Zen Habits: A Gradual Approach to Healthy Eating
BY LEO BABAUTA
A lot of us have tried various diets over the years, with little success. I remember trying about half a dozen different diets when I was trying to lose weight, and none of them stuck for more than a few weeks.
Why is that? A few reasons:
- You’re trying to change a lot of things at once — from learning new recipes to strategies for social situations to what to eat when you go out to what you should do when you’re craving a snack and much more. Making that many changes at once is a sure recipe for failure.
- You’re making huge changes all of a sudden. If you shift from unhealthy eating to healthy eating in one day, it will seem like a drastic change, and you won’t be used to it at all. This is very difficult, and if you’re struggling with something difficult, you’re probably not going to last more than a few weeks.
- You don’t really like your life with this new diet. You like the idea of being leaner, but you don’t like the diet, and you miss your old food. So it feels like a sacrifice, and you can only sacrifice for so long.
That’s a lot of powerful forces working against you, and that’s just the start. Having a spouse or friends who eat differently is difficult, and so is being surrounded by unhealthy food at home and work. What can we do?
What worked for me is gradual change. Let’s look at the why, then the how.
Why Gradual Change Works
If you understand the reasons that people fail at trying to create a healthy lifestyle, then you can see why gradual is better:
- It’s not overwhelming to start if you start small and only do one small change at a time.
- With gradual change, you’re not putting too much on your plate, as you are with a huge change, and so you’re less likely to drop it as the weeks progress because you’re too busy and have other things to focus on.
- It’s not an abrupt change, so it doesn’t seem so difficult, and it quickly starts to feel normal. You’re pushing out of your comfort zone, but not too much.
- You never really feel like you’re sacrificing.
Those are some good reasons. Let’s do this.
How to Transition to Amazingly Healthy
Before we start the gradual process, it’s a good idea to know where we’re going, generally. This won’t be the exact place we end up, because things will change along the way — including your taste buds — but let’s take a big picture look at what we’re doing first.
A less helpful approach is to think of the perfectly healthy diet, and say that’s what you need to do. For example, if for some reason we said you should only eat protein and vegetables, all day every day, then any deviation would feel like failure. And you might think that’s not a very fun life, so you wouldn’t be likely to stick to it.
Instead, try to imagine a life that includes healthy food that you’d really enjoy — but allows for other indulgences too. For some, that might mean you want a bagel and fruit for breakfast, then some healthier stuff for lunch and dinner (protein, veggies, quinoa or brown rice), maybe carrots and hummus for a snack, some green tea later in the afternoon, and finally a martini after dinner. That’s not 100 percent healthy, but it’s pretty great, and it’s a picture you’d enjoy perhaps.
For others, you might want a sweet in the afternoon, or your tall latte in the morning, or French fries at dinner with friends a few times a week. Those are all allowable in a healthy lifestyle, if most of the other things you eat are healthy. You want a picture of a healthy life that seems enjoyable to you.
Next, pick one small healthy change and stick with it for a week. Get some accountability, put a reminder on your fridge, plan ahead of time, do whatever it takes to make that small healthy change happen. If you are successful, pick another small change the next week, and repeat that every week you were successful.
What kind of small healthy changes can you pick each week? The list can be endless, but here are some examples:
- Eat a vegetable at dinner every day.
- Eat a vegetable at lunch every day.
- Eat a fruit for an afternoon snack.
- Have a fruit with breakfast.
- Cut back one alcoholic drink at night.
- Don’t eat after 8 p.m.
- Cut back on the sugar you add to your coffee to a minimal amount.
- Have a whole grain (quinoa, brown rice, etc.) with dinner instead of a white starch.
- Have hummus or raw nuts instead of those chips you eat for a snack.
- Have berries instead of the sweets you eat for a snack.
- Learn three new recipes this week (cook one night, then eat the leftovers the next, repeat).
- Eat at home most nights this week.
- Have yogurt with fruit or a tofu scramble with veggies for breakfast.
You get the picture. If you don’t like these changes, come up with some of your own. If these seem too hard, make them easier.
One small change at a time means a dozen over a few months. That adds up to some amazing change over time, and it’s change that’s likely to last much longer.
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