February Module: Eat Healthier
By Leo Babauta
February’s module is fairly simple, and yet writing the plan is a bit tricky for me, simply because everyone is at a different place when it comes to eating healthier.
One person might be addicted to junk food (like I was in 2005), while another might eat fairly healthy but want to get more veggies in their life.
How do you create one plan for all these different levels of eating?
You make it an algorithm that can work for anyone, and then let people adjust the specifics themselves.
It works like this:
- Take a look at where you are
- Pick a small area to start with, and find a healthier alternative
- Make the change in a small, mindful way
- Enjoy the change
- Be accountable
Each of these steps is important, and no matter where you are, don’t feel like you can skip any of them. Not a single one, even if it seems trivial or perhaps doesn’t apply to you.
Let’s take a step back to see what we mean by healthy eating, look at some common problem areas, and then we’ll dive into the plan in the next article.
What Healthy Eating Is
Everyone has a different idea of what healthy eating is, so feel free to come up with (or stick to) your own definition — I’m not going to impose mine on you. What we’re really learning here is how to make the healthy changes you want to make.
That said, I’ll share my idea of healthy eating, as a starting point for you:
- We need a variety of nutrients in order to be healthy: protein, fiber, calcium, iron, Vitamin D, A, C, B12, etc.
- We also need a certain amount of calories to maintain our bodyweight (let’s say somewhere between 14-18 calories per pound of bodyweight, depending on activity level and whether you’re male or female).
- If we want to lose weight, we need a little less than that amount (let’s say 250-500 calories per day under the maintenance amount).
- We probably don’t want to have excess calories, unless we want to gain weight (let’s say you’re underweight or are trying to gain muscle).
- Within that calorie limit, we need to get all those nutrients. And so, if we are shooting for 1,800 calories (for example) and we eat 1,000 calories with almost none of the nutrients we need (empty calories), we only have 800 calories in which to get all the nutrients we need. That’s not enough, btw.
- We also want to avoid eating too much of certain things that have bad health effects — sugar, saturated fat (according to the bulk of scientific evidence), trans fat, sodium. They lead to things like high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and so on.
The problem with many foods is that they contain a lot of calories that don’t give you many nutrients, and they often have bad things you don’t want. Let’s take French fries — there might be 500 calories in them, with lots of salt and saturated fat, but almost none of the nutrients you need. Maybe a small amount of protein, iron, and fiber, but not enough to make up for all the calories you might eat.
So many people who eat empty calories (fries, chips, cookies, bagels, white rice, white potatoes, hot dogs, mayonaise) will end up with either:
- Too many calories and not enough nutrition — so you get nutrient deficient and overweight; or
- The right amount of calories (or too little sometimes), but far too little nutrients.
It’s rare that people get enough nutrients.
How do you get nutrients without overdoing the calories? Eat the healthy things that are nutrient dense: vegetables of all kinds (white potatoes being one of the exception), fruits, nuts, seeds, beans, whole grains like wheat berries, bulgur wheat, steel-cut oats, brown rice, quinoa. And avoid the empty calories and the unhealthy things (salt, saturated and trans fats, sugars), except in moderation.
That’s my definition of healthy eating.
Common Eating Problems To Work On
In this module, we’ll be following the plan (coming soon) to make changes … but you’ll decide what changes to make.
Based on the definition of healthy eating above, here are some common problems that many people have — you can choose from these, or find your own areas to improve:
- Fatty & sweet coffee drinks (Starbucks lattes, for example)
- Sugary sports drinks
- Beer and other alcohols (a little red wine is an exception)
- Sweets — baked goods, ice cream, candy, etc.
- White breads, white bagels, crossants, rolls, waffles, pancakes etc.
- White rice and potatoes (not counting colored potatoes like yams)
- Cereals (except healthy cereals like Ezekiel), Pop-tarts, toaster strudels, Eggo waffles, syrup
- Fried foods
- Too much red meats
- Fried eggs
- Too much salt (moderate amount)
- Not enough veggies & fruit
- Not enough nuts, seeds, beans
- Fatty dairy products
- Processed foods with chemicals, sugars, corn syrup,
- Prepared foods (microwaveable, canned foods except for beans & veggies)
- Canned meats
- Fried chicken
- Salads that have fatty dressings, lots of cheese, croutons, bacon
- Fast food
- Chain restaurants where everything is fried, sugary, oversized
- Eating mindlessly
- Overeating for emotional reasons
- Overeating at social occasions
- Snacking on unhealthy stuff at work, or while watching TV
- Hot chocolate
- Sweetened ice teas
- Fried vegetables (sometimes with fried cheese)
Are any of those things in your regular diet? Don’t worry if you have most of them — you can just pick one area for now and work on it, and slowly change other areas one at a time.
What if these are things you love, and can’t do without? Then you’re in the same boat I was in 8 years ago — I was 50-60 lbs. heavier, addicted to junk food, always snacking, always mindlessly overeating. I changed, one change at a time. In fact, I’m still making changes — it doesn’t happen anywhere close to overnight. But my tastebuds changed, a little at a time. I began to dislike the heavy, greasy feeling of many of the foods I ate, and began to become aware of the way they made me feel bad later on. I began to enjoy lighter, fresher foods, prepared simply with minimal crap added. I began to cook for myself and enjoy the taste of healthy home-cooked food rather than prepared food, or fast food. It took time, and I’m not going to pretend that I didn’t have relapses (or that I don’t even now). I did, and that’s OK. It’s a gradual process.
Even now, when I’m eating pretty well, I eat some of the stuff above (except the animal products, for ethical reasons) … but I do it in moderation. Nothing on that list is totally banned from healthy eating — we’re simply looking to contain it, keep it in moderation, and eat mostly healthy most of the time. It’s not that hard, especially if you follow the plan.
So where’s the plan? Coming soon!