Want to create eating habits you can stick with? Start by looking at your relationship with food

Nutrition isn't just about what you eat or how much you eat. And it's certainly not about adhering to strict rules, even though a lot of nutrition advice frowns on anything other than perfection.

All too often, “I cheated on my diet” becomes “I might as well give up now,” which leads to “I’m bad because I eat bad food.” When we categorize food as good or bad, we tend to view ourselves in the same way. We punish ourselves for indulging in so-called bad foods and reward ourselves when we resist them.

This can create an unhealthy relationship with food, and it might be why you find yourself rolling your eyes at the mention of quinoa. Been there, tried that, I wasn’t worthy. But it doesn’t have to be that way. So how can you stick to your healthy eating habits long term and maintain a positive nutrition mindset?

Consider your current attitude toward food.

Before you can determine how to evolve, it’s important to consider the state of your relationship with food today. Lifestyle changes are a journey. They require reflection. And if you feel guilty about certain food choices, consider why. It might be tough to mull over, but it’s a critical step to eating more intuitively and mindfully.

A study by researchers at Maastricht University in the Netherlands found that when participants were willing to sit with the uncomfortable feelings that came up as they practiced mindful eating, they were able to reduce their food cravings and feel more in control of their food choices (more so than with traditional control-based, restrictive dieting strategies).

Working to accept your food-related thoughts and cravings for what they are instead of fighting or ignoring them is the first step toward making behavior changes. To get started in the right direction, consider some light reading with books like ”The Self Compassion Diet” by Jean Fain, ”The Intuitive Eating Workbook” by Evelyn Tribole, or ”Eat to Love” by Jenna Hollenstein.

Slow down and listen to your body without judgment.

So many factors can lead to cravings. It may be true internal hunger cues, or it could be external cues such as sight, smell, stress, or lack of sleep. A good rule of thumb when it comes to cravings is to think before you act. Ask yourself, “Why am I hungry right now?” Then drink a tall glass of water, wait awhile, and if you’re still hungry in 15 to 30 minutes, your body is probably telling you it needs something.

When you practice accepting your cravings without feeling the need to change, avoid, or control them, you may begin to feel like you have more control over your food choices. By letting go of the control you actually gain more of it. Ironic right? But that’s exactly what those researchers at Maastricht University in the Netherlands discovered. Start by taking these steps when you sit down for a meal:

  1. Limit distractions like TV (more on that later).
  2. Stay in tune with your senses like smell, taste, and sight, and savor all of it. It’ll help increase your awareness.
  3. Pay attention to hunger and fullness cues. And consider how you feel hours after you eat. How do you feel the morning after dinner, or in the afternoon after breakfast? Keep a journal if it helps you.

Don’t punish yourself for imperfection.

There’s no rule that says, to call yourself a healthy person, you have to eat a perfect plate 100% of the time — quite the opposite. Eating healthy is a lifelong journey that requires a flexible, open mind. That’s why EXOS believes in an 80/20 approach. Try to eat balanced, nutrient-dense meals 80% of the time. The other 20% of the time, live a little.

Don’t think of that 20% as a reward for the 80% but rather as a part of being human and indulging in life. When you can view food as fuel for your body instead of something positive or negative, you can start to remove guilt from the equation. It can be hard to accomplish, but it’s powerful to liberate yourself from the idea that eating should result in punishment or reward. It’s all about balance.

There’s no rule that says, to call yourself a healthy person, you have to eat a perfect plate 100% of the time — quite the opposite.

Think about it this way: When you’re on a road trip and stop at a gas station with lower-quality options, you don’t stress it because you need gas to get from point A to point B. Same thing with your body. Eating a candy bar or potato chips in a pinch isn’t the end of the world. It’s only when you constantly consume low-quality fuel that you may start to experience greater health issues.

Stop eating while you watch TV.

Think back to those TV dinner trays that surfaced in the 50s. Because society has spent so many years marrying TV with dinner, your brain might convince you that you’re hungry out of habit whenever you queue up Netflix. The result? Not-so-mindful eating.

Even if you’re truly hungry, you may not be as quick to realize when you’re full. One study published in the journal Appetite found that it took participants longer to feel satiated when they ate while watching TV. Instead, sit at your table, focus on your dinner, and listen to your body when it says, “I’m full” or “I’m hungry, keep eating.” Give it space and time to tell you that rather than silencing its messages with the latest episodes of Stranger Things.

Don’t try to change your life overnight.

The biggest mistake people make when trying to eat more nutritiously is trying to do everything at once, jumping on the latest diet trend because they want fast results. It’s been proven to fail over and over again. Becoming a healthier human doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a long road of choices and getting stronger with each step. Expecting otherwise is unrealistic.

Just because you ate pizza with friends this weekend, doesn’t mean you have to give up. A healthier lifestyle happens one day at a time, and you can take small steps right now, belly full of pizza and all. Think about one thing you want to improve at your next meal — it might be drinking water instead of soda, adjusting the portion size, or adding one vegetable. Continue this habit, simply having one small goal for each meal.

Feeding your soul is part of a healthy lifestyle, and that means eating delicious food with people you love. It’s not all macronutrients and micronutrients, calories, and nutrition labels.

Don’t swear off your favorite foods.

The idea that you can’t have your favorite foods while trying to be healthy is far from the truth, but mindset plays a huge role. You have to go in with a positive attitude. When you start thinking negative thoughts right away, like “I shouldn't have this” or “I’m being so bad,” it becomes a lot easier to think you’ve failed.

Going to a dinner party? Don’t plan how you’ll restrict yourself, and don’t skip lunch as a way of earning your dinner. Go about your day as you normally would, and instead of thinking about food, focus on the people, friends, and family you’ll get to enjoy. It may help reduce the stress that comes with trying to eat perfectly so you can actually enjoy the company as well as the food.

When you feel less stressed and more positive, you can be more mindful in the moment. You may find yourself naturally choosing when to indulge and when you could benefit from a side of vegetables — and not feeling guilty about it for a second.

Manage your stress.

Stress causes your body to release certain hormones. And repeated exposure to stressful situations may lead to a hormone imbalance, which can also affect your eating behaviors. It may cause you to crave high-fat foods or to ignore your hunger cues and eat less, both of which can lead to nutrient deficiency.

That said, feeling stressed out during a meeting or nervous about a deadline is natural — healthy even (in small doses). Stress will always exist. That, you can’t control. But you can and should manage how you respond to it because it’s the stress left ignored to compound over time that can negatively affect your health.

To combat stress that’s negatively affecting your health, have a few breathing techniques (such as the six-four-10 breathing exercise) in your back pocket. Plan to dedicate 10 minutes of your lunch break to a short meditation, even if that means sitting in your car to get it done. Finally, consider that eating mindfully is a form of meditation; you’re developing attention and awareness to increase mental clarity as you eat.

Eat with people you love.

Feeding your soul is part of a healthy lifestyle, and that means eating delicious food with people you love. It’s not all macronutrients and micronutrients, calories, and nutrition labels. Food brings people together, and that’s healthy. It establishes a feeling of community and connectedness, which research shows is good for your overall well-being.

Sure, this may also occasionally lead to eating more than you planned or eating unbalanced meals, but it’s worth it. The truth is you may have days where you eat all your veggies, and you’ll have days where you indulge in the office donut supply. And that’s OK. No guilt. No judgment. Accept it and move forward.

The sooner you get away from the idea that dieting is about perfection or requires depriving your body, the more equipped you’ll be to make healthy eating a natural part of your life — something that ebbs and flows and serves you rather than shames you.

Craving more? Read up on five habits pro athletes take up that can help you, too.

About the Author

Shannon Ehrhardt

Shannon Ehrhardt MS, RD, CSSD, CSCS, is a senior performance dietitian at EXOS and has worked in sports performance for over 10 years. With a master's degree in exercise physiology and nutrition, she works with EXOS' nutrition partner Onnit, supporting the performance goals of athletes and working alongside the product development team.

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