A 12-Step Program to Eating Healthier Than Ever Before

“If I’d known I was going to live so long, I’d have taken better care of myself.” – Leon Eldred

By Leo Babauta

As I mentioned recently, I was a junk-food addict in my not-too-distant past, and ballooning alarmingly around the waistline. I was addicted to burgers and sodas and fries and pizzas and sweets and all the fast food you can think of and most especially chocolate.

Today, while I can’t say I only eat wheat germ and fresh veggies picked right from my home garden, I generally eat healthier than I have ever done in my life.

How did I get from Point A (junk food junkie) to Point B (much healthier diet)? I’ll let you in on my secret (and it’s not a secret if you’re one of the many people who discovered this already): I didn’t go from Point A to Point B. It’s more like Point A to Point Z, with lots of points in between.

Actually, that’s the secret to any meaningful improvement, in my experience, but we’ll just talk about eating healthy for now.

Today I’m a vegetarian (mostly vegan) and I try to eat lots of fruits and veggies and whole grains and nuts and beans. I’ll admit that I still have burgers, though they’re veggie burgers instead of fatty meat burgers, and I usually have them with whole grain bread or buns and lots of fresh veggies on them. And I don’t use fatty mayo anymore, but Veganaise, which helps.

I also eat pizza, but it’s not covered in sausages or pepperoni, but veggies. I still eat burritos, but I try to fill them with low-fat beans, veggies, salsa, instead of fatty stuff. I really really enjoy soy yogurt and fresh berries, whole-grain cereal with soy milk, oatmeal with berries and nuts. Mmmmm.

My point is that I don’t deprive myself, but have learned to love foods that are at least a little bit healthier, and in some cases much healthier. I also don’t miss meat at all, but the secret to that is the baby steps we’ll talk about in this post.

The Problem With Most Diet Plans
New fad diets in books and magazines and the Internet are a dime a dozen. Some of them are actually pretty decent, but almost all of them have one single flaw that will make it very difficult for anyone to stick to them.

The flaw? They try to get you to change your entire diet at once.

That just doesn’t work for most people. I’ve tried lots of diets, and for the first week, I’m extremely enthusiastic and determined. But such a drastic change in diet is hard to sustain, and soon you give in to temptation and then it falls apart. We’ve all been there.

The Power of Small Changes
The title of this post is misleading, and I’ll admit that. Most people associate a “12-step program” with alcoholics anonymous or similar program, but this post isn’t about those programs at all.

That it is about is making changes to your diet one small step at a time. Baby steps. The miracle of this is that we adjust to these small changes after a couple weeks, until they seem normal and we don’t feel like we’re depriving ourselves of anything.

Take meat for example. Let’s say you wanted to become a vegetarian, and you cut out all meat from your diet completely. You’d feel very deprived, and you might have a very hard time. Most people wouldn’t last very long — maybe a week or two at most — before caving in and eating meat and feeling guilty.

But let’s say instead that you just started with beef. Well, at dinner tonight, you probably wouldn’t notice much because you could have chicken or fish or turkey or pork — all the stuff you might normally eat. After a few weeks, going without beef would seem normal, and you probably wouldn’t miss it much.

Repeat that process for pork, and soon you’ve cut red meat from your diet (assuming you don’t eat much venison or buffalo or otter or whatnot). Then do chicken — this might be a difficult stage for many — and just eat seafood for awhile. After a few weeks of that, though, you’d get used to it. Next step is dropping seafood, and soon you’re a vegetarian who doesn’t miss meat one bit.

I’m not saying you need to become a vegetarian. I’m saying that small steps, taken a few weeks at a time, makes the process much easier. I’ve done it with meat, with fried foods, with sweets, with eating more fruits and whole grains, and many other food changes, and it’s worked every time.

You get used to it, if you do it a bit at a time.

The 12-Step Program
Actually, what follows is just an example. You can use as many steps as you want, making whatever changes you want. This is just a sample of what can be done, to give you some ideas.

The rules:

  1. Apply these changes, one at a time, until you get used to them. This will probably be 3-4 weeks per step. But in a year’s time, you’ll be eating as healthy as possible.
  2. Focus as much energy as possible on each change for at least a couple weeks. Don’t deviate if you can. Don’t worry, you’ll get used to it.
  3. If it seems too difficult, make a smaller step instead. For example, instead of cutting out sweets, just cut out cakes and donuts. Smaller steps make things much easier.
  4. Always replace bad food with healthy food that you enjoy. What I’ve given are just examples — everyone has different tastes.

OK, so here’s an example of how this step-by-step process could work:

  1. Eat fruits for snacks. If you snack on junk food during the day, have some fruits by your side at all times. When you’re feeling hungry for a snack, eat a fruit. One of those bags of small apples is a handy thing — you can’t go wrong with apples.
  2. Drink water instead of soda. The only thing I drink (besides an occasional beer) is water. I’m not saying you need to do that, but try to cut out sugary drinks a bit at a time, replacing them with water.
  3. Eat whole grain bread. If you eat white bread or bagels or whatever, replace them with whole-grain versions. Be sure to look at the ingredients — it shouldn’t say enriched wheat flour, but whole grain. Also try to avoid breads with high-fructose corn syrup (actually, avoid that ingredient in anything).
  4. Add fresh veggies to dinner. If you don’t already, have some steamed greens with dinner. Cut out a less healthy side dish if you usually eat something else.
  5. Cut out red meat. You can still eat poultry and seafood for now. You can later cut those out too if you want.
  6. Make pizza instead of ordering. Homemade pizza is the best, and if you haven’t made it yet, you should. The simple way is to get a ready-made whole-wheat crust, although making your own tastes even better. Start with the simple version, though, as you don’t want to make things too difficult. For the simple version, just add some gourmet spaghetti sauce (not Ragu), cut up some veggies (I like tomatoes and mushrooms and spinach and olives, but you can use anything, even potatoes). Brush the veggies with some olive oil. You can add grated cheese or soy cheese if you want, though it’s not necessary. Bake till it looks cooked. Mmmm.
  7. Nuts instead of chips. If you normally snack on chips, try unsalted peanuts or raw almonds.
  8. Soymilk instead of whole milk. Whole milk is fatty (not to mention the suffering done by the cows in modern dairy factories). Soymilk is much healthier. You get used to it after awhile, like all the changes on this list, but if soymilk is a problem at least drink 1% milk.
  9. Whole grain cereal. If you eat sugary cereal, try a whole-grain cereal instead.
  10. Berries instead of candy. This is a recent change of mine, and it’s actually been much easier than I thought. I used to snack on chocolate candy all the time, but now I try to eat berries to satisfy my sweet cravings and it works!
  11. Scrambled tofu instead of fried eggs. Scrambled tofu is a secret vegan wonder. Try this recipe.
  12. Try some great veggie dinners. There are so many good ones out there if you haven’t tried them. Try my soup or chili.

If you implement 12 changes, you’ll probably be eating healthier than you ever have before. A great thing is that once you’ve done this, you’ll probably keep going, to 20 steps and beyond.

“Be careful about reading health books. You may die of a misprint.” – Mark Twain