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6 tips to make healthy eating realistic and sustainable

Posted May 11

Many people pursue healthy eating, but few people figure out how to make it actually last. (Deseret Photo)

In the pursuit of health, many people find themselves oscillating between extremes. One minute you’re eating salads and quinoa bowls and the next you’re binging on ice cream.

Following a cycle of trying really hard to be "healthy" and then finding yourself knee-deep in potato chips, you’re often left wondering if healthy eating is even possible and if you should even bother with it at all.

Healthy eating can feel like an elusive, impossible goal that’s far out of reach. Even the thought of healthy eating can be exhausting and discouraging.

Many would-be dieters find themselves in a constant "last supper" state where they’re eating close to everything in sight out of fear of the impending diet they’ll start, in perpetuity, tomorrow. The fear of dieting can lead to consistent overeating and anxiety about food, which obviously doesn’t help to improve health long-term.

So how does healthy eating really work? How does a person strike a balance between the extremes of restricting and overdoing it?

What is healthy eating?

It’s important to be clear about what the term "healthy" really means. Healthy eating isn’t perfect eating, and perfect eating isn’t healthy eating.

It’s laughable to say that if you eat a carrot one day, you’re healthy. It’s also laughable to say that if you eat a slice of cake one day, you’re unhealthy.

Health status is a complex combination of genetics, lifestyle factors, environment and behaviors over time. No single food choice is to blame for poor health — and no single food choice is responsible for good health either.

Biggest mistake dieters make

The biggest mistake people make when trying to eat healthfully is assuming that healthy eating is the extreme that’s opposite of binging. In other words, many people mistake rigid diet plans for healthy eating.

The truth is, though, that healthy eating is the middle ground between the extremes, not an extreme itself. When you can successfully land in the middle in a spot that is sustainable and realistic for you, you’ve found your version of sustainable, realistic healthy eating.

Healthy eating for you may look a little different than healthy eating for someone else, and that’s OK, too.

So when pursuing healthy eating, be sure to avoid plans and philosophies that encourage extremes. If you’ve tried fad diets in the past and have found yourself discouraged and out of control around food, you’re not alone and it’s not your fault. You have simply not yet found the right balance that will work for you long-term.

Here are some tips to help you create a truly healthy (mentally, physically, emotionally and otherwise) behaviors around food that are sustainable and realistic:

1. Don’t get sucked into the crazes. If everyone around you is doing the latest nutrition plan craze and you’re enticed to join in, ask yourself if you could see yourself eating that way for the rest of your life. If you can’t imagine maintaining that way of eating forever, you will likely want to reconsider.

2. Plan ahead. Balanced, nutritious eating is much easier when there’s a flexible plan in place. Planning includes grocery shopping, meal planning and packing foods for on-the-go.

3. Honor your body. Do your best to listen to cues of hunger and fullness. Some days will be hungrier days, and others will be days with a lower appetite.

4. Be gentle with yourself. Healthy eating isn’t about perfection. It’s great to have some general guidelines in mind about balance, moderation and variety, but no need to beat yourself up when you fall short. All you have is the here and now, so do your best in each moment and avoid the trappings of feeling angry about times you’ve messed up in the past or worries about how you’ll fall short in the future.

5. Get in touch with your emotions and feelings. Scan your emotions when you find yourself reaching for food when you know you’re not hungry. Find ways to soothe and calm yourself without using food when it’s clear that food won’t work to improve your emotional state.

6. Take good care of yourself in general. Don’t neglect other areas of self-care when pursuing healthier eating. Ensuring you get a good night’s sleep, moving your body with exercise you enjoy regularly and learning to manage your stress appropriately are all important in the overall picture of health.

Food should be both nourishing and satisfying — leaving each meal truly satisfied is the key to sustaining your behavior change over time. When trying to find a way to eat healthfully, tap into your own inner wisdom and intuition to find a balance between the extremes.

Paige is a registered dietitian nutritionist specializing in helping people heal their relationship with food. She hosts Nutrition Matters Podcast and has a private nutrition consulting business based in Salt Lake City.

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