OK; it’s the new year, and we all know we should be eating broccoli and tofu three meals a day. We also all know that we’re not going to do this. In fact, some early achievers may have broken with their resolution diets already. Don’t stress-eat over that, though — a Northern Virginia dietitian has advice on food goals you can really stick with.
Allison Farrow, a registered dietitian and a certified diabetes educator and specialist with Sentara Northern Virginia Medical Center, says you’re better off with “starting with smaller habits and very specific goals versus an all-or-nothing diet approach.”
Farrow says she’s “kind of against the strict diet” and puts more stock into educating people about areas that are really good places to start improving like portion sizes, or eating more vegetables.”
She’s also convinced people have more success when they focus on adding good foods to their diets rather than just on what they’re taking away from their plates: “I think once you start taking stuff away, it can really mess up people’s mindset, and it can get hard to stick with it.”
She likes to start with new patients by asking them “what went really well last year. Let’s take time to reflect on like a few things that went really well last year, whether you joined a gym; you got really into exercise more; you’re drinking more water because you got a new water bottle.”
Then they talk about what didn’t go so well: “’I didn’t meal-prep a lot; I didn’t take the time to grocery shop; I am having trouble thinking of ideas of what to eat.’ And then we kind of break those down into smaller goals. And I feel like that’s a better approach for the sustainable long term so that you feel like you’ve had a successful year versus just a strong month of January.”
Farrow likes to teach patients the acronym SMART: specific, measurable, attainable, relative, and timely.
“So instead of just saying ‘I’m going to eat healthier this year,’ I would just try to be more specific. What area do you feel like you need to improve the most?” It could mean more vegetables; it could be new recipes; it could mean stocking up up ready-made healthy foods such as salad kits and small containers of yogurt.
“Just being very specific about what you’re going to change, I think, is going to help people be the most successful.”
Getting more vegetables into people’s diets is generally front and center right now, Farrow says. She advises people to fill up at least half their plates with non-starchy vegetables, and looks for ways to make that prospect more exciting.
“How can we make the center of your plate a little bit more colorful? How can we add in more fiber and lower-calorie foods like vegetables that are high-fiber, lower-calorie, lower-carb. And so we talk about different examples of ways to make them the center of the plate,” she says.
That can happen in a lot of different ways, such as putting them in omelets or smoothies at breakfast. Lunch and dinner can feature soups and stews, or heating up frozen vegetables — even in an air fryer. “So they don’t feel like they just have to eat salads all the time.”
Stick to a Plan
The most important factor, Farrow says, is habit. You can’t leave it up to willpower. “I’m a big believer in habit changes and systems and routines. We have routines for other things like brushing our teeth every day and taking a shower and stuff. So I always think about how can we have it stack on those routines that you already have established?”
Preparing meals, physical activity, planning out a week’s menu — these are all things Farrow says become much easier when they become habitual.
The key to meal planning, for example, is “not making it bigger than what it needs to be,” Farrow says. “I know, some people are like, ‘I have to do this all day on Sunday and cook all day and put everything into containers.’ And I think that can be successful for so long until something happens on a Sunday and you can’t do it, or you’re tired of eating what you made on Sunday [by] Thursday.”
Her advice? Keep it simple and fill your shelves and refrigerator with things that are healthy and ready to go. “I tell people for breakfast, a nice high-protein option is a nonfat Greek yogurt. Keep some yogurts in the fridge, and then some fruit on hand and you’ve got yourself a high-protein breakfast that didn’t really require much prep.”
Salad kits are a perfectly fine choice for getting vegetables into your dinner without a lot of work, she adds, and batch-cooking proteins such as chicken or fish at the beginning of the week makes everything easier. “And then you have that protein already made, and the rest you can kind of fill in as you go.”
Protein can be the sticking point for a lot of people, Farrow says. We all know what non-starchy vegetables are, but what are the healthy proteins versus the less-healthy ones?
“For a lot of folks, protein becomes like the main focus of a meal, almost,” Farrow says. “My education around protein is to go for the leaner proteins.” Whether you eat meat or not, lean protein is the key, Farrow says, because there’s less saturated fat. It is good for your muscle mass and will keep you fuller longer.
“I always try to tell people, you know, go, you know, go easy on the red meats like beef and pork and stuff, just because those foods tend to be higher in saturated fat. … Chicken breast and turkey and fish and eggs are a great source of protein — nuts, tofu, edamame, all of those are high-protein foods, I make sure to review a bunch of different examples, so people don’t feel like they just have to do chicken all the time.” That can include turkey meatballs or chicken burgers, she adds: “It doesn’t always have to be a white meat chicken breast, you know?”
Scale It Back
She also advises looking at “non-scale victories” when it comes to your food goals and healthy eating. “Yes, the scale is a good indicator of how well you’re doing, but maybe take your measurements — track how your clothes are fitting. Do you have more energy? Are you sleeping better? Those are all areas, too, that can come from making positive dietary changes that can help people stay more motivated.”
And if you’re putting in more exercise, especially muscle-building resistance training, at the same time you’re eating healthier, just remember that the scale can be discouraging at first. That’s because muscle usually develops faster than fat disappears, so for a while you might put on weight. But that doesn’t mean you’re not getting healthier.
“Just really pay attention to how your clothes are fitting, because you might actually feel slimmer in your clothes, but the scale is not showing it. And don’t get discouraged, because resistance training is a really good long-term investment and it will pay off.”
Feature image, stock.adobe.com
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