When it comes to eating well, diets don't work. It doesn't matter what you call them, what kind of specific regime they entail, or what your goals are. Setting out on a "diet" – in which you eat differently for a set period of time in order to lose a certain amount of weight – is bound to fail. Only in changing your overall habits, and accepting that sometimes you are going to have french fries and wine for dinner, can you start to become a real live healthy person.
And it's easier than you think. A friend of mine, Charles Delevan, lost 100 pounds over the past year, in large part through changing minor habits. I spoke to him about the most important things to remember, and the answers are almost shockingly simple. Apparently, "eating like an adult" doesn't have to be some huge life change where you only consume lemon water and lentils. It can, and should, just be little changes that add up over time, and leave you with more energy to do everything else. Here, the 8 most important ones to start implementing today.
1. Know your laziness, and fight it ahead of time.
When it comes to "not feeling like cooking," Charles has the following advice: "I know I'm tired and shitty at the end of the day, so I make one large meal for 5 weekday nights on Sunday night, usually in a slow cooker or a stew, and eat it throughout the week. Add in some variety with simple side dishes (baked potatoes, roasted asparagus, sautéed spinach, etc. All take ~20 minutes or less, with less than 3 ingredients, and are nearly impossible to screw up.)"
2. Whenever possible, eat vegan.
You don't have to give up meat, dairy, or all of that other wonderful stuff. You don't even have to cut it out most days. But when possible, have a vegan meal, as an easy and intuitive way to get good servings of fruits and vegetables without having to feel like you're going out of your way to do it. If you have a fruit bowl and nuts at breakfast, and then a large salad with a complex grain at lunch, you can go into dinner knowing that you've already treated yourself right for two meals out of the day – and feel less guilty about eating the nutritionally-sad burger with a big slice of cheddar on it.
3. If you can cook it, you can eat it.
On the topic of making your own meals, Charles told me, "Knowing what is in your food, and having a direct relationship with it makes a massive difference. When you eat out, or grab food, they can hide unhealthy or weird shit in food. If you want to eat some fried chicken, that's fine – but by being involved in every step of the process, you know that's the healthiest version of that dish, with no additives or crazy nonsense. Plus, you're learning a skill and burning calories in the process, and nothing is more satisfying than eating some fried chicken you learned to make yourself. Also, going in with the positive mindset about unhealthy food prevents that "shame spiral" stuff that you can fall into if you grab a bucket from KFC."
4. Have a nice, hot drink while doing other things, so you won't aimlessly graze.
Have your big mug of tea, or americano, or cappucino, served piping hot. Take time to sip it slowly while reading or working or watching TV, and enjoy it. It's the liquid version of chewing and taking bites from your meal slowly so that you won't overeat. You will often find that the "hunger" you felt was a combination of thirst, and wanting to do something with your hands and mouth. A hot drink is a great, satisfying solution to those "distracted eating" moments.
5. Force yourself to drink a. shit. ton. of. water.
It should go without saying, but it never hurts to reiterate. Your body (and your skin) will thank you.
6. Simple carbs are, generally, not great for you. But they're also the best.
Make peace with carbs, and understand that something like a croissant or a donut or white bread will never be great for you, but that doesn't mean it has to go away forever. Find moderation, and forgive yourself the cravings for unhealthy foods, so that you don't have to be in an intense, emotionally unhealthy relationship with bagels.
7. Whenever possible, have a direct relationship with your food. Know where it comes from.
According to Charles, "Having a direct relationship with your food, get everything you possibly can from a farmers market or directly from producers. The less mystery there is in what you're eating, the better. Plus if you get to know them and support them, they'll hook you up."
8. When you slip up, don't turn it into a shame spiral.
The biggest danger in "dieting" is feeling like you are walking a tightrope in your relationship to food. One false step, and you fall down into a lukewarm vat of Doritos-brand queso dip. But this is ridiculous because, first of all, to err is human. And second of all, one decision to eat four oatmeal cream pies for lunch is not the end of the world (or your life as a healthy person.) So when you make an inevitable error in judgment, pick yourself up, have a carrot, and get back on your journey towards eating like an adult. There will be many more mistakes along the road, and the only thing that really matters is how you handle them.
Image: Mike McCune/Flickr