Dinner Green made for us the other night
I don’t drink alcohol. I don’t smoke cigarettes. I don’t do drugs, I don’t pop pills, I don’t even drink coffee (okay, I do occasionally, but as a treat, not a way to get out of bed).
But I do eat food. I love food. Actually, I think a better way to put it is that I love eating.
When I was a kid, I adored junk food. Chips, pizza, soda, Girl Scout cookies (Thin Mints are my favorite!), I loved it all. I probably loved it even more because it was never in great abundance at my house. I saw my friends at school get nutter butters and mini-bags of chips in their lunches at school. I always felt envious of them.
When I finally lived on my own, I would treat myself to an entire bag of chips all for myself. Or an entire pizza, an entire pint of ice cream, whatever I was craving, I let myself lavish the experience of not having to share with anyone.
And I HATED vegetables. I wouldn’t eat them. If they came mixed in with food I’d ordered at a restaurant, I would painstakingly pick them out. If I accidentally crunched into one, I’d gag involuntarily. The meal in the picture above would not have made my mouth water like it does now. Instead, it would have sent me in the opposite direction, looking for the frozen pizza.
So how did I turn all that around? How did I get from a place where I waited until my mother’s back was turned so I could throw my vegetables in the trash, to where I now eat them happily, and consider spinach and onions a luxury as opposed to a family-sized bag of Doritos?
It wasn’t overnight. I first started actively shifting my diet toward healthier eating almost a decade ago, and I know now that the “transition” may never be complete. There’s always new things to learn, new foods to try, new ways to look at eating. The best advice I’ve gotten as far as healthy eating goes came from my dear friend Shellie White of The Healthy Hooper: Learn as much as you can, then use what works for you.
You are the only one who can change your eating habits. You have to want to do it, and you have to know your reasons. I decided to start eating better because I kept hearing about centenarians on the radio. You know, the people who live to be 100 or older. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I decided I wanted to become a centenarian myself.
Look, you even get an award for making it to 100! (source)
I was out of high school and working at Subway when I realized that I probably wouldn’t become a centenarian if I didn’t learn to like vegetables. Being around them all the time likely helped prod me in the right direction as well. I had to chop the tomatoes, onions, bell peppers and cucumbers that I didn’t eat in preparation for the people who did. It was during my time at Subway that I decided to start training myself to like vegetables.
Nine years later, I live with a boyfriend who works at a restaurant that makes its meals from local organic produce. He cooks delicious, veggie-rich meals for us that I eat with pleasure.
Here’s what I’ve learned over the course of my healthy eating journey:
1) Know your reasons.
WHY do you want to eat healthier? To lose weight? To feel better? To avoid disease? To widen your food vocabulary? As I mentioned above, I knew I wanted to live to be 100. I also knew my family has a history of heart disease and diabetes, and if I was going to live to such a ripe age, I would have to get my eating under control.
What are your reasons? Make a list. Write them down. Think of as many as you can, then see if you can spot a common theme or goal among them. Do you want to stave off a family illness? Do you feel crummy and sluggish every day? If you don’t have a solid reason for changing your diet, you are less likely to push forward. Understand that healthy eating is a decision, a choice. Every choice has a reason and motivation. Find yours, write it down, and put it in a place where you will see it.
2) Start small.
If you’re where I was, eating nothing but Tombstone pizzas, Taco Bell and Dr. Pepper, the idea of transitioning to eating 100% healthy can seem daunting. So pick something small, something doable, and do it. For me, it was cucumbers. I challenged myself to eat one slice of cucumber every time I went into work. How’s that for small?
Other first steps to consider: Eliminate soda, replace it with water. A lot of people addicted to soda claim to “not like” water. I know, because I did it, too. But try it. Try going one day without soda. Now try going another day without it. Go a week, drinking only water, and then when you crack into that Dr. Pepper, it will taste sickeningly sweet and you may wonder how you ever drank so much of it in the first place. I decided to give up soda when I watched Supersize Me and learned just how much sugar was in one can. Knowing my family’s history of diabetes, I understood that if I didn’t get my sugar intake under control, I could end up giving myself insulin shots every day. And I’m terrified of needles. Just thinking of stabbing myself every day proves motivation enough to steer clear of too much sugar.
You can also try replacing dessert with fruit, trying to cook one meal a week at home rather than eating out, anything that points you in the right direction. Be patient with yourself, don’t expect to get there all at once. Let yourself try new things and see which ones stick.
3) Eat your veggies by hiding the fact that they’re veggies.
When I first started training myself to like vegetables, I had to fool myself into eating them. As I said earlier, eating them used to cause me to gag, so at first, I did as much as I could to mask their natural flavor. When I ate my one slice of cucumber, I’d drench it with ranch dressing. I LOVED ranch dressing, so I tried to tell myself I was eating a chip covered in ranch and not a cucumber. Eventually, I made myself slowly reduce the amount of dressing I put on each slice, until I could eat it without the dressing.
If ranch isn’t your cup of tea, pick a different medium. Italian dressing. Mashed potatoes. Macaroni and cheese. Chocolate ice cream. Whatever gets the vegetable in your mouth.
I found that getting used to the texture of raw veggies was just as big a challenge as getting used to the taste. If the same goes for you, try working cooked vegetables into your meals. They are mushier and a little bit easier to blend into something else.
4) Try cooking.
If you’re like me, you eat out a lot. You don’t know your ass from a measuring cup. You view people who can throw a meal together from haphazard ingredients in the cupboard as some sort of superhuman rocket scientists.
Challenging yourself to make your own meal is a good way to get more in touch with your food. In addition, you also get that fun rush of adrenaline that comes from creation. You started with a handful of ingredients, and now you have an edible thing! You may find that you love cooking, and be encouraged to try it more. For me, cooking never became a habit, but I have a much greater appreciation for what goes into a meal, and food in general.
5) Challenge yourself.
I love a good challenge. There’s nothing like specific goal, written down on paper and bragged about to all my friends and family so that they can mock me mercilessly if I fail. On the journey to good health, I’ve challenged myself to write down what I eat every day, to eat a specific set of foods every day, to eliminate sugar for thirty days (my mother successfully did this for an entire YEAR), to try making all my own meals for a week, to try eating small portions every few hours instead of three big meals a day, to try at least one bite of every meal offered to me.
Giving yourself a time frame makes it more achievable, since you don’t go into it thinking you’ll commit to it for life. Every eating challenge you take on will teach you something about yourself and the limits of your eating habits. You may discover something now that you put into practice years later. The point of these challenges is to push yourself out of your comfort zone and try something new, and then pay attention to how you react to it. How do you feel on your challenge? Do you think you could sustain something like it over the long term? Giving yourself bold tasks to accomplish will help you carve out the building blocks for your healthy lifestyle.
Read books, watch movies, talk to people, read blogs, browse YouTube. Learn about what your food is made of, where it comes from, what it does to your body, how it’s made, its history, its controversy, anything. The more you know about food, the more attention you’ll give it. You’ll stop looking at it as just something to put into your mouth and instead start thinking about how it will make you feel, what effect it might have on you, and more.
I’m not saying you’ll never eat another piece of cake again. But like anything else, knowledge is power. Knowing exactly what’s in that cake puts the power in your hands, everything you eat becomes an active choice.
Documentaries I love that changed my views on food include Supersize Me and Food, Inc.. Books that helped me learn about food and its effect on the body include The Great American Detox Diet by Alex Jamieson, and The PH Miracle by Robert Young. I also love Kris Carr’s blog, Crazy Sexy Life.
These are just jumping off points. There’s plenty of information out there, and learning is a constant process that should never feel finished.
7) Surround yourself with people who eat healthy.
One of the toughest things to do when you’re trying to change your eating habits is to hang around people who have no interest in changing theirs. You get teased for turning down cookies and mocked for eating small portions. Going out to eat together becomes challenging, especially if you do as I did and eventually eliminate fast food from your diet.
Sometimes people just won’t understand why you would want to eat anything other than junk food. It can be difficult, especially in the beginning, to try to explain it to them, and to stick to your guns when they offer you your favorite foods.
Find someone, even if it’s just one person, who also has an interest in eating well. Spend time with them. Eat with them. For me, it was my mother. I was lucky enough to have a mom who spent my whole life trying to teach me about health and good eating. I didn’t listen at first, but once I started to make that switch, she became a valuable resource and a trusted friend. I also knew that I could go visit her and get a good, healthy meal. If you don’t have anyone at all in your life like this, find someone! The Internet is full of social networking sites. Make a Facebook post mentioning you’re looking for someone to eat salad with. It sounds silly, but having someone in your corner makes everything easier.
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Above all, accept and embrace the journey that is health. Every day is a chance to discover something new about yourself. Every time you try a new food, experiment with a new diet, read a good food book, or chat with a friend about vegetables, you learn something about yourself. Your journey is going to be different from mine, and that’s GOOD. Take your time and feel it out. Trust that if you take enough small steps in the right direction, you will get there eventually.
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