By Madeleine Ortiz
The diet industry is worth over 70 billion dollars in North America alone, so it’s no wonder the authors of the Canadian Obesity Clinical Practice Guidelines spent years reviewing thousands of research studies in an effort to provide clarity for doctors and patients when it comes to nutrition therapy. What they discovered was that marketing efforts perpetuate the notion that weight loss can be achieved solely by caloric restriction and/or dieting alone, and have falsely promoted the idea that what we eat is the sole culprit for weight gain.
In order to help people achieve true health, the authors of the guidelines say the only solution is a paradigm shift. They emphasize that how you eat is as important as what and how much you eat. If you’ve spent lots of times learning about different diets, counting calories and/or worrying about whether a food is “good” or “bad,” but have never thought about your relationship with the food and where / how you’re eating it, you’re missing a huge piece of the puzzle. Luckily, the authors of the guidelines have given us some really great tips on making “how” we eat a little more healthy.
Take time to eat.
Sometimes, it seems like each new day gets busier than the one before it, and as your schedule gets more full you might make up the lost time by eating meals on the go or skipping them all together. That might mean stopping in a fast food drive through between coming home from work and driving your children to their after school activities, or popping a meal into the microwave after a long day and hurriedly eating it before getting ready for bed. You know it’s not the healthiest thing to do, but the guidelines say even the most nutritious meals eaten in a hurry aren’t going to do a great job of leaving you feeling nourished and satisfied. That’s why the guidelines recommend making meal time a priority. Schedule at least 30 minutes for eating and make sure it’s the only task in that time slot. If it’s too much to schedule breakfast, lunch and dinner start by choosing one meal and gradually adding in the others and even snacks.
Be mindful of your eating habits, and learn to recognize your hunger and fullness cues.
Hunger may seem simple, but it actually comes in many different forms. There’s emotional hunger (eating when you’re stressed or anxious), habit hunger (eating just because you normally eat at that time or at that specific place), and physical hunger (our body’s signal for needing more nutrients and fuel). Though eating emotionally or simply out of habit are common occurrences for many people, it’s important to notice and label why you’re eating. When first getting started with observing your hunger, experts recommend keeping a food journal. With a journal, you’ll jot down not only when and what you’re eating, but how you felt before and after eating it. Once you start noticing hunger patterns, you’ll get used to recognizing physical hunger and fullness, which can eventually lead to less emotional and habit eating.
Plan what you eat.
It is really difficult to stick with a healthy eating routine if you wake up every morning with no idea what the day’s eating will look like. When you don’t have a plan, it’s easy to convince yourself to stop through a drive through, order take out or eat a bag of chips in lieu of dinner. Making a plan at the beginning of the week can help take difficult daily decision-making out of the process. Think about your schedule for the week and what you can realistically accomplish as far as cooking, and then make a grocery list. Prep any food you can in advance and do your best to stick to the plan as much as you can during the week.
Involve others in planning and preparing meals.
Transitioning to a healthier eating plan can feel lonely at times, and feeling isolated can make you less likely to stick to it. That’s why the guidelines recommend involving others in planning and preparing meals. When you sit down at the beginning of the week to make your plan and grocery list, ask family members for their input. You can even have each family member choose a meal for the week. During meal prep, get everyone involved. Perhaps someone chops vegetables while another mixes together spices or prepares the plate. If you live alone, join an online group that shares recipes or prep tips. Or get a buddy that cooks and eats one meal with you a week. The more social and fun you can make healthy eating, the easier it will be to make it a part of your life forever.
Don’t eliminate culture and tradition.
There is no question that food plays an important role in our lives outside of bodily nourishment alone. We attach emotions, traditions and happy memories to food and we shouldn’t try to ignore that when transitioning to a healthier way of eating. If you know an event means enjoying your favorite treats, plan for indulging without the guilt. Additionally, seek more nutritious options of traditional or cultural favorites by swapping ingredients, adding more vegetables or reducing portion size. And don’t forget, you can always create new traditions that revolve around a healthier food or activity (a post-Thanksgiving dinner family walk would be a great example!).
Be aware of food marketing and how it affects your choices.
Food companies spend millions of dollars a year on marketing. Take note of how advertising affects your daily decision-making when it comes to food. And remember, it’s not just fast food that is trying to lure you into making a purchase you might later regret. “Health washing” is a common practice where marketers attempt to make an ultra-processed food item seem more nutritious than it actually is by giving it labels like organic, low-fat, sugar-free, gluten-free and more. To play defense against the constant barrage of food marketing, limit the amount of television you watch with commercials, delete unnecessary food and restaurant apps from your phone and if possible choose driving routes with the least amount of drive-throughs. And as often as you can, ask yourself why you are purchasing a food item and if it actually aligns with the way you want to be nourishing yourself.
Cook more often.
Cooking your own food is linked to increased feelings of pride and connection. Those feelings can motivate you to feel more excited about the healthy, new foods you are adding to your diet and make you more likely to eat them. The best part is that to reap the benefits of cooking food yourself, the cooking doesn’t have to be complicated or time consuming. Choosing recipes that only require one pan, take less than 30 minutes or don’t require that much preparation at all will produce the same effects. If cooking still feels intimidating, consider starting with just 2-3 meals a week or ordering from a cook at home subscription service.
Enjoy your food.
Perhaps the best and most important tip on “how to eat” from the Canadian Obesity Guidelines is simply to enjoy your food. Though it seems easy, enjoying your food often doesn’t even make the list of priorities when someone is trying to shift to a new, healthier lifestyle. Just because the food is different or more nutritious than what you used to eat does not mean that you should hate eating it! Pick out healthy foods that you find appealing and prepare them in ways you will actually enjoy. Don’t get caught up in labeling foods as “good” or “bad,” or waste time feeling guilty or ashamed if you eat something off your plan. When you like what you eat, it is much easier to stay on track and maintain habits for life.
We eat every day, and for those of us who are trying to reach or maintain a healthier weight, choosing what and when to eat can feel like a never-ending and overwhelming task. But shifting our attention away from what the food is and instead to how we plan, prepare and enjoy it can make the task feel less taxing. No matter where you are in your weight loss and health journey, changing how you approach nutrition and eating will set you up for long-term success more than choosing the “perfect diet” ever could.
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