It is the New Year and many of us have some goals, intentions, resolutions, or plans for becoming healthier this year. We know that we only get one body in this lifetime, so maybe we should do our best to take care of this one body.
The trouble is that there is a lot of conflicting and confusing information out there about what is healthy and how we can best take care of ourselves. Not to mention the fact that life can be exhausting and stressful and busy, so who has time to do all of the “healthy things” in the first place. And let us not forget that cookies and cake and cheese fries just taste so dang good!
I believe that our health doesn’t have to be all or nothing (in most situations). I think that overhauling our entire approach to life and food and lifestyle choices overnight can be overwhelming, intimidating, and next to impossible for many people (although if you can do it, by all means, the sooner the better). The reality is that all good choices add up and small, realistic changes can slowly but surely lead to true life change and lasting results.
This blog is all about sharing realistic, small steps that we can do to improve our overall health to live out our best lives. Today I want to share a few key pillars of healthy eating that you can remember as you begin to make better food choices.
1. Make Conscious Decisions about your food.
Here’s the deal, every single thing that you put in your own mouth is your choice. I’m pretty certain that no one is holding you down and force feeding you. There isn’t a gun to anyone’s head making you chew and swallow. (If there is, please call the authorities and get help.)
We tend to blame our genetics or the way we were raised or our culture or our income or any host of things we can point to that would allow us to be the victims of our circumstances. But when you make yourself a victim you give away all of your power. Let’s not do that with our health. We make choices all day every single day that affect our health. We need to own that fact and all of the consequences that come with those choices.
You might say, “but I don’t know enough about healthy foods to do it right.” Or “my cravings are so strong I just can’t possibly overcome them”. “My parents raised me to clean my plate, so I feel guilty if I don’t.” “I don’t have enough money to afford healthy food.” “I don’t have the time to cook healthy food.” And on and on.
All of these are excuses and placing blame elsewhere. You decide, every time, what goes into your mouth. If you want better results you have to make better decisions.
Which means we must start paying attention. I’m not trying to make us hyperfocused about our food and nutrition so that it is all that we think or talk about. However, if you regularly find yourself staring at the bottom of an empty chip bag or ice cream container and cannot figure out how that happened, it’s time to start paying better attention.
This isn’t about guilt or shame. Please do not add guilt and shame to the picture here. That will never ever help and just makes your relationship with food that much more dysfunctional. My goal here is simply to bring awareness and consciousness to our choices.
Before you move anything to your mouth, think about it. Decide on purpose if you really want to eat it. Are you actually hungry? Will this food fuel you or hurt you? Do you want to feel how this food will make you feel?
And while you are eating, be present. Do not mindlessly eat while watching TV, scrolling on your phone, or working. Take a few minutes to actually notice your food. Pay attention to the flavors. Consider how much you are eating and how your body feels. It doesn’t need to be an hour long affair to eat a meal, but take a few minutes to notice and be conscious every time you eat. (This can be really helpful for treats and splurges. If you consciously decide to eat a slice of your mom’s amazing triple layer cake, then sit your butt down and pay attention to how amazing it really is. Don’t just shovel it in as fast as you can and shame yourself the entire time. Enjoy your treats and then move on with your life, guilt-free.)
2. Eat good meat.
Protein should be included in every meal. Not a protein shake or bar. Not “high protein” grains. But real, actual protein from meat, fish, or eggs.
Your body needs protein on a regular basis to build, repair, and complete a whole host of biological processes. Protein also helps you to actually feel full and maintain that feeling of fullness so you don’t feel the need to eat every two hours (Side note – if you think you need to eat every 2-3 hours you really must take a serious look at what you are eating. Please fill yourself up with fewer grains and carbs and fuel with more protein and fat. Your blood sugar and your waistline will thank you.)
In the world of options for organic, “natural”, unprocessed, hormone and antibiotic free, and all of the other buzzwords you see on your food packaging, your meats are the most important. We used to live by “You are what you eat”, but now we know it’s also “you are what what you eat eats.”
If you can afford and find organic fruits and vegetables, that is great, but what is even more important is your meat. If you can only pick one, always pick healthy, ethically raised, sustainable meats. This means you want to look for meat, seafood, and eggs that are certified organic, pasture-raised, grass-finished, grass-fed, hormone and antibiotic free, or wild caught. Select these meat choices as often as your budget and grocery availability allows.
When you select meat that is raised and fed as close to their natural environment as possible it is truly healthy and will provide you with a host of vitamins and other nutrients that your body needs. And bonus, you don’t have to select lean cuts of this kind of meat because the fat will be packed with good stuff that your body will thrive on. So grab that grass-fed, certified organic perfectly marbled ribeye and enjoy every single juicy delicious bite.
If healthy meat is not available all the time or an option for your budget, you still want to eat meat, but in this case, you do want to go with leaner cuts of meat. Not because the fat itself is bad, but because the toxins that would be found in conventionally raised meats will be concentrated the most in the fat. And we’re not really down with consuming loads of toxins.
3. Don’t be afraid of (healthy) dietary fats.
I talked about this at length in my post on the truth about dietary fats, but to sum things up, the fat you eat does not automatically make you fat. Please, for the love of all that is holy, do not fill your fridge and pantry with low-fat products.
As I said before when you eat healthy meats you can definitely indulge in the fatty portions. And if you are going to eat dairy, grab the whole fat options, definitely not the fat-free or low-fat selections. When cooking, feel free to liberally cook your food in healthy fats.
Your brain and body must have dietary fats in order to function properly. And if you never consume fats and instead fill up on carbohydrates your body learns to burn more sugar (carbs) for energy but never has a chance to burn fat for energy. If you have a high amount of fat on your body do you know what you want your body to know how to burn for energy? Yep, all that excess fat. Which means that what your grandmother knows to be true, “fat makes you fat” is exactly the opposite of what is actually true.
What are healthy fats? This would be avocado and avocado oil, olives and olive oil, butter (especially clarified butter or Ghee), lard (beef fat), tallow (pig fat), coconuts and coconut oil, and some nuts and seeds.
What fats should be avoided? This would be all trans fats (your margarine, shortening, and all partially hydrogenated industrially manufactured oils and fats). You also want to avoid canola, corn, vegetable, soybean, sunflower, palm kernel, safflower, sesame, and other seed oils as much as possible.
4. Eat Your Vegetables.
You know how the food pyramid that most of us grew up with had grains at the base of the pyramid? We were encouraged to eat 6-11 servings of bread, cereals, rice, and pasta every single day. This sounds like a wonderful way to live. Who doesn’t love the comforts of noodles, sandwiches, and cereal making up the bulk of their daily diet?
Except, when you overload your plate with grains you can very easily crowd out the more important and super nutritious vegetables that really should be on your plate instead.
Here’s the deal, I’m not entirely opposed to grains. But I believe we never need to make a conscious effort to include grains in our diets. If you never ate grains, you could still be completely healthy. There is not a single nutrient in grains that can’t be found in other foods, like vegetables. However, you cannot live an optimally healthy life without regularly consuming vegetables.
I have no clue what your diet looks like or what is usually on your plate at every meal. I only know what goes on in my house. And of all the food groups, vegetables are the area we struggle the most. So I’m just going to go with the assumption that we are not the only family that struggles with eating enough vegetables.
Truthfully if you just ate meat, healthy fats, and vegetables you could live an incredibly healthy life. Everything else, your grains, your sugars, your beans, your dairy, and somewhat even your fruits are all lovely foods that can taste quite delicious, but they are not vital pieces of optimal health. And I’m going to guess that you never struggle to eat enough of any of those food groups (save maybe fruit, but I doubt most people would struggle if they made a conscious effort).
This is why my goal for my family going forward is to make vegetables a prime focus. No longer will I worry about making sure I have a complete meal with a meat, a grain, and a vegetable. My prime goal is to put meat and veggies in front of my family as often as possible (cooked with plenty of delicious healthy fats). They can figure out the grains and fruits and dairy and sweets themselves.
I fully expect challenges and push back, especially considering the fact that the only vegetable my son will eat is corn, which actually acts more like a grain than a vegetable. But again, I’m all about baby steps and persistence. Someday, I have faith, we will all flip that food pyramid around and the base of our diets will include 6-11 daily servings of vegetables instead of grains. Praise be.
Today’s Action Step – Apply the four pillars of healthy eating
I’ve given you four pillars of healthy eating to focus on when it comes to your food selections. Which one is the most challenging for you and your family?
Are you always on the run, shoveling food in as you check off more items on the to-do list or drive from here to there? If you eat meat is it usually in the form of processed factory foods like nuggets, hot dogs, and fast foods? Do you live the “low fat” life and struggle to believe that eating healthy fat won’t actually make you fat? If I asked how many servings of vegetables you ate yesterday would you feel the need to overcompensate or be generous with your answer (the onions on your pizza do not constitute a full serving of vegetables, sorry)?
Decide which area your family struggles with the most and make a conscious effort to focus on this area over the next few weeks. Make small daily changes and better decisions until your new behaviors start to feel automatic and habitual. Then, feel free to focus on another area.