is often characterized by a set of strict ‘rules’ (i.e: “I can’t eat Wendy’s, no matter what!”) that is imposed with a lack of flexibility – even when context and circumstances change (ex: birthday parties, family gatherings, etc.).
In contrast, a more flexible model allows for occasional indulgences and special occasions, while still sticking to the general parameters of healthy, sustainable eating.
In many cases, a rigid approach leads to frustration, heavy restriction, and feelings of dissatisfaction. It may also foster the idea that there is an end to these ‘undesirable’ eating behaviors (i.e “I won’t have to eat like this forever!).
A more productive approach is to adopt a flexible model and work on establishing clear boundaries that incorporate some degree of constraint, but are still conducive to long-term sustainability and goal achievement.
It’s important to note that each person will have a different optimal ‘balance’ between flexibility and rigidity that works best for them. Finding this balance can be a challenge in itself, but it is essential for a sustainable, long-term approach.
One fundamental part of healthy eating is portion control. Knowing how much your body needs to critical to appropriately fueling your body, and improving your health.
Portion control is the practice of choosing appropriate amounts of certain foods to derive the nutritional benefit of each food item without overeating. A key component of portion control is being mindful of the amount of each food item consumed during a meal, and working towards well-balanced meals that are composed of good proportions of the food groups.
It’s important to note that portion control isn’t about avoidance or restriction, rather, it’s about learning how to put together well-balanced meals, and listen to your hunger & satiety signals. Furthermore, portion control not only refers to the quantity of food but also to the quality of food.
Using the ‘Plate Model’ can give us a visual depiction of what a well-balanced meal might look like.
By adjusting the proportions of our meals and trying to make 50% of our plate vegetables, 25% lean protein, and 25% carbohydrate, we can more intuitively control caloric intake, and consume well-balanced meals that deliver a good variety of nutrients.
Consider the plate model to contextualize this example:
Use a smaller plate
Of course, this is largely dependent on the size of the plates that you are currently using. However, if you’re accustomed to using those extra-large plates (think restaurant style), simply using a smaller plate can be a helpful strategy to inherently reduce food volume and portion selection.
Familiarize yourself with serving sizes
It can be a challenge to choose appropriate serving sizes when we don’t know what an appropriate serving size is ‘supposed’ to look like. There are a variety of strategies that can help to calibrate your visual gauge, but I generally recommend the short-term use of measuring cups & utensils.
If you tend to eat very quickly – slow down! Eating more slowly helps to increase our awareness of hunger and fullness signals (these take time to kick in!), and can help to regulate our portions.
Plan Ahead For Healthier Eating
Planning is an integral component when it comes to long-term success, especially when we are trying to improve our eating habits.
Planning provides us with direction and can help to strategize our meals and snacks. Moreover, planning our meals can help to ensure we are consuming a variety of quality food items, and avoiding the impulsive consumption of highly processed convenience items, or fast food.
Planning can make it easier to stick to your nutrition goals, even when circumstances change.
The first step is coming up with a food plan for the week.
We can start by deciding what we’re going to eat. Generally, this step takes the longest – but it will save a ton of time and frustration at the grocery store. Browse recipes for inspiration, and don’t be afraid of leftovers, or repurposing meals from earlier in the week. There is no need to cook something different for every meal, every day (unless you want to!).
Once we’ve come up with a tentative plan for our meals and snacks, we can start putting together a grocery list. Break down the foods & ingredients you need for your meal plan, and make a list of what you already have at home and what you need from the grocery store.
Once we’ve picked up the necessary items, we can start prepping our meals. Keep in mind that meal prepping doesn’t have to be ultra-intensive! It can be as simple as pre-chopping vegetables and leaving them in a container in the fridge (increasing accessibility during cooking).
Or, consider batch-cooking (cook once, eat twice!) to ensure healthy leftovers are easy to grab and ready to go for the next day.
Meal prep can be as simple, or elaborate as you like, but the main objective is to reduce barriers throughout the week by making nutritious, easy choices more accessible. Moreover, planning and prepping foods ahead of time allows us to have items on hand, or readily available to avoid extreme hunger throughout the day (because nobody makes good food choices when they’re ‘hangry’!).
By having our meals planned, and snacks on hand, we can avoid reaching for the less nutritious options.
Finally, meal planning is one of the simplest, most effective strategies we can leverage to make healthy eating more convenient, accessible, and sustainable long term. It can also help to increase the overall quality of your diet, and ensure you are consuming a robust nutrient profile that is compatible with your needs and goals.
Developing sustainable, healthy eating habits isn’t easy, but it doesn’t have to be overwhelming!
Consulting with a registered dietitian or nutrition professional can help to streamline the process, and avoid the limitless amount of horrible advice on the internet.
OnSide Performance Centre has staff of qualified and exceptional healthcare practitioners inside the building. We’re constantly iterating to help bring you high quality and valuable content and education. OnSide is located in Halifax, Nova Scotia – and there’s no one else like us!