Are your expectations for healthy eating too unrealistic? Are you making it impossible for yourself to succeed? If so, maybe it’s time to test those expectations against reality.
What comes to mind when you read the words healthy eating?
Many of us think we “know” how to eat nutritiously (see here for more). We read magazines, books, blogs, and talk to our friends at the salon/barber. And, from this, we come up with a bunch of rules.
Healthy eating is ___ number of perfectly balanced meals each day.
Healthy eating is ___ calories, none eaten after ___ time of day.
Healthy eating is ___% of carbs after workouts.
Healthy eating is no wheat, pasta, meat, candy, ___, etc.
And so forth…
You know exactly what to expect with a healthy eating plan – right?
But what about when we try to implement these ideas into our own life and they don’t work? What happens next?
Well, usually we rationalize our way out of it. We start claiming that healthy food is too expensive. That we don’t have enough time to prepare it each week. That it’s too complicated.
Screw it – I’m getting a jumbo hoagie!
But here’s the thing: it’s not the minor challenges associated with eating better that get in our way. It’s our outlandish eating expectations that do.
So, in today’s post, I’ll be talking about 9 unrealistic expectations people have when trying to follow an improved eating plan. And I’ll also share some strategies for keeping it real.
1. Healthy eating isn’t… perfection.
While it’s not a bad idea to keep your favorite healthy foods on the ready. And it’s also cool to map out some health meal combos each day. Things don’t always go as planned.
You might run out of kale.
You might get asked out on a date.
Your neighbor might need you to babysit again.
Oh, no – my meal plan is blown!
Well, not really. Especially if you forget about trying to follow a perfect meal plan. Instead of trying to be the perfect meal plan follower, it’s always advisable to do your best with the options available.
You see, most of us use any deviation from the perfect meal plan as a welcomed justification for a gas station corn dog bender. If you turn to health-deteriorating foods each time your day doesn’t go as planned, my crystal ball says you’ll be fat in six months.
When you run out of kale, what about using frozen broccoli instead?
When you get asked out on a date, what about asking the restaurant staff for a big salad with nuts/seeds? (If you eat meat, have them throw some lean meat on top).
When you need to babysit at someone else’s house, what about taking a piece of their fruit and opening a can of beans? (Or adding some lean protein).
I don’t know everything about nutrition – but I do know that perfect eating plans are a fallacy. Life happens. And the people in the best shape figure out how to deal with it.
2. Healthy eating isn’t… calorie expertise.
“If I could just eat XXXX calories each day, I’d be fit and healthy.”
Good luck trying to sell this idea to your emotional brain.
The amount of food we eat is regulated by countless factors — everything from food poundage to TV commercials. People who con themselves into thinking they can simply tabulate a calorie total and eat this way for life are sadly mistaken.
In the short run (a few weeks or months) it may work. But, in the long run, it fails every time. In fact, the best calorie counters I know always end up overfat and/or have a miserable relationship with food.
And here’s a shocker: adding up your calorie intake and expenditure while trying to balance the two can’t be done. Honestly, you’re luck to get a rough estimate on the best days. Harvest time, soil quality, farm location, transport time, our gut health, the food we are eating (lentils vs. donut), and how we prepare food all influence how many calories we actually absorb.
Without calorie counting, many people don’t know what to do. And that’s a shame because we can all tap into our body’s wisdom. Indeed, there are people all over the world who are in great shape without counting calories. They accomplish this “miracle” by simply listening to their own hunger cues and then eating only until satisfied.
When we listen to our needs, we’ll notice they are different each day. If your co-worker is eating lunch or you smell a muffin, first ask yourself if you are truly hungry. If you decide, after consultation with your body, that you are, try to reach a comfortable point of satiety – say 80-90% full – instead of stuffing yourself.
[And here’s the trick: it takes about 15-20 minutes for our bodies to sense satiety after starting a meal. So eat slowly.]
Eating when hungry and stopping when comfortable (and not stuffed) makes sense to our emotional brain, it feels good, and it keeps us lean.
3. Healthy eating isn’t… science overload.
“Gosh Ryan, you’re so smart and handsome (added for effect). Each day you must spend hours figuring out exactly what to eat.”
I’ll come clean: I keep my eating as non-scientific as possible. I don’t like to work on any equations or formulas while preparing a meal.
If I do the following, I’ve had a successful day of eating:
- Eat real, whole, plant foods.
- Eat when hungry, stop when no longer hungry.
- Chew a stick of gum with vitamin B-12 (since I don’t get any from diet) while relaxing in the sun (for vitamin D).
That’s about it. I’d like to take this opportunity to thank my seven years of nutrition, health and science education, as well as my work with hundreds of clients, for helping me to come up with these ideas.
Here’s the cool part: you too can formulate simple guidelines after reading, discussing, writing and pondering all of the nutrition/health science that exists. The truth is, science is the root of simple eating recommendations. And here’s the good news: PN thinks about all the science so you don’t have to (unless you actually want to, then join in).
The healthiest and leanest people I know don’t sweat about nutrition science each day. But you know the people who do? Yo-yo dieters. They have glycemic index rating books in their back pockets and equations for macronutrient percentages built into their cell phones.
Getting scientific has a place – and that place is for elite athletes and physique competitors (less than 0.5% of the population). So, unless you are reading this article en route to your Olympic time trials or getting ready to qualify for IFBB pro status, you don’t need to worry about the science.
You can easily be fit and lean for life without a nutrition degree.
4. Healthy eating isn’t… an escape from boredom.
Based on most TV food commercials I see, meals are extremely fun, stimulating, and potentially life-changing.
But guess what?
Best case scenario is that you look forward to the food you consume each day. Worst case scenario is that you feel neutral about your daily food intake and then move on with other life pursuits.
Life can become dull, so we’ll amp up mealtime stimulation to get rid of the boredom. But stimulation from food is short-lived. Using food to escape boredom is a terrible idea, because once the thrill of the night time ice cream extravaganza wears off, you’ll immediately start looking for another flavour.
Remember this: if our lives are dull and un-interesting, this is a fundamental problem that can’t be fixed with food no matter how hard we try (see here for more).
Many of the things we do in life, from our career to watching 35 hours of TV per week (the average for an American adult), are to deter boredom and bring stimulation. If we expect each meal to be an unforgettable party, we’re chasing something that doesn’t exist, and instead we’ll just end up fat.
5. Healthy eating isn’t (always)… delici-gasmic.
A consumer report found that 4 out of 10 shoppers believe healthy foods don’t taste good (see here for more).
Folks, let’s be real. Fresh steamed broccoli with slivered almonds and lemon juice tastes good to most of us (especially if we’re truly hungry). But it will never rival Cinnamon Toast Crunch. Cinnamon Toast Crunch is too good (even when we aren’t truly hungry).
Most of us have calibrated our taste buds to the Cinnamon Toast Crunch level. This leaves steamed broccoli/almonds alone and uneaten in the fridge. It’s not broccoli’s fault it isn’t tasty enough. It’s ours. We’ve calibrated our taste buds a certain way (see here for more).
Trust me: Don’t eat any desserts for a couple months and you’ll come to find that fruit is sweet enough.
Food should be good. And satisfying. But if we expect mind-blowing delici-gasms at every meal, then we’re in for a future filled with disappointment, excess body fat, and disease.
6. Healthy eating isn’t… a new identity portal.
Eating lentils for dinner instead of a Big Mac doesn’t change your character or identity. You aren’t a better or worse person because of it.
If you really hope to become someone who is lean and healthy forever, then you actually need to focus on changing other parts of yourself too. If you only change the food you eat, well, then you only change the food you eat.
Many people want to develop new eating patterns so they will then be happy, get a dream job, and get a dream date. If I had a hemp seed for each time I witnessed this sequence of events… well, I wouldn’t have any hemp seeds.
Change from the inside out first. Deep down. If we are a healthy person and honestly believe in the value of good nutrition, our food choices will match this identity.
Food won’t make you happy and healthy. You make yourself happy and health-pursuing first.
7. Healthy eating isn’t… easy (at first).
I’ll never forget what my dad told me after I stomped off the soccer field back in 1989: “Life isn’t easy.” Same goes for raising a family, holding down a job, saving money, mastering the piano, and eating healthily.
Eating steamed asparagus instead of buffalo wings is simple, but valuing health and embracing healthy eating for life is messy and challenging.
If today is the first day you had oatmeal instead of donuts, then congrats. You just started the journey. Now you just have history, preconceived notions, family, friends, restaurants, hunger hormones, society, your job, co-workers, advertising, magazines, and experts to deal with. Best of luck.
The good news is that the more you work on it, the more convenient (and less work) healthy eating will become. Practice makes perfect. Eventually, it’s pretty seamless and you don’t have to think about it. You just do it.
The other good news is that if you’re looking for support, you’ll find plenty here. Check out our Precision Nutrition Coaching and Certification programs — with these things combined, we offer full-service support, mentorship, coaching, and information — everything you need to start and keep on eating better.
8. Healthy eating isn’t… endless food preparation.
One of my clients steamed frozen Brussels sprouts and opened a can of navy beans for dinner last night.
One of my clients has a nut butter sandwich on sprouted grain bread with a big salad for lunch nearly every day.
One of my clients always has a green smoothie for breakfast.
One of my clients hires someone to prepare and deliver their healthy meals during the week.
And we encourage all of our clients to prep food in bulk, in advance, so they can walk through the door and grab something quick, tasty, and ready to go from the fridge, slow cooker, or freezer. It’s an efficient, effective strategy that works great for busy people. (Plus, chili, stew, or curry tastes even better the next day.)
Notice any trends here? I do. Lots of nutrition with little food prep.
9. Healthy eating isn’t… restriction.
Imagine this: Starting tomorrow you can’t ever have cookies again.
What will you likely spend the rest of today doing? Probably crushing sleeves of cookies, right?
This is how most people approach healthy eating. They put certain “bad” foods off limits and “force” themselves to eat “good” foods. This creates a realm of restriction, ultimately leading to rebound overeating.
Contrary to popular belief, there are healthy versions of every food: pizza, burgers, lasagna, sandwiches, pie, cookies, ice cream, chips, and whatever other so-called “bad” food you can think of. It’s up to you to seek it out. (Check out Gourmet Nutrition for ideas.)
So, what should you expect from healthy eating?
- Healthy eating isn’t perfection. It’s doing your best with what you have.
- Healthy eating isn’t calorie expertise. It’s paying attention to your body’s natural hunger and fullness cues.
- Healthy eating isn’t science overload. It’s keeping things simple, following basic principles, and using common sense.
- Healthy eating isn’t an escape from boredom. It’s just what our body needs to stay healthy — no more and no less.
- Healthy eating isn’t always delici-gasmic. It tastes good, but not too good.
- Healthy eating isn’t a new identity portal. We need to change from the inside out and live authentically as a happy, health-pursuing person.
- Healthy eating isn’t easy. But, if you organize your life and daily routine to enable living healthily, you’ll find it gets easier and easier.
- Healthy eating isn’t endless food preparation. With a few tricks and tips, you can whip together something tasty and healthy. If you enjoy lots of food prep, then do it. If you don’t, don’t.
- Healthy eating isn’t restriction. It’s about integrating your values so seamlessly into your life that you can easily make smart, healthy choices without feeling “deprived”.
Eat, move, and live… better.
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