On your New Year’s resolution list, along with hitting the gym more, less procrastination and spending less money—you know, obtaining perfection, no big deal—it’s likely there is some vow of eating better or losing weight. While it may be tempting to swear off sugar, carbs or gluten, there is a more reasonable way to go about doing things. Here are a few tips on improving your food choices for the new year. While it may be hard to do all at once, I encourage you to try it. You’ll feel better, be getting more vitamins and nutrients in your body, and hell, you might even lose some weight. Just don’t call it a diet: Call it the way you choose to eat.
1) Switch up your ratios
We see it everywhere, from restaurants to microwavable meals—the standard portions for a meal have always been big protein, small side of starch, small vegetable. Try loading your plate with one or more vegetables, a whole grain (see No. 2), and then a smaller piece of meat or fish. Many vegetables actually have protein in them, so it’s not necessary to fill up on two chicken breasts for “protein’s sake.” Vegetables are naturally more nutrient-rich, lower in calories, and you know exactly where they came from and what’s in them without having to check a label. Vegetables can be versatile, there’s no need to only eat lettuce and steamed broccoli—unless that’s what you like. Experiment with new kinds of different cooking methods. Roasting is nice at this time of year, and really heightens the flavor of most vegetables. And of course, don’t forget fruits, which are the ultimate snack.
And while I promised I wouldn’t tell you to eliminate anything completely from your diet, I would suggest trying to eat vegetarian (or vegan) a few times a week. This will help you think of vegetables as more of a main dish, and it will cut your grocery bill considerably.
2) Refined ain’t so fine
This one can be challenging—especially since there are so many pretend whole grains out there—but try switching out white breads, rice and pastas for their whole-grain versions. Refined carbs have empty calories, so they leave you feeling less full, therefore making you feel like you need to overeat. Real whole-grain pastas and breads can be hard to find, so always check your ingredient list. The first ingredient should be whole-wheat flour (not enriched wheat flour), otherwise it’s just a white bread disguised as something healthier—mutton dressed as lamb, if you will. The whole-wheat versions of these foods have more fiber, leaving you fuller and causing you to eat less. There are millions of different whole grains available, from bulgur to faro, that are all fairly simple to make (and cheap in the bulk sections of the grocery store), so go ahead and experiment.
3) Mind your ingredients
Unfortunately, when we buy things from the store many times the front of the package tells us something completely different from the back. The front may promise “Lots of Fiber! Whole Grains!” but the ingredients list doesn’t put it so simply. Some suggest not eating anything with more than five or more than 10 ingredients, but there’s no need to be counting. If you flip over your peanut butter jar or crackers box and there are 25 ingredients, three quarters of which you don’t recognize, it’s probably best not to eat it. Michael Pollan suggests avoiding foods with ingredients your grandmother wouldn’t recognize, and that’s a great start.
4) Plan ahead
If you can read, you can cook. And if you can cook, you’re 10 steps ahead since now you can control exactly what you’re putting in your body. There are cookbooks galore which detail eating in the way I’m suggesting—Mark Bittman and Heidi Swanson are excellent sources—as well as great websites with every dish you can imagine, like EatingWell.com and TheKitchn.com. Bittman actually wrote an entire book about eating this way called “Food Matters.” It’s easiest to plan a menu on the weekend for the upcoming week and shop based on what you will make. That way you won’t get back from class or work raging with hunger and end up eating out. Make sure to factor in leftovers on your menu, as well as recipes that are extremely simple, just in case you get a case of lazy.
Another aspect of planning is how you keep your fridge and pantry. If you have a bag of chips in your cupboard, but unprepared carrots in your fridge, I’ll bet when you’re starving you’ll reach for the chips, even if your intentions are good. It’s best just to not keep the stuff in your house at all, or out of sight. Also, when you get home from the grocery store, prep the vegetables so they’re easier to mindlessly reach for when you’re hungry—slice up cabbage so you have a go-to salad, roast a pan of sweet potatoes; whatever will make it easier for you. Any kind of vegetable will make a great snack, not just carrot sticks and celery.
5) Go easy on yourself
This is almost the most important thing. There is such a thing as being too obsessed with being healthy (there’s actually a disease called Orthorexia), so don’t be too hard on yourself. If you go out and drink too much and eat a huge pizza, it’s okay; you’re human. Just pick up the good habits again the next day—all your hard work isn’t lost. Some people are more mindful of what they eat during the week and like to have a little more leniencies during the weekend, which is a good way to get the best of both worlds. Be nice to yourself; your scale doesn’t decide if you’re healthy, you do. If you feel good about the way you look and feel, then you’re doing just fine.