Advice on making a lifestyle instead of a diet

In 2009, Michael Pollan published a book called Food Rules. It’s a relatively short book that has 64 bits of advice on what to eat and how to eat. Some of the advice is useful, depending on what your life circumstances are. Some of the advice seems a bit pretentious to me, for example “It’s not food if it’s called by the same name in every language,” or “avoid food products that make health claims.” In the case of the “Health Claims” bit of advice, there is literally a health claim for fruits and vegetables. You probably shouldn’t avoid those. Anyway.

Over the years of majoring in nutrition science and subsequently becoming a dietitian, my diet has changed dramatically. I like to think that I eat generally “healthier” but I don’t obsess over what I eat, nor do I feel guilty about anything I eat.

I have my own set of personal “food rules” that I like to call my ideal diet, and it’s been really useful to me. Not only does it have goals for eating certain foods, it also includes goals for food behaviors. Behaviors that I have developed over the years, and behaviors I’m still working on. Overall, it helps me keep a good balance as far as eating goes. And it’s not a diet – it’s just what I’ve integrated into my life.

I want to share these bits of advice with you so that you can start a healthier lifestyle without feeling miserable about it. Here we go!

Learn how to cook

At some point it stops being cute when you say “Lol, I only know how to cook ramen and toast.” You owe it to yourself to learn how to cook something. You don’t have to be David Chang or Wolfgang Puck, but you can learn how to cook some rice and bake fish. Roast a vegetable, even. Learning how to cook is advantageous in many ways – you can control what goes into your food, you can feel proud that you created something (hopefully) edible, it’s usually cheaper, and you get to have leftovers! And that’s only the tip of it!

Photo by Clem Onojeghuo

Try cooking something new every week (or at least once a month)

Once you start cooking, you can venture out to new foods and cuisines. Did you ever want to learn how to bake bread? Do it! Is there a dish that you want to recreate from a restaurant? Go ahead! Is there a new food item that you saw on Pinterest? I’m sure you can try it out! Sure, not everything will come out good (like my attempt to make chicken paprikash) but it’s worth finding out what you’re capable of. Also, you’ll get real tired of cooking the same 3 recipes on repeat.

Only one dessert per day (at most)

I like dessert. Sometimes I have dreams about eating cake, and they are great. I can eat a lot of dessert if the opportunity is presented to me, so I try to be mindful. If I’m going to have dessert, I try to have dessert only once a day. If there are multiple dessert options presented to me, then I think about a few things: which one will taste the best, which one have I not had before, and which one have I had recently. It helps me keep a good rotation of desserts without eating all of them. Yes, it can be sad to not eat all of the sweets, but it’s also sad to suffer the short- and long-term effects of excessive added sugar.

Figure out your food group goals

I have a food goal for all of the food groups. I consider the variety of items within the food groups, the amount that I want to eat per day or per week, and what foods I always want to have stocked within my fridge. For example, one of my fruit goals is to always keep apples in the house (and indeed there are some jazz apples in my kitchen). Another goal I have is to try different kinds of breads!

Photo from Kaboompics

If you don’t like it, it may be because it was cooked the wrong way

There’s a lot of food that I eat now that I didn’t think I would eat 10 years ago. Much of that is due to it being cooked the wrong way (too mushy, too dry, too hard to chew, etc) or by not having the right flavors. Give a food a shot by trying it several ways to see if you dislike it completely, or if there are certain ways that you’ll eat it. Due to international trade and mixing of cultures, many cuisines use the same ingredients in vastly different ways (varying in cooking style and flavor profile). Maybe you hate sauerkraut, but you love kimchi or curtido. You’ll never know until you try it…which leads me to my next bit of advice:

Try it for yourself

Word of mouth for some foods can be terrific, but in other cases it can be terribly misleading. The first thing that comes to mind is how television programs and movies promote the perception that all vegetables taste bad. For example, Brussels sprouts. Have you ever heard someone speak favorably about them on a popular television show? I doubt it. But have you ever had Parmesan-encrusted Brussels sprouts? Or how about honey and soy roasted Brussels sprouts?  I find them to be absolutely delicious. If you solely depend on other people to tell you what you should and shouldn’t like to eat, then you may miss out on really good stuff. The perception of taste varies between each individual (the science is very interesting, especially for “supertasters“). What may taste terrible for one, may be amazing for another! Gulp by Mary Roach briefly explores the science of taste in case you’re interested in learning more.

Photo by Jakub Kapusnak

Figure out your food needs in different environments

How I eat at home is quite different from how I eat at work, and there is surely a different set of considerations for the gym. Many environments force us to adapt our eating habits, and not always in good ways. Think about what can help you perform optimally (e.g., around workouts) or can throw your eating habits out of whack (e.g., snacks in the office or staff cafeteria). If you have a plan, you don’t have to worry about being caught off-guard.

Consider all dimensions of food and nutrition

This one varies on what you find important to you. Food is so multidimensional, and can include nutrition, taste, culture, health, accessibility, labor, craft-work, agricultural methods, sustainability, and more! Food doesn’t simply exist to nourish (or malnourish) us, so I think it’s important to think about your relationship with food, and the world’s relationship with food. Doing that may alter the way that you eat, or the way that you think about food. Before you do move forward with any significant changes, make sure to do research and find information from reputable sources (shoutout to Pubmed!).

Listen to your body

This one is super important! Your body can tell you a lot of things about your eating patterns. It can tell you if you’re dehydrated (drink more water!), if you’re not getting enough fiber (shoutout to the Bristol stool scale!), or if you’re eating too much or too little. Paying attention to how you feel physiologically after eating certain foods (heavy, tired, energetic, etc) can help guide you towards what kinds of foods you should eat more or moderate. Also, take notice of when you eat. Are you eating because you’re hungry, or because you’re bored? Once you figure out what your body needs, it makes a world of difference.

Disclaimer: This isn’t even the full extent of what I try to do to eat healthy, and I don’t even follow these all of the time. I do try to continuously figure out what works best for me based on research, new experiences, and learning about the complex topic of food and nutrition. You can try something similar, but ultimately food is highly individualized and there is no “one size fits all” eating pattern. Furthermore, how you eat is going to change throughout your life so go along with the adventure. 🙂

Until next time!