Why is it so hard to quit eating unhealthy foods?
If you’ve dieted you know it’s true. Restrictive diets that rule out entire food groups—hello, keto!—can be hard to sustain.
But it’s a new year and a new you, as the adage goes. If you’re looking to make a lifestyle change, and one that sticks, a couple small changes can help.
As it turns out, there are a few reasons it’s so hard to give up the Standard American Diet, which is generally characterized by high intakes of red meat, processed meat, pre-packaged foods, butter, fried foods, refined grains and refined carbohydrates.
“We all want instant satisfaction and convenience,” said Helen Long, an Outpatient Registered Dietitian at Winchester Hospital. “Quick and convenient foods taste good.”
In a sense, many people use food to comfort their anxieties or relieve the daily stresses of life. Processed foods, sugars, and simple carbohydrates release “feel good” messengers from the brain, resulting in a calm, relaxed mood. These messengers can disrupt normal appetite signals leading to overeating, weight gain, sleep disorders, and health problems.
It’s easy to see how food can be used as a “self-medicating” substance instead of a source of nourishment for the body.
Luckily, small and consistent lifestyle changes can lead to healthier food choices and habits. We asked Long for some tips on how to make small changes in lifestyle that lead to better health.
Practice Mindful Eating
Be more aware of your eating triggers and behaviors, enjoy your food more, and stop when you are full. Free or inexpensive smartphone apps are available to learn mindful eating or you could keep a food journal.
Plan meals and sit down to dinner with friends or family and share not only a meal, but conversation.
“People need to stop for a minute and be aware of the foods they are eating,” Long explained. “We tend to overeat when consuming food mindlessly,” she said.
Learn to Cook
Research shows cooking at home improves the quality of the food you eat—this is because people, generally speaking, use less processed foods, and add less sodium and fat when they cook their meals. They also tend to eat smaller portions, consume fewer calories, and have an overall healthier diet.
Use Smaller Plates to Encourage Smaller Portions
Long suggested using smaller plates and bowls to aid in portion control. Restaurants are notorious for serving large portions.
Lack of time is often cited as a reason people don’t cook. Look for recipes that are healthy and take a few cooking shortcuts. You can have impressive weeknight dinners on the table in no time thanks to great store bought ingredients and time saving techniques (pre-cooked chicken, frozen steam-fresh vegetables, pizza dough). Try batch cooking and making soups which are great for storing and freezing. Cooking meals and using leftovers to create a second meal can also save time. Bake or grill extra chicken for dinner one night and use the leftover chicken in a stir-fry, soup, chili, or salad the next night. Cook extra pasta with tonight’s dinner and use it as a cold pasta salad with tomorrow’s meal. You can also chop salad and keep it in a ready-to-go container. If you’re a dessert person, consider freezing some grapes to grab in the evenings or have fresh fruit already cut up.
When Eating Out
Do your research before heading to a restaurant. Make sure there are healthy options like salads, grilled proteins, and vegetables. Avoid fried foods and choose healthier alternatives such as steamed vegetables instead of the French fries. Dressings and dips have loads of calories so get them on the side and use less. If you get an entrée, consider taking half of it to go.
Minimizing the unhealthy food choices takes a little more thought, but will pay off with better health.
It’s also important to drink more water, eat protein at meals, get adequate sleep, and get regular exercise to reduce stress to help you make healthier choices in the new year.
For more tips on living a healthy lifestyle, speak with your health care provider.