We’re just over one-third of the way through Get Healthy Month, and it’s time to start talking about your diet! Not the one you’ve been doing, but the one you want to do from this point forward. The most important thing to note before we begin is this: you are not going on a diet. This is not a diet plan. This is a way of life. This is the proverbial fork in the road between where you’ve been, and where you are going. Your new healthy life begins now!
If you are new to the blog, this is the point where you will want to go back and read the previous posts under the Health tab, in the sub-category “Get Healthy Month: The Basics”. All of the information you will need to know to help you formulate your own personal diet is found in the five posts preceding this one. The key to knowing how to choose a way of eating for you is having all of the information; learning and understanding how food effects your body and your overall health. Knowledge is power, and knowledge about food will give you power over your health.
Now that you’ve read-up on that information, let’s get started! Grab yourself a pen and paper, so you can write down your brand new diet plan!
Step 1 – Pick your Top 3
What do you love? We all have different favorite foods that we just can’t imagine life without, and let’s be honest — it’s rarely anything healthy. My number one step to customizing a diet is determining what your top 3 favorite things are that you do not want to give up. Because giving those things up is the most sure-fire way to fail at your new healthy life. What we are going to do is make sure that you work these favorite things into your diet in a way that will allow you to both be healthy, and still enjoy your favorites.
Here are my three:
- Chocolate (especially chocolate cake)
- Cured Pork (Bacon, Prosciutto, Capicola, etc.)
Now chocolate is relatively good for you as long as it is dark chocolate with low sugar and small portions, but nothing else about these three is healthy. But could I sustain a way of eating that excludes them all? Never!! And that is why, as we build your diet plan, I want you to specifically work in your top three. For me, I follow a Mediterranean Diet way of eating, which allows me to have all of these things in moderation — cheese three times per week and the pork and chocolate (with the exception of pure dark chocolate, which I eat a more often) about once per month. It is up to you to decide what moderation looks like for you, just as long as you’re being honest with yourself about what is good for your long-term health in the decision process.
I chose three times per week for cheese (or yogurt, which I also eat occasionally), for example, because the recommendation from the USDA is three servings per day (which you now know is not good for your body), so three times per week is an 86% reduction in cheese consumption. That’s a pretty huge number that I can feel good about, but doesn’t stop me from eating it entirely. The Mediterranean Diet pyramid also recommends dairy, poultry and eggs a few times per week, so I feel like I’m pretty in line with that.
I chose monthly for the chocolate and cured pork, because I know that sweets and red/processed meats are especially harmful, so I don’t want to eat them very often. I had to be honest with myself about how frequent feels “safe” to me. I considered weekly, but honestly felt that was too much. I chose to look at these things as a “treat”, and monthly just felt like a good choice. It wasn’t so often that I felt it would hurt me, but was still often enough that I knew I could look forward to it and be able to stay on track with my healthy lifestyle. Another rule of thumb I give myself on the sweets, beyond just chocolate, is to limit it to special occasions and celebrations only.
So now you need to look at your top three, and if any of them are unhealthy foods, you can decide how much of each is your idea of moderation, and work that into your plan. Once per week? Once per month? Special occasions only? It’s totally up to you!
Step 2 – Fruits and Veggies
What do you need? Now that we have your must-haves down on paper, we can move on to what your body needs. In short — it needs lots of the plant stuff! Veggies and fruits, in that order. My recommendation for you is to make sure that you have at least one vegetable at every meal (excluding breakfast, but I definitely suggest getting veggies in even then if you can), and specifically make it the center of your meal rather than just a side dish! The general rule of thumb is that the dark green leafy vegetables are the best, followed by the bright colors (tomatoes, bell peppers, carrots, sweet potatoes, etc.), with the starchy vegetables (corn and potatoes) coming in last.
I want you to get experimental with this if you’re not normally a veggie eater. Go browse the produce section (stay away from canned and frozen if at all possible) and choose something that looks interesting or inviting. Look up a recipe for it. And give it a try. You don’t have to have all of the answers straight out of the gate. Take your time and try new things, gain experience with vegetables and produce, and keep trying until you get the hang of it. Be patient with yourself so that you don’t give up too soon. You are learning a new way of cooking and a new way of life. For now, just plan on making some vegetable the center of every lunch and dinner, until you figure out just what you like and can stick to as part of your new healthy life!
When it comes to fruit, try to set a goal for at least once per day. Just like the veggies, venture out a little and try new things because you might be surprised to find you love things you never thought you would. I discovered that my favorite fruit is grapefruit. I also discovered that my favorite vegetable is beets, which I never thought in a million years would be something I’d love (my boyfriend does not share my love for these — bless him for giving them a try the last time I made them, but he gave them a hard pass!).
I also suggest finding plant based recipes on Pinterest, Instagram, blogs, or even just google. Even if you do not go plant-based in your diet, this will at least open you up to a brand new world with vegetables. It will teach you flavor combinations and meal ideas that you would never have thought of on your own, that will help you fall in love with eating your greens! In my experience, this is the toughest part of getting healthy because the standard American diet is plant-poor and people often do not know where to start with getting their veggies in a way that isn’t boring and flavorless. Find a few things you’d like to try and start there. Look at this as a process, rather than something you need to flip a switch and immediately be able to do.
I will also be sharing sources with you at the end of this month that will give you lots of places to go to find help with this!
Step 3 – Carbs
Let’s talk carbs. You need whole grains in your diet. The one exception to this is if you are trying to lose a great deal of weight and are cutting carbs in your diet for the sake of shedding pounds quickly. However, that is intended strictly for weight loss and not long-term maintenance, so this will give you a plan for when the weight is off and you’re ready to start moving forward with your new healthy lifestyle. For that, I suggest a grain at every meal, just like your veggies. Now…the serving size will be much smaller, and it’s also extremely important to read labels and make sure you’re really getting whole grains.
This is the time to break your love affair with all things white when it comes to carbs. You might totally love white bread and white pasta, but (unless this is one of your top three that you’re giving yourself in moderation) the goal is to feed your body, not your poorly-conditioned taste buds. Once again, you don’t need to flip a switch and toss out everything in your pantry. But as you run out of white carbs, start replacing them with wheat or whole grain. The next time you buy a loaf of bread, opt for whole wheat or multi-grain. And be sure to read the label and make sure the first ingredient is “whole wheat/grain”, and that you do not see the word “enriched” anywhere on the ingredients list.
Something else to look at is sugar. Look for high fructose corn syrup in the ingredients list, and grams of sugar on the nutrition facts. If you see corn syrup or more than 1g of sugar, I would suggest leaving that loaf on the shelf. Another suggestion for finding good bread — look in the freezer section. The best real whole grain breads are not shelf stable for very long, so they are usually frozen. This is because one of the big things that makes bread not good for you are the preservatives used to make it shelf-stable, as well as the conditioners used to make it soft.
Other grains are easier — whole wheat pasta, brown rice, couscous, farro, oats, barley. These can be found easily and are shelf stable since they’re dried. A tip on the oats — try to avoid quick cooking as they are stripped of a lot of their health benefits to make them cook up in a minute flat. I prepare my oats in the morning in a jar, then take them to work with me and cook them two hours later, once they’ve been soaking in the almond milk for a while. Overnight oats are also super simple, so quick-cooking isn’t necessary. However, if quick-cooking helps you with your busy life, then go for it! Just avoid the pre-made oatmeal packets as those are always full of sugar.
Step 4 – Protein
What is meat, and how much should you eat? Red meat includes beef, pork, and lamb, and is the hardest meat on your body. Since cured pork such as bacon is one of my top three, I allow it in my diet once per month. But when it comes to beef, I personally only eat it about 1-2 times per year. This is another one of those areas where you need to figure out for yourself what your limit is. Maybe you love yourself a good steak, so where I will only eat steak about once per year, maybe you want it once per month. You know what your preferences are, but again, just make sure you are keeping your new knowledge of food and health in mind so you can make a smart choice regarding red meat in your diet. Don’t make yourself wrong, make yourself healthy!
Then there is poultry, which is anything feathered. While it’s considered safer than red meat, it is still an animal protein so I highly recommend keeping this to small and moderate portions as well. I usually do poultry about two meals per week. Eggs also count in this category.
There is also fish and seafood, which is something I personally eat as much as or more than poultry because of the healthy fats (something that no other animal protein has). You’ll want to be mindful of mercury, which is basically higher the larger the fish. But otherwise fish and seafood is another good protein to consume a couple of times per week.
When deciding how much of each type of meat you are going to consume, you need to factor in something else — alternate sources of protein. This comes from beans, legumes, nuts and seeds. In fact, I like to consider this particular source of protein when planning meals for a week before I consider any animal-based source. For me, I do a 50/50 split when planning dinner — half plant-based protein and half poultry or fish protein — because I have a family to feed. When I’m only responsible for feeding myself and don’t have to worry about what the family prefers, it’s more like 75% plant protein and 25% poultry and fish. For lunch I only have to feed myself so that is the meal where I almost always do plant proteins only. The less animal-based and the more plant-based you can do, the better…but it is up to you and your preferences to decide what you should do for your new healthy diet. If you want to go completely plant-based and do 100% plant and 0% animal protein — go for it!
So here is your protein assignment — 15-20% of your diet should be protein, so figure out how much is going to come from plant-based sources, and how much is going to come from animal-based. I would start with deciding how many times per week you are going to eat red meat, poultry, eggs and fish. Then for the rest of your meals I would factor in a plant-based protein. This truly is not as hard as you think — chili, bean burritos or tacos, soups, black bean burgers, and so many different salads out there with beans and nuts, just for a start. Something else to consider is that any and all living thing, including plants have protein, so it’s much easier than you realize to get enough without eating lots of animal products. Need proof? Here is my protein level from my last health screen:
Step 5 – Snacks
Don’t forget about snacks! This is a great place to get in an extra serving of anything you need more of, including protein. One of my favorite work snacks is a serving of mixed nuts. I also found some seed crackers (which I am soon going to be testing a new recipe for) that have the same protein content as a serving of mixed nuts. Some hummus (made of garbanzo beans/chickpeas and sesame seed butter) and veggie sticks is a good protein and veggie source. A serving of peanut butter with apple slices is a great source of protein and fruit.
I make granola bars that are nut-based, so they are low in carbs and higher in protein and fiber. I shared the recipe for them last week on Mediterranean Monday, so feel free to check out that link. These are my boyfriend’s favorite, and I make them every week for him.
Another huge suggestion of mine is this — focus slightly less on meals and slightly more on snacks than you’ve maybe been used to. It is better for your metabolism and your body’s digestive process to have smaller meals more often (probably not big news to you), and you will notice a huge shift in body regularity when you do this. I plan dinners every week, with at least one recipe for lunch, as well as a few things I can use to throw together to make lunches that aren’t planned (like keeping black bean burgers in the freezer). And I always have a snack on hand to take to work for an afternoon snack as well. So I guess for me I kind of blend my lunch and my afternoon snack.
Step 6 – Calcium and Dairy
Your body needs calcium, that much is true. But where is the best place to get it? If you’re a heavy consumer of dairy, I strongly urge you to cut back. Quit cold turkey if you can, but if you love dairy, then for the sake of your health I hope you’ll commit to cutting it back to just a few times per week, especially the milk. The fact is, you do not need dairy for calcium. As you know now from reading my previous blog posts, the dairy myth is something that has been perpetuated by lobbying and the government.
I only eat three servings of dairy (primarily in the form of cheese, and never milk) per week. Yet my health screens always show that I have the perfect amount of calcium in my body. Test result photo below for evidence:
How is this possible? First of all, I will tell you up front that I do not take any supplements or vitamins at all, whatsoever. There is calcium in so many more food and plant sources than we realize. Plant-based milk is a great start. I use unsweetened almond milk in place of cow’s milk in everything. Chia seeds also have a lot of calcium (and protein too!). I make oatmeal for breakfast every morning using oats, chia seeds, walnuts or almonds, raisins or dried cranberries, unsweetened coconut, stevia, cinnamon, and almond milk. Just that one bowl of oatmeal alone gives me 54% of my daily intake of calcium (plus 52% fiber and 12% protein)!
Those beans and leafy greens you’ll be eating more of now? Also have lots of calcium. So my assignment for you where calcium is concerned is this — break the link in your mind between dairy and calcium. You can and will get enough calcium without overrunning your body with dairy products that raise cholesterol, feed cancer cells, and create acidity in your body, as long as you’re eating whole, unprocessed veggies, fruits and proteins. So don’t even worry about calcium…you will be covered!
Step 7 – Break Your Bad Habits
Break your bad habits. This was a tough one for me, because I was a sugar addict…and I say that literally. They say sugar is as addictive as cocaine, and I sincerely believe that is true. Before I got myself healthy, I craved it all the time. The funny thing about sugar is, it begins a downward spiral. Even now, years after changing my lifestyle, when I eat something sweet I get strong cravings…not only for more sugar, but also for fatty, fried, processed, total junk foods. I had to quit sugar cold turkey, and when I do have it now on special occasions, I choose to be mindful and keep my portions small because I know the effect it’s going to have on me. Something else I have to be aware of and watch is drinking wine — because every time I have a glass of wine it sets off a sugar craving.
Which brings me to my next point — substances. If you smoke, drink heavily, use recreational drugs…it won’t be possible to achieve total health until you stop. Smoking and drugs especially, as there is no benefit at all to be derived from them, only detriment to your health. Drinking is a bit trickier, because red wine has been shown again and again to have benefits to both your heart and your immune system. But it is still something to be consumed in moderation, because at the end of the day alcohol is also a carcinogen when used too heavily.
How much alcohol is safe? No more than one drink per day is the doctor-recommended guideline, and I personally choose a little less than that because I’m not sure that daily is a good idea as the last thing I want is to become dependent on it. I have a small (meaning 3-4 ounces rather than the standard 5 ounces) glass of red wine about five days per week. I’ve figured out that amount is just enough to keep me from having sugar cravings. And if I reach a point where I start to feel myself craving wine, I take a break from it for a few days, just to keep myself from developing a dependency. I want my good judgment to have control over my body, rather than letting my body control me.
Caffeine is another common addiction, whether it’s coffee, tea, energy drinks, soda or any other source, and it was definitely a bad habit of mine. I used to drink a pot of coffee per day. I drank it black, so I thought “at least it’s not full of cream and sugar”. But what it was, is full of caffeine, and too much of a good thing is usually a bad thing. I was having trouble sleeping and focusing, so I decided to nix the coffee habit to see if it helped. I cut myself back to two cups per day, usually in the morning but never after mid-afternoon. The result? Better sleep and better focus.
This is just something else to be mindful of — black coffee and tea are fine; even good for you if you don’t overdo it. So be careful not to overdo it. If you’re doing energy drinks and/or soda — the choice is ultimately yours but I beg of you to please stop. The sugars are terrible for your health and your waistline, and the artificial sweeteners that are in the diet variety are terrible for your brain and joints. Not to mention the chemicals in energy drinks are cancer-causers.
The best way to quit any bad habit is simply cold turkey. It won’t be easy, but it’s the quickest way to get the garbage processed out of your body and allow yourself to start to heal. Be patient and don’t give up on yourself — you can do it!
Step 8 – Planning
This one is less about the specifics of a diet, and more about maintaining it. Plan ahead. Write or type out the details of your diet:
- how many times per week will you eat meat?
- how many times per week will you eat dairy?
- how often will you eat sweets/allow yourself a treat?
- how often will you allow yourself your top 3 from step 1?
- how many times per day will you eat vegetables?
- what kinds of vegetables do you like eating or cooking?
- how many times per day will you eat fruit?
- how many times per day will you eat grains?
- what kinds do you most like eating and cooking?
Once you have these details laid out, you can start planning your meals and snacks for each week. Eventually you may not need to do this as you become experienced with your diet, but in the beginning I strongly suggest doing a meal plan. Figure out what you want for breakfast, lunch, snack, dinner, and maybe even dessert (a good place to work in some fruit or grains, or the occasional treat). This way you can look at the whole week and make sure that you are getting the number of servings of everything you have mapped out for yourself, then make your shopping list and get started.
If you don’t know where to start with meals or recipes, I would start basic. Pick a protein, grain, and vegetable you know you like and make that your dinner, for example. Then you can use that as a guide to look up recipes. Pinterest has a wealth of food ideas for you to browse. If you’re looking for something that uses beans for a protein source, you can just type in “bean recipes” and lots will come up. Another place I’ve found that is awesome for ideas is Instagram. I love both the #plantbased and the #mediterraneandiet hashtags. Sometimes you will find recipes in the description, but sometimes you’ll only find a picture with a description of what the dish is, but at least you can see what ingredients go into it and you can get ideas for what to put together.
Sitting down and planning out your week, making a shopping list, and getting your groceries all bought will give you a big leg up on your new way of life. Being prepared will take the stress and frustration out of learning new things. And I promise, after a few weeks it will start to become familiar, and after a few months it will start to be automatic. Which brings me to the final step…
Step 9 – Patience and Practice
Have patience, and practice practice practice! Remember learning to ride a bike? How many times did you topple over, hurt yourself, and get mad? But you stuck with it and you learned how to do it. Once your body learned the motor coordination needed, it became second nature and you had a new skill for life. Learning this new way of eating is the same. It’s unfamiliar, and your body isn’t used to it. It will take time and practice to discover new foods and new recipes, to fine-tune your shopping and cooking skills (a topic coming up soon on the blog), and for your body to adjust.
That’s something else I want to give you a head’s up on before you begin. Some of you may eat relatively healthy now, and some of you may be making a total lifestyle change. Depending on the diet you’ve been consuming, and especially if you have an addiction or bad habit to break, switching to this new way of eating might have some surprising unexpected effects on you. If you’ve been especially accustomed to sweets, meats, alcohol, and fried and processed foods, you will likely experience a detox as your body gets the break it needs to rid itself of the toxins those foods have put in it.
Here are some things you may experience:
- Irritability and mood swings
- Restlessness and/or fatigue
- Breakouts, or maybe even rashes or other skin reactions
- Headaches or body aches
These things are the most common, particularly in people who have been eating especially unhealthily, so if you experience them it is important to understand that it is normal. Symptoms of detox may last from a few days to a couple of weeks. Maybe even a few weeks in special cases. I’m telling you this not to scare you, but to prepare you so that you don’t quit, thinking that your new diet is doing your body harm. It is actually quite the opposite…your new diet is allowing your body to heal itself, so be patient during this time.
Once your body detoxes and adjusts to your new healthy life, your skin will be clearer, your energy level will be higher, and your mood will be better. You’ll also likely start to notice aches and pains you may have had will start to fade, and you will experience less brain fog. There will come a day (for me it was probably six months to a year in), where you’ll realize that all of the stuff you used to eat doesn’t even sound good anymore.
When I was growing up, I loved Coca-Cola, sweets, and most anything fried — mozzarella cheese sticks especially. Now the thought of all of those almost makes me nauseous. It takes time, but you will find that as you start to unlearn your old ways and adopt your new healthy habits, your mindset on food and health will change completely.
I grew up with no concept of health whatsoever and was pretty much allowed to eat whatever junk I wanted. It wasn’t until a major health problem came up in my family (my grandmother was diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukemia) that it all came to a crashing halt for me and I started to learn and care about diet and health. My wish for you is that you don’t wait until there is a health crisis to get serious about your health. You have the power to start any time, including right now in this very moment. If you slip-up, that’s okay. Don’t beat yourself up. Just chalk it up to a lesson, dust yourself off, and pick right back up where you left off.
There is no such thing as perfection, and if you demand that of yourself you’re sure to fail. What you can do is learn, come up with a plan, practice, and give it the best you have to give. Do what works for you, and live your best life as your best self. You can do this, I know you can!