How to Change Your Diet/Lifestyle
The following is an excerpt from the book I’m currently writing on how to manage Seasonal Affective Disorder without drugs. The book is taking me longer than I expected because of increased family obligations, but I am making progress on it. I’ll let ya’ll know when it’s out.
Changing your diet can be difficult. Depending on how you’re currently eating the task can seem overwhelming. Stop, take a deep breath and tell yourself that you CAN do this. Lifestyle changes don’t happen over night. In order to make lasting changes to your diet, exercise or other lifestyle you have to break the new behaviors down into small, easy to accomplish tasks. Your diet and exercise routines are mostly a matter of habit. And when it comes to changing habits, there are solid, research based methods to integrate the new habits into your life.
There are emotions surrounding habits and it’s our emotional needs which keep us coming back to both good and bad habits, so to successfully change a habit, it helps to be aware of the emotions surrounding the actions.
Here’s an example:
Michael1 was a client several years ago. He had uncontrolled Diabetes 2. As a result of the uncontrolled Diabetes he always had open sores on his feet. These sores often became infected, and because of the infection doctors had to remove part of his foot. Michael felt completely defeated by the Diabetes. He was often in pain and unable to walk, he was unable to walk very far, and even going to the grocery store had become difficult. No matter what he did he was unable to loose weight, and he hated taking insulin shots multiple times each day. Michael told me that his doctor had warned him that he was in real danger of dying from his health conditions. He ate a lot of bread and pasta because he believed he was unable to afford better foods. He got into the habit of eating a very carb and sugar laden breakfast each morning.
During one of our first sessions together, I looked over his weekly record of high carb, low protein, and low fat meals. I focused on his breakfasts, which mostly consisted of bagels, donuts, or another bread based item with coffee, cream and sugar. I asked him how he felt about changing his daily breakfast to something that consisted of protein, and fat instead. He became defensive and told me that there was no way he could change his breakfast. As we talked, it became obvious that his breakfast habits were based on emotion. His mother had served a high carb breakfast every morning when he was a child. He revealed that ever since his mother died several years before, he had made it a point to eat a breakfast she would have enjoyed as a way to honor her. At the close of our coaching session, I suggested that Micheal journal about why he feels the need to eat a breakfast that was damaging his health as a way to honor his dead mother.
Michael emailed me a few days later to say that he had taken my suggestion and journaled about his mother. He realized that the carb laden breakfast brought him comfort from the loss of his mom. I suggested he look at other ways he could comfort himself without food.
At our next session I asked Michael if he was ready to change his breakfasts. I suggested he start by picking two consecutive days during the week. On those two days he would eat a breakfast that contained protein and fat, but little to no carbs. He reluctantly agreed, and we sat down together and came up with four inexpensive breakfast ideas that fit the description. At the end of our session, I suggested that he approach the breakfast changes slowly, but with an open mind. I also suggested that if he notices a change in how he felt or saw a reduction in his morning blood sugar levels, that maybe he might think about expanding the protein/fat breakfasts to as many days as necessary. I also suggested that on the protein/fat days he take the time to engage in an activity that was calming and self-soothing.
In his case, the next step was to call his Diabetes nurse and find out if and how he would need to adjust his morning insulin shot. She was supportive and encouraged him to call her every morning, if necessary, to get an accurate insulin dosage.
At the next visit I asked Michael how the new breakfasts were going. He said that he had stuck to the plan and eating the protein/fat breakfast for the scheduled two mornings. I asked him to continue with that plan for the next month and then report back to me.
At our next month visit, Michael reported that he had expanded the protein/fat breakfast to three days each week because he felt like he had more energy and experienced less pain during the morning hours when he skipped the carbs. He spoke to his Diabetes nurse and told her what we were doing and Michael reported to me that she was supportive and encouraged him expand the protein/fat breakfasts.
After three months, Michael was eating the protein/fat breakfast 5 days a week. He was holding on to the high carb breakfasts on the weekends. We talked about why this was the case, and it became apparent that Michael needed to have a frank and honest discussion with his wife. She was also attached to the high carb breakfasts. She made his meals on the weekends and he was hesitant to ask her to change them. I suggested he journal about his feelings to discover why he was so reluctant to discuss his food changes with his wife. I’m not sure what happened, but about a week later, he emailed me to say that he had spoken to his wife and had changed his weekend breakfasts too.
The following month, Michael reported to me that his Diabetes nurse weighed him, and he had lost 10 pounds. I suggested he celebrate by doing something that made him feel happy, content, and cared for.
There are several lessons in this story.
First, make diet changes slowly, and pay close attention to your emotions and the reasons you eat what you do.
Some people eat carbohydrates for the sugar high they provide. That carb induced sugar high can give the impression of improved mood, but you always crash later in the day. That insulin drop causes cravings for more high carbohydrates.
Others, like Michael eat certain foods because a friend or family member always ate those foods.
Foods like chocolate have a chemical impact on the body and effect mood.
People eat because they are bored, frustrated, angry, or sad.
Some people eat foods like sugar-laden “treats” when they are celebrating an accomplishment. This one is difficult to overcome because it’s ingrained in our culture. Think about it, cake and ice cream for birthdays, pie for Thanksgiving and Christmas, eating at a restaurant for holidays such as Mother’s Day and Father’s Day.
Many of us eat simply because “it’s time.” We’ve forgotten how to listen to our bodies hunger signals. Many families or couples meet in the evening to eat dinner together. Are you actually hungry, or are you participating in a family ritual?
Alcohol is also used to celebrate; activities like taking a friend out for drinks, or toasting a newly married couple. We do these things, not because they are best for our health,and not because the body is hungry, but because they are expected as part of our culture.
Part of the journey of improving your diet is to identify these occasions, eating triggers, and rituals around food, and to become intentional in your eating.
How exactly, do you change your diet?
Making permanent changes to diet and lifestyle often require a bit of mental gymnastics. In a general sense the human brain is hard-wired to resist change. Scientists believe the reasons for this are rooted in survival instincts. For our purposes you simply need to be aware that your body and mind prefer things to remain unchanged. That means that to make drastic changes in your lifestyle you approach the changes slowly. Don’t make a lot of changes at once, and don’t demand perfection.
Have you ever heard the phrase “slow is fast?” That’s what we’re talking about here. Let’s say you want to completely overhaul your diet from the typical Standard American Diet (SAD) to a healthy low carb, no sugar eating plan.
If you approach the entire project at once your brain will fight you; you might become overwhelmed, you might decide it’s a drastic and unnecessary change and try to talk yourself out of it. You may find yourself making excuses not to follow through.
The way around that is to make small changes every few weeks. For example, instead of giving up bread cold turkey, decide to stop eating bread with breakfast for three weeks. At the end of those three weeks evaluate several health markers: do you feel better? have you lost weight? have your blood sugar numbers changed? Are you having fewer sugar cravings? Do you notice a difference in your mood during the day? What about energy levels?
After you evaluate your progress, then you can increase your bread free meals so that your are skipping the bread for breakfast and lunch. Three weeks later reevaluate and add dinner.
A few weeks later, add another change.
I’ve found that one of the best ways to approach these changes is to make a list of the new, healthy habits you want to foster. Write them down and post them somewhere you’ll see them frequently. Here are some suggestions:
On a frequently used cabinet
On your bedroom door
In your planner
As a desktop note on your computer, or cell phone
Dashboard of your car
Door to the closet where you keep your clothes
Any other place you look at or see often
Now that you have the changes you wish to make written down and posted in various highly visible places it’s time to choose ONE habit.
Let’s pretend you are working to manage diabetes and high blood pressure without medication. Your list of new habits to foster might look like this:
- Remove all added sugar from diet
- Eliminate gluten grains
- Work up to 10,000 steps each day
- Eliminate artificial sweeteners
- Light cardio workout 4 times per week
- Take blood sugar levels 6 times per day
- Take blood pressure every day
- Drink enough water
- Reduce or eliminate caffeine
- Eat only home prepared food made from fresh foods.
- The next step is to choose ONE habit to work on. You might think that you’ll make faster progress if you tackle two or even three at a time, but most people can only handle so much change before it overwhelms them emotionally. For this reason, it’s better to make only one change at a time.
For the purposes of our demonstration, we’ll start with “Eliminate gluten grains.” Break this goal down into easily managed steps. Write the steps down on paper. Put them into some sort of logic order so they can be completed in the order written on the paper. Then, post them along with your list of steps. For example:
Identify which grains I eat are considered gluten grains.
Identify any “keywords” that indicate a gluten grain might be an ingredient. (sometimes things are included under a different name)
Read labels of all the foods in my pantry,and all foods I purchase. Look for gluten grains, and their keywords.
Learn about alternatives to the foods I buy regularly which contain gluten grains.
Start replacing gluten-containing foods with non-gluten foods.
Now, you have a solid plan that you can follow to start removing gluten from your diet. You don’t have to do it all at once. In fact, it’s better if you don’t try to do all this over one weekend. Give yourself time to adjust to each and every step. A lot of health coaches recommend setting a deadline for having each step completed. Deadlines are very motivating for a lot of people; however others find that deadlines, even self-imposed ones, cause stress and anxiety. Be aware of how you react to deadlines and act accordingly.
Follow your steps in the order you’ve written them down. I suggest leaving yourself at least one full week between steps. This gives you time to wrap your head and emotions around the new idea or action before you move on to the next step.
In our list of steps above, step one is “Identify which grains I eat are considered gluten grains.” To do this you’ll need to do some reading. Look on-line or read a book about gluten such as Perlmutter’s Grain Brain. Write down your list of gluten grains and keep it with you. Review the list two or three times every day for a week. This does two things— it will help you remember the grains you want to avoid so that you’re not always having to look it up, and it will help you mentally and emotionally adjust to the upcoming changes.
When you feel comfortable and confident move on to step two in your written plan.
Step two is to identify keywords that indicate one of the gluten grains is an ingredient. Repeat the process for step one. Look up the words from a reliable, natural health friendly source write them down and review several times each day for a week.
Next start reading labels. Start with the packaged foods in your pantry and fridge. Make a note of the foods you already have which contain gluten grains. These foods will have to be replaced with a different brand, or different food. When you go shopping read labels before you purchase a food. In this step, you can purchase the gluten containing food if you really want to, or you can purchase an alternative if you’re aware of one. But, this step is really about identifying the foods you eat and buy which contain gluten. Spend at least a week reading labels of the foods you eat and buy.
In step four you will research foods, and find foods that will replace your current gluten containing foods. Do web searches, read labels and talk to friends, relatives and acquaintances who you know are gluten free. You might consider joining a gluten free or celiac group on Facebook, Minds.com, MeWe, yahoogroups, or any other social media you use. Again, make a list of alternative foods. Keep that list in your purse or wallet, or put it on your phone so it’s always with you. That will eliminate confusion and uncertainty during step five, when you actually start replacing foods. When you think you have a good list of alternatives, move on to step five.
At this point, you’ve educated yourself as to which grains contain gluten, you’ve identified which foods you eat regularly that have gluten in them, and you have learned about the available alternatives. You should feel fairly confident beginning the process of replacing the gluten containing foods in your diet. Don’t try to replace them all at once. Learning to like a new food, or a new type of food often takes time. Start with one or two foods. Perhaps you start by replacing bread. You might try one of the packaged gluten free breads, you could make your own “bread” with any of the many gluten free grains available, you could make coconut or flaxseed bread, or maybe, after some experimentation you decide you don’t like any of these options. At that point, you could decide to simply replace all bread with something else. You might use lettuce to make wraps instead of sandwiches, for example.
When you feel comfortable with your alternatives to bread, then take the same steps to eliminate another gluten grain in your diet.
Finally, when all the gluten grains have been removed from your daily food intake, repeat the process for another habit on your list.
Continue until you’ve met and are comfortable with all the health goals on your list. Understand that this entire process might take longer than you, or your friends/relatives/associates think it should. That’s okay. What’s important is that you make changes that will last. People who make dietary and lifestyle changes too quickly fall back into old habits. Your goal here it move slowly and steadily toward healthier eating and lifestyle habits.
11 Michael is not his real name.