I haven't eaten well in a few years. Back in 2013, when we lived in NC the first time, I was in the best shape of my life and eating the best diet I'd ever eaten. I ate three meals a day, full of healthy foods I love, avoided gluten, drank more water and generally felt great.
I rode horses roughly five times per week and did barre workouts at home. I swam regularly, having learned to swim by taking lessons with my kids. I hustled a lot between errands, household chores and getting out with friends. I felt amazing.
Then, we moved. With moves comes disruption, and with disruption, I eat. Specifically, I eat sweets.
Over the past four years, and two moves later, I've gotten into some dodgy eating habits. Seeing my pantry in my post a few days ago was shocking to me. I'm not sure I've ever had so many low-quality, packaged foods in my pantry before.
As I went about the past few days, I thought about my eating habits and where everything went off the rails, why that happened and how to get back to healthier habits.
I've struggled with eating my whole life, like many Americans (men and women) because our culture is confused about eating. We are the mother-nation of a wellness culture that takes the thinking away from the individual and places it squarely on an industry designed to make money off our insecurities, weaknesses and confusion. The irony is that this industry adds to the confusion about healthy eating more than any other part of American culture.
Over the years, in and out of fad diets, while eating no fat at all to eating tons of fat but no carbs, I've figured out what works for me, what is sustainable for my lifestyle and how to create healthy habits and a diet that gives me energy and a little peace.
To that end, here are my 5 Rules for Healthy Eating (which may just work for you, too):
Eat Only Foods You Love
I don't believe eating foods we dislike is sustainable or brings us joy, and I think food should bring joy. I realize some people feel food is fuel, but for me, it's much more than that. It's an experience, one I have at least three times a day. Food is nourishing, but part of that nourishment is mental/emotional. Whether or not that should be the case is, to some people, debatable, but for me it's just the way it is. So, I don't eat foods I dislike, even if they're chock-full of vitamins, minerals, protein and fiber.
This list includes: zucchini, squash, tofu (outside China), protein powder, sweet potatoes, unseasoned meat, egg whites, mushy bananas, bad wine, coffee with butter/coconut oil, chia seeds in any form, smoothies without yogurt, brown rice, artichokes and kale.
The list is longer, I'm sure, but those are the biggest offenders. While I realize some people love, say, zucchini, I don't.
What I focus on instead are the healthy, whole, natural foods I do love: mango, berries, salmon, apples, cucumber, olive oil, eggs, full-fat yogurt, oats, white rice, broccoli, asparagus, almonds, walnuts, coffee with half-n-half or HC, spinach and peanut butter.
When I want to eat healthier, I look to this list of foods, the foods I love and plan my meals accordingly. I know, from experience and common sense, that if I try to base my diet on foods I hate (no matter how healthy they are), I'll be reaching for the M&Ms in no time.
Enjoy Three Full Meals
When I snack, I never feel satisfied. I can't eat full meals when I'm snacking because my stomach hasn't had time to digest my food. So, I eat these mini-meals that trainers across America recommend to keep our metabolism going.
I do not believe in this theory of eating....at all. At all. It takes about a week to quit snacking. Your body will revolt at first. Ten a.m. is the time we eat _____________ (fill in the blank with your favorite snack).
The truth is, I've lived in parts of the world where people not only went from breakfast to lunch without a snack, but they were doing actual work like farming. Farming. Not sitting at a computer.
Also, snacking might keep our metabolism chugging along but it also keeps our digestion churning, and you know what? Our digestion needs a break!
Finally, at the dentist recently, he said teeth decay quickly now because we eat so often, not allowing our teeth to have a break from all that acid coming at them.
What works best for me is to eat three solid meals. I need to sit down for these meals and eat foods I love. I need to chew slowly, sit quietly and eat a variety of foods rather than scarf down a protein bar or a handful of almonds and promise myself I'll cover it with a carton of yogurt in an hour. When I eat in this distorted way, I never feel full or happy or satisfied. I don't feel nourished.
So, as I look toward healthier habits, I know I need to cut out the snacks, sit down to meals and fill my plate with foods I love - slow, steady and sustainable.
Focus: One Thing at a Time
When I go off the rails, it's not just with one thing or in one area. There is often much to change whenever I've gotten wonky with eating, exercise, sleep or anything else.
I could focus on any number of ways to eat healthier.
I could, for example, eat more fruits/veggies, drink more water, snack less often, chew slowly, limit alcohol, get more fiber, eat less sugar....the list goes on.
What works best is to focus on one thing at a time. One. Then, when I've begun eating more fruits and vegetables, I can add in an extra glass of water each morning. Then, when that's become a habit, I can cut out dessert after lunch. You get the point.
When I try to do it all at once, it's exhausting, overwhelming and short-lived.
I promise you that if you focus on one thing, one change, one habit, it will build you up to work on another....and another....and another.
Sleep, Sleep, Sleep
After I had kids, I had a blog where I wrote about my pursuit of a bikini body. I never actually lost any weight during the four years I wrote that blog. I just went up and down with the same 10 pounds, and my body looked relatively the same.
But....after four years of writing about my diet, exercise and health-living habits, I saw a pattern emerge: when I slept well, I ate well. Period. It was stunning how clear it was.
After that, I began to focus on my sleep. When I changed that one thing, everything else got better. I became happier, more patient as a mother (though I still struggle in an epic way), healthier and had better cognitive function over all.
When I don't sleep well, when I go to bed late, sleep at odd hours, get off schedule, drink too much alcohol before bed or eat sugar before I fall asleep, the world just kind of gets off-kilter for me. I snack on sugary foods the next day. I feel sluggish and lethargic. The world seems negative, and I am suddenly the victim of any host of transgressions, most of them entirely a figment of my exhausted imagination.
If I was starting from scratch and trying to get to a healthy overall baseline, I'd focus on sleep first and foremost. Everything else is secondary.
Keep it Sustainable
There are a ton of diets, workouts and lifestyle habits people subscribe to that are pretty intense. When I read about the habits of, say, SEALS, I can get pretty pumped up. I think: I'll do Crossfit-style workouts every day, two-a-days, until this body is whipped into machine-like precision.
I'll eat sweet potatoes and turkey cutlets and run marathons.
I'll kill it.
Obviously, this works for a tiny, tiny, tiny percentage of the population and often results in myopic, narrow lifestyles that don't have room for, say, motherhood, travel, parties, friends, etc.
For me, anything like this, anything extreme is unsustainable.
When I engage in unsustainable habits (or at least try to engage in them), I fail and ultimately feel worse about myself than before I began.
Now, when I prepare to learn a new sport or try a new workout or even try a new diet, I ask myself: can I see myself doing this in 20 years?
If the answer is no, I don't even begin.
If what I'm thinking about doing is going to break my body down in the long-term, I don't do it. If it's going to make me hangry, I don't do it. If it's going to make me dread meal times, I don't do it.
I'm in this for the long haul, this desire to be healthy. I want to be active in twenty years. That's when I'm going to have the time to hike or travel or do yoga all morning, when the kids are off at college or working jobs and rearing their own kids, when I get to waft in as a lithe grandmother and offer my grandchildren dodgy treats and then wave off before bedtime because I'm meeting girlfriends for an art film.
I don't do extremes not because they don't work or offer a kind of compelling lifestyle but because I can't sustain them. Part of me wishes I could, but the part of me that knows myself realizes I can't.
As you can see, my rules don't have anything to do with protein counts, specific diets, eating 8 meals a day or any other structured rules. Those come and go, the rules and tips and protein counts. Tomorrow, there may well be a new style of eating that comes into fashion, and a year later, some other trick comes along.
While I love to try new tips and tricks, when I come back to these 5 rules and keep it simple, I find my diet cleaning up and my overall health improving.
There's an idea floating around the ether (definitely one I cling to) that we don't have to worry about what we eat, that only neurotic celebrities, professional athletes and housewives worry about the food they eat and that moderation is key.
First, Americans are so wonky when it comes to diet that we have to focus lest we fall victim to any plethora of bad information rampant in our culture. Also, because our culture regarding food and health is so complicated and distorted, I don't know that letting society in general be a guide is the best way to go about healthy eating in our country. Finally, we are a society of over-consumption and under-production - that is, we sit and eat, drink and consume more than we actually get up, get going and get moving, so we've got to pay attention to the balance between a long evening of cocktails and pasta and whether or not we actually moved much throughout the day.
I'm focusing right now on eating more fruits and vegetables. I've already seen an improvement in digestion, which is huge for me. I've added smoothies to my daily menu, and not only am I eating more fruits/veggies, but I don't feel so anxious all the time about adding a certain veggie to a meal at dinner, for example.
Next I'll focus on cutting down on sugar.
And from there, we'll see.
What I know is that I'll have ups and downs my whole life. Life is fluid. We go in and out of balance, which is where we learn to balance.