By Leo Babauta
I’m not a big fan of “dieting” — a word that conjures up images of hunger and chewing on celery or doing some kind of fad diet — but I do believe in trying to eat a healthier diet.
Don’t diet, but do stick to a healthy diet, in other words.
But that’s easier said than done, as we all know. The healthy diet goes out the window around the holidays, for example, or when there’s a family party or a function at work full of unhealthy food, or when we go out to eat with friends, or when we go to a ballgame or amusement park or the beach, or when … well, you get the idea. There are lots of ways to get off a diet.
And there are just as many ways to stick to your healthy diet.
I’m not perfect, by any stretch of the imagination, and I often will give in to temptations. But I’ve gotten better over time, partially because practice makes perfect and partly because I’ve learned a lot of great tips, from my fellow bloggers and from you, my favorite readers in the world.
So today we’re going to look at a few of the tips and tricks that I’ve found useful in sticking with a healthy diet.
1. Know your motivation. I have a friend, Jerry, who is getting healthy so that he’ll be alive and well to see his 3-year-old son grow up. When he gets tempted by evil junk food, he asks himself whether he’d rather eat the sweets or see his son grow up. When you have a powerful motivation like this, and remember what choice you’re making whenever you face temptation, it’s easier to be strong when you’d otherwise cave in.
2. Take it in gradual steps. You don’t have to overhaul your diet overnight. I highly recommend changing your diet in small steps — just drink water instead of soda, for example, or eat fruit instead of candy or chips. Once you adjust to this small change, make another a week or two later, and so on until you’re eating much healthier a few months later. This small and gradual process makes it much easier to stick with a healthy diet.
3. Don’t be drastic. I’ve seen fad diets like the Cookie Diet, Atkins, the Banana Diet, and different cleansing fasts — and I don’t recommend a single one of them. They’re drastic, and very few people can last with them for a long time. And the fact is, while you might lose a lot of weight with a drastic diet in a short amount of time, as soon as you get off the diet and go back to eating unhealthily, you’ll gain the wait back. Don’t do anything drastic — make long-lasting changes.
4. Choose foods you love. This is incredibly important. If you hate eating salads, don’t make salads a key to your new diet. I happen to love salads, but everyone has different tastes. Don’t eat foods just because they’re good for you — eat them because they’re healthy AND you love them. For me, that means berries and almonds and oatmeal and salads and yogurt and cottage cheese and tofu, but for others it might be salmon and lean grass-fed beef and asparagus and walnuts. Find the foods you love that are healthy, and you’ll stick with the diet much longer.
5. Pack food. Always bring healthy food with you, wherever you go. Sometimes this just means packing snacks if you’re going on a few errands (I like almonds and fruit), other times you might want to pack more substantial meals and pack them with ice to keep them fresh. Packing your lunch to work is a great idea, along with a bunch of snacks to keep you satisfied all day without eating the donuts someone brought in.
6. Eat before you go. If you’re going out to a restaurant or party, eat a small healthy meal first. That way you won’t be starving and won’t need to eat a huge amount of unhealthy food. You can get by on a salad or some fish and steamed veggies or an appetizer or something like that, and still enjoy the company of your friends and loved ones.
7. Don’t get hungry. When you allow yourself to starve, you will often binge, because your blood-sugar levels are so low that you crave instant sugar (or refined flour). When you’re starving, you are more likely to indulge in donuts or cake. So eat snacks throughout the day, or small meals, so that you never get super hungry.
8. Choose healthy when you eat out. If you go to a restaurant or party, look for the healthy choices. I love a good salad bar, but you could also choose a lean cut of meat, grilled not fried, with steamed veggies, or some black bean or lentil soup, or something like that.
9. Indulge in little bits. I don’t believe in going extreme and not allowing myself to eat treats such as … mmm, chocolate cake. But the key is to eat healthy most of the time, and when you do indulge in a treat, do it in small amounts. Two or three bites of cake or ice cream, for example, won’t kill your diet but will satisfy your sweet craving. Eating a whole tub of ice cream? Not recommended.
10. Eat small portions when you go out. If you go to a party with lots of food, try for small portions. Just eat until you’re slightly full, then have some water and talk with people without eating for awhile, then when you get hungry have another small portion, and so on. Try for the amount of food that will fit in your hand. If you space out several small portions over the course of a couple hours, you’ll feel satisfied but never take in too much.
11. Have tasty substitutes for your weaknesses. When I feel like eating something sweet, I’ll often have berries or fruit. My sister Kat likes to mix berries with almond butter, chocolate protein powder, and water — a weird but satisfying treat. Whatever your weaknesses, find a substitute that will satisfy your cravings when they inevitably come up.
12. Clear your home of unhealthy snacks and foods. If you have junk food in your home, you’re more likely to give in at some point and eat it. But if you clear your home of these foods, you won’t have that temptation. Clear your fridge and cabinets of candy, baked sweets, fried foods, foods made with refined flour, fatty and greasy things like chips and fries, and so on.
13. Bring your own healthy food to a party. If it’s allowed, bring a dish to a party you’re planning on attending, and make it a healthy one. I like to bring a couple of my favorites: Leo’s chili, and my Best Soup Ever.
14. Fill yourself up with water, fruits, veggies, and lean protein at a party. Lots of parties will have at least a couple of healthy options — some fruits or veggies, maybe some lean protein that’s not fried. I will fill myself up on these, even if they’re not entirely a meal, and then eat a healthy meal later.
15. Don’t stuff yourself. Make this your ultimate rule. Even if you break down and get fatty, fried food at a restaurant or party, just don’t eat until you’re stuffed. Try the Okinawan rule of eating until you’re 80% full. This way you can eat the unhealthy stuff and still limit the damage.
16. Don’t starve yourself. This might sound like the “don’t get hungry” tip above, but it’s bigger than that — don’t eat so little that you’re starving. For most women, that means don’t go below 1,200 calories a day — for men, it’s 1,500. But even those are too low for many of us. You only want to cut a moderate amount of calories from your diet — if you starve yourself, you’ll lose muscle, you’ll get unhealthy and you’ll end up falling off the diet eventually.
17. If you indulge, burn it off. Sometimes all of the strategies above will fail. That’s OK. Don’t beat yourself up about it — just get back on the wagon, back on track. Look at it as a small bump in the road. And better yet, get outside and burn off the calories by running, walking briskly, playing sports, whatever it takes. Then start eating healthy again.