5 Mistakes People Make When They Start Eating “Healthier”

Did you make a New Year’s resolution/goal/intention/wish to (re)commit to healthy eating? Whether it’s just a post-December course-correction or a decision to tackle extra weight, high blood pressure, cholesterol, or sugars, you won’t be alone.

(I mention weight because people do it, but I should add that weight isn’t a great predictor of health outcomes, and setting out to lose it isn’t likely to improve your health in the long run.)

The cynics might roll their eyes, but I think January is as good a time as any to refocus on priorities that may have been on the back burner for the past month (or year, or decade…). But being a dietitian now for 14 years, I’ve worked with thousands of people who are striving to eat to better support their health. Here are five pitfalls I’ve seen time and again:

1. Taking an all or nothing approach

January is the month we get the sugar “detox”, the Whole 30, or whatever low-carb diet is in vogue this year (hello, keto!). What’s my concern with these inflexible approaches?

Well, for starters, they’re so restrictive that few can stick with them for good. And when people go off, they typically go way, way off. You’re either on these programs or you’re not.

Restricting food like that tends to increase cravings. In the long run you can end up with repeated cycles of dieting and overeating, losing and gaining weight, a pattern that’s associated with higher incidence of strokes, diabetes, and heart attacks.

Photo by Eaters Collective on Unsplash

Also, dieting robs us of the pleasure of eating. Even after the program ends, people are left feeling guilty when they eat bread, pasta, chocolate, sometimes even peanut butter! The message that these foods are naughty sinks into our psyche. But we still eat them, inhaling furtively or defiantly instead of relaxing and savouring.

2. Measuring success in pounds lost

—I wrote last fall about the lack of benefits and real potential for harm from a focus on weight loss, so I won’t repeat it all here. Bottom line: Dieting for weight loss sets you up for failure in the long run. —Significant, lasting weight loss is statistically improbable, because most lost weight is eventually regained (often with extra).

That pattern leaves people feeling frustrated and demoralized, and apt to give up on eating and exercise habits that can be beneficial even without weight loss.

What to do instead? Focus on real health outcomes and sustainable behaviour change. Addressing your high blood pressure or packing your lunch most days beats temporarily dropping a few pounds with a cleanse.

Photo by Mariana Medvedeva on Unsplash

While no studies have shown that weight loss extends life or prevents heart problems, we have lots of evidence that regular exercise, more fruit and vegetables, and plant-centric dietary patterns like DASH and Mediterranean do. So let’s start there.

3. Not eating enough early in the day (especially protein)

The typical pattern: Cereal for breakfast, insubstantial lunch, perhaps soup or salad, and a hearty meat and potatoes supper. It’ll leave you famished by five, snacking ’til midnight, and slowly but surely losing muscle mass as you age.

Want to carry your groceries into your eighties and keep your metabolic rate up right now? Take the edge off of evening cravings? Stabilize your blood sugar and appetite? Then aim for about 20-30 grams of protein at every meal.

If you eat meat, including fish and chicken, that’s easily done with a 3-4 ounce (about 100g) serving. But having meat at every meal isn’t necessary or even a good idea, when there are so many different nutritious foods that can contribute protein. Other sources include:

  • Greek yogurt (~18g for 3/4 cup)
  • Beans or other legumes (6-9g for 1/2 cup)
  • Eggs (~6g each)
  • Peanut butter (8g for 2 tbsp)
  • Grains (~3g for a slice of bread or 1/2 cup of cooked grain)

The list could go on, but you get the idea. At all adds up.

If you’re not sure if your meals are typically in the ballpark, try counting your protein one day using a tool like My Fitness Pal. (But please don’t obsess over the numbers or take their overly restrictive nutrition recommendations to heart!) Or come see your friendly neighbourhood dietitian for a checkup.

4. Still not quite enough whole, fibre-rich food.

I see you with your multi-grain bread, salad for lunch, carrots with dinner. Good start! But most people I meet with could benefit from building on that to eventually get to 3+ servings of real whole grains a day, a cup or more of veggies and fruit at most meals, and ideally, legumes like beans, chickpeas and lentils at least once a week.

Photo by Melissa Belanger on Unsplash

Sometimes in workplace workshops I’ll help the group figure out if the day before they met the recommendation to “Make at least half of your grain products whole grain each day.” Usually only 1-2 people out of a group of 20-30 achieve it! So start there. Whole grains are easy to adopt, affordable, satisfying, and tied to real health benefits, including a lower risk of heart disease.

5. Beating yourself up when you “blow it”

You know I’m all for healthy eating, but let’s not lose perspective.

If you steal potato chips, perhaps you’ve been bad.
If you eat potato chips, you have not been bad.

If you cheat on your spouse, you’ve failed.
If you cheat on your diet, not so much. In fact, if you need to “cheat,” perhaps it’s not the right approach for you. And regaining lost weight isn’t failure either. It’s just your body doing what it’s designed to do: Not let you die of starvation.

I hear people say these things though, about being bad, cheating, and failing, because diet mentality is baked into our culture. But even if your eating habits are truly worsening your health, shame doesn’t help. A little self-compassion goes a long way. We’re all just doing our best.

As I’ve said before, what you eat is just one of many factors that influence your health, and perfection is not required. Stress matters too, so let’s make sure food isn’t worsening that.

While healthy eating may give you more energy and reduce your chances of developing a certain health problems, there are no guarantees. And it doesn’t make you smarter or a better person. If you’re able to prioritize it, if it’s accessible to you, and you enjoy it, great, but if not, that’s okay too.

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