Where to START if You Want to Eat Better
I am so glad you are here asking yourself where you should start. I know your head is swimming with so many things you need to do, should do, must do. It can be super daunting.
Start with your why for eating healthier. Why do you want to eat better? No, not because your doctor told you to, or you overheard the lady getting coffee in front of you talking about her latest diet, or you saw someone you hadn’t seen in a while that looked much younger and you are ready to make some changes.
This is a deeper why. Why do you want to be healthy? Why is it critical for you at this moment to feel and live differently? For me, it is my parents. I have one parent getting close to 80 years young and it takes him a couple hours to get ready for the day because of the nausea, pain, and overall slow moving pace he goes. A good day is when he gets up and is able to cross off something on his todo list. Many days are not so good and he sits in his chair and listens to the television because it hurts too much to get up.
My mom is very different. She teaches yoga three times a week (just got certified as an instructor), is on the board of the Over 60 Club, and still takes blood pressures for members at our church a couple times a month. I want to live like her up until my last days. She has survived four cancers and raising five kids. She changed her eating drastically the day she was diagnosed with her first cancer and has stuck with it since. I want to be like her.
Your why may be living independently for the rest of your life (I want that too), or eliminate your gut problems, get off diabetes medication and not be afraid of eating out, minimize illness all together, eat to nourish and connect with your body, or feel amazing from the inside out. There are a bunch of possible reasons why you want to start on this journey now, but get clear right now.
Your why will often be tied to a current health problem or a health problem you know is coming soon if you don’t do something. It might be a family member or a friend who is now gone, but could have been here for her loved ones if it wasn’t for their health. Or it might be like me, a strong personal example you know of how you don’t want to live and instead do want to live. Write it down, save it somewhere you can pull it out regularly to remind yourself.
Next you want to get specific on what you are going to change for the better. To do this, lets define optimal eating and see what it looks like. What would eating to nourish your body look like if you did it every meal and every day? I don’t do this and sure don’t expect you to eat this way, but it helps in understanding the direction you want to go now.
Also, we know from research you can squeeze nearly all the benefits of healthy eating without eating healthy 100% of the time. That is really good news.
I encourage clients to eat optimally three days a week and the other four is when they can eat out, have their most hectic days and grab and go type meals.
▣ Aim for 3 days a week to eat optimally ▣
How Your Plate Should Look
If you put everything you ate over a day on a plate (really on a platter) it should look something like this plate that the Harvard University School of Public Health uses as a teaching tool.
Your plate (platter) should be
- ¼ whole grains (and includes any starchy vegetables)
- ¼ lean proteins
- little less than ¼ fruits
- little more than ¼ vegetables (not including starchy vegetables)
- very little fat
- lots of no or low-sugar beverages
How Big Your Servings Should Be
The next question is what is a serving? To put a healthy meal together, use your palm as a portion guide for how much is a serving. This is a super easy way to remember. Since your palm is typically in proportion to your size, it is a great guide to servings.
- Fruits – size of your fist
- Whole grains (and starchy vegetables) – size of your fist
- Vegetables – two handfuls (cupped palms)
- Lean proteins – maximum is palm size and minimum is palm minus thumb; should be thickness of little finger
- Fats – size of the tip of your thumb
Below are illustrations for what is meant by one serving using your palm.
For women, start with one serving of each of these food groups; to make up a meal and for men, start with two servings of each except for the lean protein, keep it to same as women, maximum of one palm size.
I know some people are going to be surprised on the portion size for protein. The reason is your muscle can only absorb a maximum amount of protein at one time. So just because you eat more protein doesn’t mean you absorb more and make it into muscle. If you eat two servings (two palm sizes) you are going to store the excess as body fat, yes, body fat.
If you are a serious athlete and your goal is to build muscle, you need to see a sports nutritionist. I have some great ones to recommend, just send me an email. There are ways to gain muscle and eat enough protein but packing a lot at one meal is not going to work even if you are doing strenuous workouts. Your body will just convert the extra as fat or glucose – whatever is needed but not muscle like we’d like to think.
Let Hunger Guide Your Final Portions
The serving size guide I just covered using your palm is a guide. It is meant as a good place to start in dishing up a meal for you. Your hunger at that moment will tell you HOW MUCH to eat. This will be different for each person and even be different for you day to day.
Here is a 10-point scale I use myself and with clients:
1 – RAVENOUS: you feel “starved to death”
2 – STARVING: very hungry and you want to eat anything you see
3 – STRONG HUNGER: the urge to eat is strong
4 – HUNGER PANGS: starting to feel hunger
5 – CONTENT: not hungry or full
6 – FULL: more than just content, a comfortable feeling of fullness
7 – OVERFULL: a tad too full; often feel it 20 minutes after eating
8 – STARTING INTO UNCOMFORTABLE: it is starting to hurt
9 – STUFFED: uncomfortable fullness
10 – THANKSGIVING STUFFED: feeling painful in your stomach
You want to be hungry, or a 3 or 4 when you start to eat and stop at a 5 or 6 or 7 depending on when you are eating next. You don’t have to use this scale, simply asking if you are hungry, full or overfull can guide you too as to when to stop and if you should eat seconds.
Eat More of Something
I covered key areas for WHAT to eat for optimal eating for health (Healthy Eating Plate by Harvard University and using your palm as a serving guide). Pick one specific eating behavior to change that focuses on eating MORE of something.
I want you to focus on what you are going to eat MORE of and stay away from using words like “stop” or “avoid”. That is like trying to play ping pong with a baseball. Sound ridiculous?! Yes, and so does trying to tell yourself to stop something. Your first reaction is to crave what you want to stop eating something. You are bringing attention and energy to just what you want to stop. That just creates more problems.
Instead, find things you want to eat more of. It might be more:
- healthy oils
- whole grains
- more fruits
- more veggies
- lean quality protein
When you looked at the Harvard University School of Public Health Healthy Eating Plate what areas do you need to eat more of? What would be the easiest for you to eat more? It may not mean eating a new food, but just more of something you are already eating.
The HOW for Making Lasting Changes
Most people jump in with good intentions but take on too big a change. They rely on willpower to get started, but once the discomfort becomes greater than the original surge in willpower the new eating habit crashes before it gets a chance to become an automatic habit.
Start small. If you want to eat more vegetables, don’t try to increase what you are normally doing by two servings a day. Start smaller, like half a serving or a smoothie with vegetables blended in or mix in vegetables to what you were planning on eating,; or double the lettuce and tomato on your sandwich. If, instead, you want to increase whole grains, the first step is often to just switch the sources of your carbohydrates from processed to whole-grain sources. Pasta and rice are easy ones for most people to switch to whole-grain. Pick one whole-grain and switch it out.
These are just ideas, what is going to work for me, is not going to work for you. Experiment, if something doesn’t work, go at it differently. I can guarantee you are going to have some dud trial and error runs. Just record them so you don’t repeat them and go at your eating a different way.
Just like an architect building a building focuses on the foundation, the part that must last and hold everything through calm and serious stormy weather. You also are starting with your optimal eating foundation and going to keep with what works and will last through your normal hectic life. This is your foundation.
When you are starting out, focus on figuring out what works for you for lasting change. Experiment and don’t get discouraged. The cool thing is you will along the way discover more about yourself. The most important part, just start.