“A man too busy to take care of his health is like a mechanic too busy to take care of his tools.”
– Spanish Proverb
I strive to live on a healthy diet. I don’t eat meat and eat very few animal products. I avoid white breads and rice. I rarely have caffeine and I do my best to avoid junk food. To a lot of people I must seem like a complete nut, avoiding “good tasting” food. I think it might surprise people that there is little willpower required for me to eat healthy, even if I’m surrounded by junk food.
I didn’t used to be a healthy eater. I wasn’t living off the McDonald’s menu, but I wasn’t doing my body any favors. It took work to establish healthy eating habits, but now I actually enjoy it. Yesterday a ten-hour bus ride forced me to eat some gas-station cuisine and I couldn’t stand it.
Contrary to most dieting advice I believe the key to healthy eating is neither knowledge or motivation. You probably already have a good idea about the basics of healthy eating, but that doesn’t mean you don’t eat junk food. If you’ve been trying and failing to change your eating patterns, you also probably have a strong motivation, but that doesn’t mean your dieting will last.
The Key to Healthy Eating is Stability
In my attempts to improve my eating habits, the one factor that stuck out as the key to healthy eating is stability. Stability means that the changes you implement will last for years, not just a few weeks. If you try to give up coffee but are back on the brew in two weeks, your change lacked stability.
A great metaphor for stability is in the game Jenga. In the game you carefully remove wooden blocks from a tower, trying to increase its height. Being hasty, or removing weak blocks can cause the entire structure to collapse.
How to Make Stable Eating Changes
When I adopted a vegetarian diet and started kicking out other unhealthy foods from my eating patterns, I felt a number of forces resisting the changes. Stable changes require that you carefully navigated these forces, so that your habits don’t collapse like the Jenga tower.
Here are just a few of the potential obstacles you can face in changing your eating patterns:
- Your body. When you switch diets, your body might rebel and cause you to feel temporarily worse. Cravings, hunger and even illness can result from quick changes to your diet.
- Your tastebuds. Healthy eating might be a shock to your pallette if you’re used to sugary and greasy foods. Healthy eating doesn’t have to sacrifice flavor, but it can take some adjusting as you learn new recipes and adapt to new types of food.
- Your habits. Simply being used to eating junk food is a reason to continue. Your bad habits can form a large amount of the weight keeping you from eating healthy.
- Your family. Friends and family aren’t always encouraging when you try to make dietary switches. They may not understand your desire to eat healthy, or see your goal as threatening their unhealthy eating habits.
Handling these problems individually, I’m sure most people could come up with potential solutions. But trying to tackle all of them simultaneously can push your willpower to the limits. Focusing on small, stable changes to your eating patterns can allow you to combat obstacles like these.
Stable Changes Lead to Habits and Identity
Once you start getting into the pattern of healthier eating, those patterns become habits. It only takes about three weeks for an eating pattern to become habitual. A small change such as giving up soft drinks, can turn into a habit.
Eventually, if you continue the process, these habits become part of your identity. Healthy eating doesn’t just become something you strive for but something you live. This identity change takes time, but I believe it happens when you invest slowly in stable changes.
The constant building of little habits changes your perspective on eating. Instead of seeing eating as primarily a way to feel full and eat taste food, you can start to see it as the fuel and building blocks of your body. When you start to see food in that way, it becomes very difficult to slide back.
Boost Your Energy with One Change
How do you start building stable changes? Here is the formula I use:
- Define the change. What are you going to stop/start eating? Make it clear and make it so you can write it out in one or two sentences. Vague or complex changes are difficult to maintain consistently.
- Commit for a month. Stay committed for at least thirty days to the change.
- Eliminate the junk from your house. Get rid of it from your house and replace the unwanted food with something better.
- Experiment until your tastebuds are satisfied. This can take a week or two of experimenting with meals before you find ones that you enjoy. Just don’t give up if you dislike replacement food initially.
- Look for weak points. After your month is up, look for reasons you might not continue the habit. Peer-pressure? Bad-tasting food? Expenses? Now is the time to solve these problems before they attack you later.
- Pick a new change. Pick a new element of your diet you’d like to improve and start the process over again. If you keep doing this, you can completely overhaul your diet in just a few months.