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Nutrition 101 with Kathleen — 5 tips to get started

Today, a break from my recent “How to use X” series to focus on (drum roll please…) nutrition! Why? After over 15 years in the fitness field, I know one thing for certain: Unless you have impeccable genetics and are in your prime, training alone will not ensure you reach your fitness goals!

A nutritionally dense diet is a critical part of reaching any health and wellness goal; appropriate nutrition puts that pep in your step, improves mood and performance, aids recovery, and is a building block for hormones and lean tissue, not to mention bones and teeth.

Here and in the next blog I will outline 10 simple tips for healthy, nutritious eating. Note that “simple” does not mean “easy” or “ineffective.” Contrary to popular belief, healthy eating doesn’t have to be complex, sleek, well marketed, or “new” to be effective. Your “perfect” plan is the one that addresses your specific goals, genetics, lifestyle realities, nutritional minefields, and triggers — and the one you can follow consistently.

Kathleen’s 10 tips for nutritious eating — Part 1

1. Set up systems that save you from your lesser self

Your food triggers and habits are not just going to magically disappear overnight. A large part of adopting a healthier diet is increasing your “personal literacy.” Work to learn your habits (both positive and negative) and triggers, and establish systems (in advance) to save your future self from your future triggered self.

For example, if you historically use food to eat away your emotions, first work to understand the triggers (why is food a comfort?). Simultaneously create situations where the triggers can’t cause a food binge (don’t have binge-worthy foods in the house) and find alternative solutions for when you do get triggered (when you start to feel sad, call a friend instead of heading to the kitchen). The goal is a future where the trigger happens less often and, when it does happen, your reaction is less intense and shorter lived.

Or perhaps you make bad choices when you get overly hungry. If that’s the case, always carry food in your purse so you don’t “have to” grab a chocolate bar. When you do end up eating because you’re too hungry, try to make the deviation either less intense (1 cookie not 5) or shorter lived (don’t let yourself spiral into a “who cares?” attitude after eating those 5 cookies).

As Mark Twain is reputed to have said, “History doesn’t repeat itself but it rhymes.”

Figure out your food habits — they will rear their ugly heads over and over — the only question is how intensely will they rear and how quickly can you course correct?

Don’t rely on willpower. Change THE SYSTEM!

2. Make it simple with the power of 3

Often making healthy food choices can feel all-too confusing, and when overwhelmed it is easy to say “screw it” and fall completely off the wagon.

The “simple” (but not always easy) rule I follow is the “rule of 3.” I save my cognitive energy by telling myself that every meal has to have a protein, a vegetable or fruit high in vitamins and minerals (green leafy vegetables or berries), and a healthy fat. Once I eat those three things, I don’t have room for any of the less healthy stuff!

3. It is not just about what you eat — it is about what you DRINK!

Many of us are aware of the food we eat but are fairly airy-fairy about liquids. Liquids count — they contain calories and, more important, impact our blood sugar, which affects our hormones and fat production.

Stay hydrated, watch your caffeine (and what you add to your coffee), avoid liquids filled with sugar and empty calories, AND always be aware of how much alcohol you are drinking.

Carry a water bottle. Set an alarm at work to remind yourself to drink water. Too often we misunderstand dehydration as hunger. Make yourself have a set amount of water before you get your morning coffee. Consider cutting your alcohol with a fizzy water or alternating water with each alcoholic beverage. Or go wild and crazy and have weeks where you skip drinking altogether.

4. Ask yourself, "How can I make this meal a little bit better"

You don’t have to make each meal perfect; you just have to make it slightly better than originally planned. If you were going to have 4 servings of pasta, have 3 servings and some green vegetables. If you were going to have 3 eggs, bacon, and white bread, have 2 eggs, bacon, and 1 piece of seed-filled bread.

“Eating well” exists on a continuum. Instead of labeling foods as “bad” and “good,” shoot to trend positive. Work to get to the next stage of your eating continuum. As you adjust to your new habits, additional changes will be easier to make.

5. Become a nutritional agnostic

Do you. Be you. Find the food program that works for YOU.

There is no “best diet” that works for everyone. All food plans have pros and cons. The one that is right for you depends on your time of life, your goals, your genetics, your lifestyle, and your budget.

The way you eat will change as you age. That is okay. There is no one program that works for everyone or one program that works for any one person their entire life. Be flexible yet dedicated to one rule — finding a program you can stick to for a good amount of time, that makes you feel vibrant and vital, and that is nutritionally dense.

Final thought

Let go of any misguided quest for “perfect.” Perfection is not possible. You can have a treat once in a while. Go ahead and mindfully enjoy a small portion of something you love. I call this my “love it rule.” It is not the occasional deviations from the plan that matter — what matters are the choices you make on a daily basis, how intensely you deviate from your norms when you deviate, AND how quickly you course correct.

If you fall off your health horse — you will; you are human — stop yourself after 1 cookie not 5 cookies and 7 beers, AND get right back on your health plan!

My next blog will cover tips 6 through 10. Curious? Some foreshadowing … I touch on the importance of portions, preparation, and trade-offs.