This post about healthy eating habits is the second part to last week’s 10 Ways To Keep Fit In Your 40s post.
I didn’t write about weight loss, but instead talked about how to keep fit as you get older to make it a habit for life.
These tips follow the same pattern – not tips for losing weight, but tips that have helped me improve my diet to accompany the exercise I’m doing. Losing some weight, if you have weight to lose, is often the result of better eating habits; if you suffer from general ailments such as lethargy, headaches and lack of energy, for example, then I’m pretty sure those problems will ease with a new approach to your diet.
(Something to note: when I talk about diet, I’m referring to what we eat, not “a diet” as in a plan devised to make you lose weight.)
So prepare to get your head in the right place – here are my top tips for adopting healthy eating habits:
1. Be prepared to train your brain
Realise that the way to gain a strong, healthy body is 70% attitude, 30% action (sound familiar?). If you have the attitude that you want to get skinny rather than get fit, or you want to know what low-calorie cakes you can eat rather than eating a balanced diet, then you need to stop and think about your attitude. Your whole approach needs to change if you’re looking for short cuts or easy ways to lose weight fast. It’s not about tricking your brain, it’s about training it. You need to make changes to your eating habits gradually for healthy eating to become second nature, and learn from each change that you make.
2. Recognise that your body is a machine requiring quality fuel to function
Appreciate how important food is for the body, and that a wide variety of unprocessed, fresh food is vital for it to work properly. You may have heard the expression that you wouldn’t put the wrong fuel into a car because you want it to run properly? Your body is the same: it needs fuel to run, and it needs the right fuel to run well. If you’re lucky enough to have a fully functioning body with all the bits in the right places – two arms, two legs, etc. – then treat it with the respect it deserves as you’re a very lucky person. As I said in the fitness post: you’re in control of your body, no one else.
3. Portion control: Realise how much you’re actually eating
I think the biggest unrealised contributor to weight gain – or failure to shift the pounds – is the fact that most of us are unaware how much we’re actually eating, and that we’re consuming much bigger portions than we actually need. I honestly had no idea that my portions were so large until I started following a healthy eating plan which made me measure out my portions. Don’t think that measuring portions is something you’ll have to do forever – you will get to know after a while what a sensible portion looks like.
However, be prepared to be shocked at how much you’re actually (over)eating. As well as studying your portion sizes, a good thing to try at first is to make a note of everything you eat to realise how much you actually consume in a day. Again, be ready for what may come as a shock to you.
4. Stop making excuses
Ever said any of these things?
- I can’t possibly drink tea without sugar.
- I can’t stand skimmed milk, it tastes like water.
- I can’t stand the thought of counting calories, it’s so boring.
- I can’t see the problem with low-cal fizzy drinks – there’s no calories in them.
- I can’t eat breakfast, it makes me feel sick.
Can’t, can’t, can’t…. Until you’re willing to try new things and make a few sacrifices for a while, you’ll never get anywhere with your switch to healthy eating habits; this is where your 70% attitude comes in. If your head is constantly thinking that you “can’t” make these changes, then you simply won’t make the changes.
So – sugar in your tea? Skimmed milk tastes like water? There is no need to have sugar in your tea or coffee, or on your cereal. Cut out foods that you don’t need – ones that don’t have any nutritional value whatsoever. Your tea will taste blurgh for a while, but eventually you will get used to it – the same goes for switching to skimmed milk.
(I switched to skimmed many years ago, and although I now only drink almond milk in order to cut out dairy, the thought of drinking semi-skimmed milk maks me feel sick… so thick and creamy, ugh)
These are the EASIEST changes to make to your diet; you just have to be prepared to stick with it. If you’re not prepared to make these simple changes, the rest is going to be near impossible.
Counting calories: I’m not suggesting you count calories unless you like a regimented plan to follow, but make yourself aware of the calorific content of foods. Many “healthy” foods are high in calories, so read labels and become calorie-savvy.
Low-cal fizzy drinks are evil – at least that’s how I perceive them now. Healthy eating is not just about calories, so consuming gallons of low-cal fizzy drink instead of water is doing nothing for your health. It’ll also rot your teeth, encourage your sweet tooth and make you bloated from all the gases. Is that enough to convince you…?
Breakfast… I would say that the majority of people I’ve ever had a conversation with about breakfast have said that they can’t eat it because they feel sick in the morning. Your body going for that long without food can’t be right. I have a theory: if you eat a heavy meal in the evenings, do you tend to skip breakfast?
I think that many people are simply eating too much late at night, leading to a lack of hunger in the morning. I cannot function without a hearty breakfast – and even after that I’m usually ravenous by mid morning. Stop eating so much in the evenings to see if that makes a difference, because eating a large breakfast is key to stopping cravings for sugary foods during the day.
5. Ask friends, family and colleagues to support you
There’s nothing worse than being offered doughnuts that someone has kindly bought at work when you’re trying to change to healthier eating habits. Or your mum plying you with chocolate biscuits when you’re round for elevenses. You’re both tempted and feel rude for turning them down, so you give in.
What you need to do is stop the temptation presenting itself in the first place by asking everyone you know to be kind enough not to offer you any naughty treats. Say you’d like their support and you won’t be offended when they forgo asking you if you’d like a chocolate muffin or a doughnut. They’ll probably point out that they’re deliberately not offering you one as you asked (just to be nice!) and you’ll feel left out at first, but you’ll get used to it.
Eventually you’ll recognise that daily muffins and doughnuts are neither doing you any good, nor do you actually need them.
6. Take obvious steps to avoid temptation
If you find it hard to avoid eating the snacks in the kitchen cupboards, then I could be really harsh and just say Don’t buy them. But everyone has different lives, different family situations, different jobs, so it isn’t always that simple. But if, like me for example, you don’t have children – and you live with a partner, flatmate or by yourself, then the Don’t buy them rule can apply. This is one temptation that can be easily removed, if you’re prepared to do it.
If you’re constantly exposing yourself to unhealthy foods, then it will be very easy to constantly give in to temptation. Put measures in place to stop the “I just couldn’t help it” scenarios:
- Shop for groceries online so you don’t pass by the special offers on cakes and biscuits (you’ll save money by not impulse-buying too).
- If you can, pay for petrol at the pump so you’re not tempted by the sweets and chocolate bars in the kiosk.
- Keep lots of healthy alternatives in your cupboards at home for the times when you “have” to have a snack (plain popcorn, sultanas, fresh fruit, etc.)
- Don’t take small change into work if there is a chocolate box or vending machine.
Temptation is a constant battle I’ll be honest and say I don’t win very often. But if you can get yourself in the right frame of mind where you don’t automatically reach for unhealthy snacks every time you’re out grocery shopping – instead you only get them occasionally – then that’s most of the battle won.
7. Be more adventurous with your food choices
Can you say you’ve tried all of these foods?
Chickpeas, rye bread, avocado, quinoa, agave nectar, tofu, figs, sushi, butternut squash, pastrami, feta, cous cous, persimmon, Chinese lettuce, hummus, fennel, macadamia nuts, crab, pearl barley, artichoke, falafel (I could go on).
Changing your eating habits is not about being denied everything you love, it’s about finding a whole variety of delicious foods to eat that make you wonder why you ever craved that sickly chocolate doughnut in the first place. All the foods I’ve listed above are things I’d never eaten as a child, and in the last 23 years since leaving home I’ve just been curious to try them all – and to my delight I found out there are very few I didn’t find delicious. If I’d insisted on being as fussy as I thought I was as a kid, I’d never have found the most enjoyable, nutritious foods to eat that are just regular foods to me now.
This is a great tip to help you become more adventurous in your food choices: set yourself this task when you’re out grocery shopping. At least once a month, buy a foodstuff that you’ve never eaten before – this is the time to be brave! You may or may not have heard of it, but make sure it’s new to you. Buy it and look up a recipe online, should it require one, or eat it straight away if it’s a new fruit or similar. You never know – you might absolutely love it.
I did this with halloumi [cheese]; I’d heard of it but didn’t have a clue what it was. In fact I didn’t even know it was a cheese – yet it’s now one of my favourite foods to cook. By broadening your tastes, you’ll be less likely to get bored of salad because your salads will no longer be boring.
8. Don’t be afraid to change your eating patterns
In the last two to three years, I have switched from eating breakfast, lunch and dinner to eating breakfast, a large lunch, lots of healthy snacks throughout the day and a very light snack in the evening (usually a protein smoothie after a workout). I never, ever go hungry, in fact I’m pretty much grazing throughout the day, and I’ve had comments from colleagues that I somehow eat all day and “never put weight on”.
What they don’t realise is that I exercise regularly and don’t go home and have a huge meal in the evening like they do. I stopped trying to cook and eat a large evening meal because in my old routine (pre-full time blogging), once I’d got in from work, done a workout or been for a run, then thought about what to have for dinner, cooked it and sat down to eat… it was never earlier than 9pm and that was far too late for me.
Just because everyone else eats a large meal in the evening doesn’t mean you have to. I find it hard to explain to people that are amazed I don’t have an evening meal, but quite often these are people who have no breakfast, a sandwich with a bag of crisps at lunchtime and ten cups of coffee during the day. I simply eat a lot early on, then wind it down as the day goes on. I do this because it suits my lifestyle, when I choose to exercise, and when I have the most time to prepare and eat food.
I found that my metabolism changed almost back to what it was when I was in my 20s once I stopped with the heavy evening meals. I’m not saying that this will work for everyone, but I’ve stopped thinking that I have to eat in the ways that is accepted as the norm.
9. Drink water
I hear many people complain that they couldn’t possibly drink water because they don’t like it. I don’t think you need to be a doctor to realise that drinking water is the fundamental thing that keeps us alive – our bodies are made up of over 50% water, and that has to be replaced because we are constantly losing it through sweating. It’s one of those facts that most people seem to know, but it still amazes me how so few drink it.
Drinking water should be an automatic, everyday thing that we all do. It has no taste, so I don’t buy the excuse that someone doesn’t like it – you’d just be indifferent. I won’t list the benefits – they’ve been listed a billion times on the internet – but drinking water is plain common sense. Train yourself to have a certain amount at a certain time of the day; for example, I pour myself a pint in the morning and make sure it’s drunk by midday, then do the same in the afternoon. Work it into your routine in a way that suits you – I know someone who drinks a pint as soon as she’s got up in the morning (she says she’s too sleepy to notice how boring it is).
10. Use tricks to stop yourself snacking when you’re not hungry
I’m a great one for snacking in the evenings, thinking I’m hungry when I’m not. At all. I know I don’t need food after 9pm, yet I still raid the kitchen cupboards looking for things to eat. One day I thought that if I were to clean my teeth early on in the evening, it might stop me munching necessarily; amazingly it worked a treat. Something about having brushed teeth stopped the phantom hunger, and a cup of herbal tea was all I wanted (and needed) until bed.
Work out tricks like that to stop yourself thinking you’re hungry. Obviously if you’re actually hungry and have been without any significant food to eat for a while then that’s different and you should eat, but make the snacks wholesome ones (a sugar rush isn’t going to help much).
11. Stop thinking it’s all about denying yourself
I’m sure you’ve heard the cry of But you only live once! We should enjoy it! This is undeniably true, but I don’t see why enjoying your food means only eating processed crap that we think is tasty but know to be unhealthy. Put it this way: I love food. No, I ADORE food. I’m the easiest person to please if I’m invited to dinner; there’s very, very little I won’t eat. If I had the choice of going to MacDonalds (I have to say it: yum!) or going for great sushi, the sushi wins every time.
I’ve learnt to appreciate clean food over the years; I’ve been brave and tried things I thought I didn’t like – I’m so glad I was proved wrong nearly every time.
The ideal stage you want to reach is where you find yourself salivating at the mere thought of all the new and delicious foods you’ve discovered since improving your eating habits. Healthy eating is not about denying yourself and having nothing nice to eat – it’s exactly the opposite.
When I’ve got back on track with my diet after a long period of too many unhealthy foods and bad habits, I always enjoy my food so much more. I’ve taken the time to prepare foods that are delicious, full of goodness and so much more colourful than all the carb-heavy processed foods (I call it “brown food”) that we think are so appealing.
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So while I’m not suggesting foods to eat or recipes to try, I simply want to make the point that it’s so much about attitude. In fact, I could have written this post in one sentence flat: Get your head in the right place by changing your attitude – but that needed a little explanation! If you would like some actual food inspiration, there are two platforms I can thoroughly recommend: @cook.vegetarian by plant-based nutritionist Luba Pavia, who (unsurprisingly) posts delicious vegetarian and vegan recipes, and Hungry, Healthy, Happy written by the inspirational Dannii, who lost 98lbs and now blogs about recipes, health and weight loss tips.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this two-part series, and that the tips have helped you decide to make changes for the better. Let me know what you found helpful, and do please share your own tips that have helped you say NO to that second chocolate doughnut…!
Stay safe XOXO
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