I love everything about January. I love the quiet, the fresh start, the clean slate. And of course, this is the time of year when so many of us promise to do better. When we promise to eat right, drink less, stop going out to restaurants so often, quit smoking, save our money, exercise more and all the rest.
I don’t subscribe to the negativity often associated with New Year’s resolutions. (By mid-January, over a quarter of all New Year’s resolutions have been discarded, and only a scant 10% are actually followed through to the end of the year. Those are some pretty bleak statistics.) Changing habits is hard enough; I’d much rather start off on a positive note. I make a list of goals, not resolutions.
And with that positivity in mind, let’s revisit our annual primer on eating better. This isn’t designed to be an exhaustive list, nor a restrictive diet plan, merely a few simple tips to get your head in the right place for making healthy changes in your daily eating. Allow me to shout this from the rooftops: diets don’t work. Changing your mindset does.
- Change your thinking. Westerners are raised on a diet heavy on empty calories, leaving us stuffed but starved: we eat low-quality animal protein, refined grains and lots of sugar. In order to improve your diet, you need to alter your eating habits – and as with changing any habit, this can be challenging. Make a commitment to your body, your health and your overall wellness. It is completely worth it. You may have no idea how good you can actually feel.
- Eating healthier involves not only changing your thinking, but changing your taste buds, too. You might be accustomed to heavily salted, fatty, sugary foods and drinks; most Westerners are. Your new meals may taste bland at first, but this is part of the natural process of adjusting your palate. Soon enough you’ll discover the rich flavors inherent in fruits, vegetables, legumes and grains.
- Focus on a whole-foods eating plan that includes unlimited quantities of fresh vegetables, whole grains, beans and legumes, plus whole fruit (not fruit juice). Seek out good-quality fats, such as those found in nuts, seeds, avocados and olives. If you consume dairy and eggs, buy the best you can afford, and eat full-fat rather than reduced. Fiber-rich foods, such as whole grains and fibrous vegetables, contain valuable nutrients and will help you feel satisfied.
- Eat less meat, but spend more money on it. This doesn’t mean you have to go completely vegetarian; it just means that you should make vegetables and whole grains the primary focus of your recipes. Animal protein is difficult for your body to digest in large quantities and should represent an accent to your meal, not the center of the plate, plus the majority of meat animals in the U.S. are raised in horrific conditions. There is no single better way to both improve your own health and the environment’s than to reduce (or eliminate entirely) the amount of meat you eat. Know where your meat comes from and be willing to pay for it.
- Read labels, eat real food and avoid anything created in a lab. Do you know what all of the ingredients are? Can you buy those ingredients and theoretically make the item yourself? If you can’t pronounce or understand an ingredient, don’t buy that food. Even better, buy foods that don’t have ingredient lists – like fresh produce, raw nuts and seeds and whole grains.
- Watch out for added sugars. Just about every processed food includes added sugars, including cereal, yogurt, granola, applesauce, fruit juice, “energy bars,” condiments, salad dressings and many other everyday foods. Embrace naturally occurring sweetness in fruits and vegetables.
- Instead of automatically reaching for salt, consider other flavor enhancers such as spices, citrus and fresh herbs. A squeeze of fresh lemon or lime juice will brighten up almost any dish; fresh herbs add amazing flavor layers. Cinnamon, cumin and turmeric, among others, have positive effects on your metabolism and immune system. If you like spicy foods, kick up the heat – that peppery spice comes from capsaicin, a natural immune defender.
- Consider easy ways in which you can incorporate additional fruits and vegetables into your diet. Fresh smoothies made at home can include greens, flax, hemp, chia and other healthy additions that you won’t even notice in the final product. Soup is a fantastic way to eat more vegetables and reduce food waste; you can blend all of the sad vegetables in the bottom of your crisper drawer into a rich, flavorful base. If you like to snack, keep cut raw vegetables ready so you’ll reach for them often, and make your own healthy dips and dressings.
- Unless you’re drinking a whole-food smoothie that you made yourself, don’t drink your calories. Sugary sodas, juices, “vitamin waters,” and sweetened coffee drinks are packed with pointless calories; some studies indicate that Americans are getting over one-third of their daily caloric intake (and sugar) from sweetened beverages. These drinks won’t help you feel full, and you’re not getting any nutritional benefit. Drink black coffee, unsweetened green, black or herbal tea and plenty of plain water.
- Join a local farm’s community-supported agriculture program, or CSA. Not only are you supporting local business, but a CSA will give you a weekly delivery of fresh, local produce – and since you’ve already paid for it, you’ll be more likely to figure out ways to use it. Or start your own vegetable garden!
- Shop the bulk department of a well-stocked store. You can experiment with small quantities of different grains, pulses, legumes and spices and you don’t have to commit to purchasing huge portions. Bulk products are typically less expensive and eliminate a lot of packaging waste.
- Pay attention to your body, and understand that food isn’t just food. We eat for a lot of different reasons; hunger is rarely one of them. We eat because we’re bored, we’re tired, we’re stressed, we’re lonely, we’re unhappy or because some arbitrary schedule tells us it’s time to eat. Listen to your own body and eat when you’re actually hungry, not when you think you should eat. Don’t follow fads or trends, and ignore marketing. Eat the whole foods that make you feel and perform your best.
New Year’s Day for us always includes black-eyed peas, pork and greens.
- And the absolute number-one way to eat healthier: learn to cook. You don’t need to knock out ten-course feasts every weeknight, but restaurant food – ANY restaurant food – has substantially more salt, sugar and fat than you use at home, and most of it is heavily processed. Learn some basic techniques so you can make simple, quick, flavorful dishes that will help keep your mind and body in great shape.
Wishing you a healthy and delicious 2019!