Learning to eat differently

I think the most important change I’ve made so far would have to be what and how I eat.  Before all this stuff with the doctor, I rarely – if ever – ate breakfast, frequently ate lunch at restaurants around campus, then cooked something quick and processed (frozen pizza, boxed mac & cheese, etc.) for dinner.  The biggest thing for me was to not change everything at once.  I’d introduce a new habit – say, making sure to eat breakfast daily – and give myself at least a week to get used to it before trying to add/remove/change something else.  Keeping the steps small has made the whole process much less overwhelming.  I see things like keto and paleo and all these other diet plans gaining popularity, but I just don’t think I could stick with something so rule-oriented.  I prefer to set guidelines for myself that I know are flexible so that when I “mess up”, it’s much more difficult to get down on myself and give up on the whole process.  Another help has been to think of all these changes as new habits rather than as a “diet”.  To me, the word diet implies something temporary.  I want the changes I’m making to be for life.  So, just what are all these new habits I’ve been setting?

1) Avoid processed foods.

Now I’m well aware that it’s almost impossible to totally avoid processed food, but this also means I’ve become a much better label reader.  I do my best to purchase food whose ingredient is the thing it is.  Stick to the outer perimeter of the grocery store, since that’s where most of the unprocessed stuff is.  (Picture the grocery store you usually shop at.  Produce, dairy, butcher… they’re all along the outer walls of the store, aren’t they?)  When I do buy something with an ingredient list, I check to see if it has any ingredients that I can’t identify.  If I can’t pronounce it, I probably have no business eating it.  Instead of buying pre-seasoned or marinated meats, buy them plain and marinate them yourself.  It’ll likely be better for you, not to mention will save money in the long run.

This guideline also means preparing my own food more and eating out less, particularly avoiding fast food.  One way I’ve made this one flexible is if I crave a specific item from some fast food place for more than two consecutive days, I’ll let myself have whatever it was on the third day.  Every time this has happened, the thing I’d been craving did not taste nearly as good as I remembered it being.  Now I very rarely have any desire to consume fast food.

2) Less meat, more plants.

It wasn’t unusual for me to cook up a pack of steaks/pork chops/chicken breasts/etc. with every intention of having one at that meal then keeping the rest for leftovers, then end up just eating most or all of them without any sort of plant-based accompaniment.  Now I do my best to limit my meat portion to about the size of a deck of cards, then fill the rest of my plate with veggies of some sort.  When I first started working on this one, I was incredibly skeptical that such a small portion of protein would be satisfying.  I was surprised by how satiated I was by the time I finished the meal.  Then I just had to break the habit of going back for more “just because I could”.

3) Slow down and eat smaller portions!

I used to go into “hoover mode” and absolutely inhale way more food than my body actually needed.  (Honestly, I still slip into it once in a while.)  By slowing down, I’ve found I’m able to feel satisfied with smaller portions.  It gives my body time to tell my brain, “Okay, hold it! We’re good now!”  After months of tending this habit, it now takes much less food for me to reach that Uncomfortable Full stage that I used to enjoy so much.  Now it just makes me feel crummy.

4) Stop with the sugar, already.

This was a tough one.  Sugar is a pretty addictive substance.  Kicking the pop habit certainly helped, but I’m afraid I don’t have any easy tips on this one.  I had to just cut out everything with added sugars for a month or so.  The cravings were hell, but after a couple of weeks they weren’t quite as bad.  After a month, I found I could have a “fun sized” candy bar and be happy with that.  Much more than that and I just felt ill.

5) Get your body accustomed to eating at certain times.

I now do my best to only eat at set times.  I’ll have breakfast around 6:30am, a small snack around 10:00am, lunch around noon, a small snack around 3:00pm, dinner around 6:30pm, and maybe a small snack around 8:00pm if I really feel I need it (this is rare).

6) Avoid stress/boredom eating.

Yup, I am absolutely an emotional eater.  I could demolish a family size bag of Doritos in an afternoon while sitting in front of the TV, and still have room for dinner.  I still fight this one.  I work above an amazing bakery and on those days when work just has me climbing the walls, it’s all I can do not to go downstairs and buy something delicious (and usually sugary).  The other time which tends to be challenging for me is late at night.  Fortunately, I’ve found a method that really works for me when I’m bored or stressed and those old food habits seem to be calling my name.

  • Ask myself, “Am I really hungry, or do I just want to eat?”
  • Usually the answer is “No, I’m not hungry.  I just want to eat something.”  Knowing this frequently is enough to help me ignore the urge.
  • If I think the answer is that I actually am hungry and it is not one of my set eating times, I’ll drink a glass of water.  Usually that will satisfy me.
  • If I still want the food after the water, then I’ll go for a walk.  I tell myself that if I still want whatever it was after an hour or so of walking, then I can have it.  There have only been a couple of times so far that I’ve gotten home and still really wanted whatever it was.  And on those rare occasions, I let my self have it.

7) Redefine “once in a while”.

Realize that it’s okay to treat yourself once in a while!  Completely denying yourself the things you enjoy will make this new lifestyle pretty miserable.  Just don’t let “once in a while” become too frequent.  “Oh, I haven’t had a cookie since yesterday afternoon, so I can have one now!” doesn’t work.  For example, I limit my alcohol consumption to a couple of beers one night per week.  I’ll let myself have a coffee or a pop once about every two weeks.  (I mostly drink water now.)  I’ll let myself have lunch at one of the restaurants near campus once every month to month and a half.  I’ll stop by one of my favorite dive bars for a beer and a big greasy burger after running a race, which is looking like that’s about every three months or so.  It’s very easy for frequent treats to become habits.  Remember that a treat is just that – an occasional thing!

Wow.  I seem to have written another novel, so I’ll stop here for now.  I’ll be sure to post some more specifics about what I eat later on.

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