In the early days of dating my husband, we engaged in all sorts of question-asking to get to know one another better. As we walked along our university’s campus holding hands and gazing into each other’s eyes, I will never know what prompted my twenty-year-old brain to ask him what fruits and vegetables he liked to eat. No matter how strange the question, I will forever remember his reply.
Puzzled, he sheepishly answered, “Oranges, lemons, and limes.” Thankfully the darkness of the evening concealed my stunned reaction, as I was in disbelief that a person I considered marrying would only reply with three fruits, two of which were inedible to eat on their own. I nodded back and forth all the while thinking, “How will this relationship ever work?” The moment I returned back to my dorm room, I phoned my mother to relay this disheartening information.
Along with not preferring fruit, the only vegetables he mentioned either had the preceding word “fried” or the words “with butter” after. Luckily, this wasn’t a deal breaker in our relationship as I knew my healthy ways would win out someday. Twenty-five years later, if you ever sit next to my husband at a meal, you will be delighted to see fresh vegetables and all sorts of healthy concoctions filling his plate. This has now become his preferred routine…but it did not happen overnight.
In the world of health and fitness, one would like to believe the extreme transformational stories, where a person abandons their daily consumption of processed foods all at once in exchange for a healthy diet of whole foods, and then lives happily ever after. However, after many years in the industry of dietary change, I tend to look upon these stories in the same way that I once did when I read Cinderella as a child – they are romantic, make-believe, and don’t really happen in real life.
Without a doubt the most common mistake I have seen people make in the area of nutrition is trying to change too many things in their diet at once. When faced with the dilemma to get healthier, for some reason most of us gravitate toward radical elimination. However, it rarely works in the long run.
The Drastic Change Approach
In the beginning we decide that we don’t like the way we feel or look, so we commit to making dietary changes. We want to achieve our goals faster, and it only makes sense that we should change things drastically – cut out all alcohol, sugar, processed food, and fatty foods (at the same time). For the first week we are euphoric as we adhere strictly to our exciting new way of eating. We whisper to ourselves, “This time is different than the others; I am going to change. I can do it.”
We tell people that we have more energy as we get out of bed with a spring in our step. For the next two to three weeks we start to feel better, see the scale move in the preferred direction, and feel proud of ourselves that we are honoring our commitment to change. However, in the back of our mind we really miss some of our favorite foods and wonder when our cravings will subside as those rigid diet plans promised.
Then one day around the fourth week, maybe sooner, we realize that we will never again be able to eat a brownie on a weekday with this newfound way of eating. And we begin to hate life. The scale stops moving downward at a quick speed despite our heroic efforts, and each week of regimented eating starts to feel like we are walking uphill wearing a heavy backpack in one-hundred degree heat.
Where we once sat and mused about the beauty and meaning of life, now we find ourselves thinking multiple times a day (let’s be honest: multiple times an hour) about cake, chips, and peanut butter. We might even fantasize about eating spoonfuls of butter on its own (my own experience). We stare at others who are able to enjoy a slice of cake without remorse, much like Brad Pitt glaring across the dinner table at Rachel in the Thanksgiving “Friends” episode. We try to convince ourselves that we don’t really crave the sugar, it’s just something deeper that we are yearning for in life, but all the while, we really want the cake.
And then it becomes just too much. We give up.
According to an article written by online nutrition educator, Precision Nutrition, “Maybe you see some short-term results (or not). But you hate living and eating this way. You never want to see another stupid piece of lettuce or four ounces of chicken. Eventually, you get so turned off by the process that you regress or quit altogether. You conclude that ‘eating healthy’ sucks.”
Perhaps your experience differs slightly from mine, but I doubt it varies wildly. When it comes to dietary change, most of us rarely think that making small changes over time can actually lead to long term results, but they can.
A Better Way
While it might be natural to want to change everything in your diet all at once, it rarely works because it becomes overwhelming and unsustainable as the weeks go on. Unless you have a live-in chef, most people will find more success making gradual changes over time.
“You just need to think about what you’re already eating, and how you could make it a little bit better. This means fiddling and adjusting. Making small changes and improvements to what you already normally eat and enjoy, one small step at a time.”
-Precision Nutrition, Meal plans usually suck.
Start small. Start with one thing. Perhaps add a fresh or cooked vegetable to one meal a day for two weeks. Or substitute a bowl of fresh berries and two squares of chocolate for your regular nightly ice cream. Maybe aim to cook one home cooked meal if you are used to getting takeout nightly. A couple of years ago I focused for two weeks on eating two, not three Werther’s mints for lunch (my favorite candy). It might seem silly to have a goal that was only worth twenty calories, but over time it became a habit and allowed me to reduce a small amount of daily calories that I have kept up for years.
Once you have faithfully adhered to the one thing you set out to change for several weeks, perhaps add another habit to your daily ritual. If you stick with this method long enough, rarely will you feel like you are suffering to change your habits. Granted, you will notice, and undoubtedly miss eating four servings of chips for a bedtime snack, but because you didn’t overhaul more than one thing at a time, eating less will seem doable. While the impact may not be noticed immediately, over time it will slowly improve your health and weight and will give you confidence to gradually make other dietary alterations.
Our minds and the conventional diet industry often tell us that it is not glamorous nor extreme enough to transform one thing at a time in our diets, but this method continues to work over and over again. Don’t fall prey to believing that overnight transformation is sustainable. Instead, aim each week to be just a little bit better as this is the path to true lasting dietary change. For those of you who are interested in knowing if my husband has ever actually eaten a lemon or a lime whole, the answer is no. Later that evening, he admitted that he didn’t eat them, he only squeezed them into his sweet iced tea.
Author Julie Hamilton is a personal trainer at Hyatt Training. Julie believes that each person is one-of-a-kind, and when YOU become the focus of a customized health and fitness plan, life-changing results are always possible. She is NASM certified and Precision Nutrition Level 1 certified. Learn more about Julie, or get in touch with her by emailing us at Go@HyattTraining.com.
Hyatt Training is a team of certified, enthusiastic and innovative personal trainers in Portland, Oregon. To read more nutrition related posts like this one, follow this link.