I knew something was wrong when my husband stepped on the bathroom scales, out of the blue. Then came the self-depreciating comments at the gym, the sudden desire to find out about calories, the extra-intense workouts. This tall, lean guy—who had always been the image of self-confidence—suddenly realised that he was Growing Up—and his body was growing up, too. He started to slink around in front of the bathroom mirror, prodding his stomach and grimacing. “I’m getting fat,” he whines. “I want to be ripped again.” That’s man-speak for “I want to lose weight because I feel insecure.”
So, of course, being the delightful, doting wifey that I am, I pointed out that the beer-and-pizza method of weight management was never conducive to rippling abs and a low body fat percentage. Alas, I announced, it is time to change your diet. Fortunately, I have become something like a walking version of MyFitnessPal, thanks to years of dieting and general interest in nutrition, so I have assumed the role of “Food Nazi,” a.k.a., hubby’s personal health coach.
But teaching my husband about healthy eating is a strange pursuit. As a military man, he’s always placed a lot of emphasis on physical fitness—but he has also never taught himself how to eat well. When I met him, the three main groups in his diet were Taco Bell, ice cream shakes and pizza. The closest he got to eating a piece of fruit was a dollop of tomato ketchup here and there. As the years passed, he learnt that growing up does things to your metabolism: as an adult, sure, you can eat a whole party-size pack of Oreos—but there will be consequences. After many doleful expressions and much tummy-prodding, finally I started to notice some changes: vegetables with dinner, a banana here and there. But still, Hubs remains mostly clueless about healthy living. So he definitely needed some help—and these are the rules I laid out for him as a beginner’s guide.
First things first.
Eating well is important, regardless of whether you want to lose weight or not. Looking after your body should be a priority, and it shouldn’t be difficult.
Healthy living shouldn’t involve $300 weekly visits to Trader Joe’s, or eating only raw vegetables, or sipping a kale smoothie at home while your friends go out to dinner together—unless you want it to (hey, it’s the hermit life). You shouldn’t have to constantly check your meals to the nearest gram on a fitness app, or stress out because you ate more than your “daily allowance” of carbs. Reject that mindset right now.
Instead, focus only on giving your body the good, nutritious food that it needs. Slowly but surely, if you start to cut out the crap and replace it with whole, natural foods, you’ll start to notice a difference in how you look and feel. Eat well because your body is the only body you’ve got, and you want to nourish it from the inside out!
Some general rules:
Plan your meals. This, I think, is the first step to really getting on track with a good eating plan. Some nutritionists argue that it’s important to only eat when you are hungry—I agree with this, of course, but I also believe that it’s important to make sure you plan time to eat, too. Structuring your day around three or four light, healthy meals is a good framework for a healthy lifestyle. You don’t, of course, have to eat everything you place in front of you (see my next point about intuitive eating), but it’s important that you set up your day with allocated time and resources to make or buy a good, nutritious meal. Without proper planning, it’s so easy to miss opportunities to eat until you find yourself super hungry—and more likely to binge on rubbish food, order take-out or go on a mad dash to the nearest drive-thru and throw a bunch of empty calories down your throat. Giving yourself time to make and eat breakfast in the morning—even if it’s only ten minutes for quick oatmeal and a banana—and then planning for lunch and dinner is a great incentive to start eating well.
Take time and make time to eat. Of all the diet and nutrition books I have read, Intuitive Eating is by far one of the most important (further reading, anyone?). The premise is simple, but if you absorb it into your eating habits, it will totally transform your relationship with food. The Intuitive Eating viewpoint is actually broken down into 10 principles but the overarching message is simply to take time with your food. Chew your food, savour it, enjoy each bite. Make time to sit down and enjoy each meal, eat with other people, and make mealtimes a positive experience—rather than simply scarfing down a burger and fries on your way home from work in the evening. By implementing this rule, you will find yourself paying attention to how full you are, and you won’t be as inclined to binge or overeat.
Eat fruit and vegetables. Eat lots of fruit and vegetables. A few days ago I thrust a banana in Killian’s face (natch) on our way out of the house and he denied it because, “I’ve already had, like, three servings of fruit today!” Darling—there is no limit on how many fruit and vegetables you should eat. The more the merrier! There are more nutrients in fruit and vegetables—and other whole, natural plant foods such as mushrooms and nuts—than even top scientists are currently aware of (I found this article to be a good, succinct explanation of this). Fruit and veggies are, quite simply, wonderfoods: full of phytonutrients and fibre, there’s so much goodness packed into each calorie that it’s especially important to load up on your greens (and purples, and reds, and yellows, and blues) wherever possible.
Be mindful of food labels. I originally wrote “don’t pay attention to food labels,” but that’s not quite the right attitude. They are useful: for example, if you’re trying to lose weight, I do believe that counting calories can be a useful method to assist weight loss, and I also think it’s important to be aware of how much salt and fat is in your favourite snacks. Being aware isn’t the same as being obsessive, though, and it’s far too easy to become obsessed with food labelling – from calories to carbs, sugar and sodium. Also, the “guideline daily amounts” (RDAs) on food packaging are a bit crap: they imply that good nutrition can be concentrated down into single components of set quantities, which is a highly oversimplified view that disregards individual needs based on size, activity levels, and how much the individual actually needs (and is able to) absorb. Put simply, it’s important to be aware that what you read on the label is merely a guideline and, if you’re eating a varied diet, you don’t need to stress about the exact amount of calories from fat, or the percentage of your vitamin C RDA.
Eat a varied diet. As I stated above, there are more nutrients in whole plant foods than the scientific community are even currently aware of; a true healthy diet is based on a great variety of foods that provide a symphony of vital nutrients. Restricting our view of these nutrients to one or two key vitamins (A, B, C, etc) is a reductionist view of nutrition. Just because your favourite sugary breakfast cereal contains added vitamin A effectively means nothing; a carrot contains not only beta-carotene (hence the “carrots make you see in the dark” myth), but a whole myriad of different phytonutrients.
Eat whole foods. Now, the ingredients are what you should pay attention to. As a general rule, if you can’t pronounce an ingredient, or if it contains ingredients that quite obviously didn’t grow in or feed off God’s green earth, then put it down again. The closer you can get to a food in its natural form, the better. Whole grains, for example, are so much better than their processed counterparts: brown rice, unlike white rice, still has the side hull and bran, which are rich in proteins, thiamine, calcium, magnesium, fiber, and potassium. It’s pretty much a no-brainer.
Stop eating empty calories. By this I mean food that is high in calories but contains little to no nutritional value. Think of a calorie as a little powerhouse, as fuel for your body—you want to put the best, highest quality fuel in your vehicle, right? Then cut the crap and start paying attention to how much nutritional value there is in everything that enters your stomach. This means cutting out the sodas, the donuts, the gummy worms … et cetera, et cetera.
But above all, remember: You’re human. So you ate a giant hamburger/fries/shake combo? Don’t stress! Eating well 90 percentof the time is better than eating junk food 90 percent of the time. Give yourself a break, cut yourself some slack, and just do the best you can. You can do it.