In traditional Chinese medicine, how we eat is the foundation of our health. In fact, diet is so important that food therapy is a specific treatment modality, and considered as important as acupuncture or herbal medicine. Since starting school to become an acupuncturist many years ago, I’ve slowly changed my diet. I feel stronger and healthier in my 40s than I did in my 20s because of those changes.
It takes time and work to find a healthy diet because most of us have a complicated relationship with food. We use it for comfort, distraction, reward, and a way to celebrate or bond with others. We also commonly have limiting beliefs about our diet that either lead us into restrictive eating habits, or convince us that having a healthy diet is too hard so we shouldn’t try. Beliefs like:
- “I’ll have to give up all the foods that give me pleasure.”
- “I’ll have to cook all my own food and I hate to cook.”
- “I’ll have to eat a bunch of foods that I think taste boring or gross.”
- “I’ll have to spend a bunch of money I don’t have to buy organic everything.”
The shortest path—what makes you feel good in your body?
The reality is that different diets work for different people. You have a unique biochemistry and specific beliefs and practices related to food that you received from your family, friends, and culture as you were growing up.
The best test of whether a diet works well for you is how you feel. Do you have enough energy throughout the day? Are you sleeping well? Are you prone to low grade headaches or other aches and pains? Do you have consistent problems with your digestion like frequent gas and bloating, loose stool or constipation? If any of those areas of your health could use improvement, changes in your diet would probably help.
A diet that makes you feel better in your body is a diet you will return to when life throws you off track. This is particularly important if you’re trying to lose weight. I know people who’ve lost weight and kept it off, but all of them shifted to a diet that they enjoyed and was therefore sustainable. The weight came off over a period of a couple years, not a few months. Importantly, in the end the point of their diet was how it made them feel, not the amount of weight they lost.
First, get clear on all the ways your current diet works for you
Change takes work, which means our unconscious mind will always resist and throw up roadblocks. To melt away resistance, try the “triple paradox technique” from the well-known cognitive behavioral therapist Dr. David Burns. First, list all of the advantages of your habit. Second, list all the disadvantages of changing. Third, list all the awesome and positive things that your habit shows about you. Sound strange? Try it. This technique helped me break a few habits I’d been trying to change for decades. Watch this video to learn more.
How to change with minimal effort
We habitually overestimate what we can accomplish in a day, and underestimate what we can accomplish in a year. Set your bar low, and you will be amazed how much can change in a year. Below is a list of changes I made over the course of several years. Each one helped me feel a little better. I didn’t need to do them all at once. And honestly, I couldn’t have, even if I’d tried.
- Cut out sugared drinks. I went from one to two cans of Coke a day to one can, to a mini can, to orange and grapefruit flavored LaCroix to water and tea. Now if I drink a Coke, it tastes so sweet that I don’t like it and have to stop after a few sips. A bonus of cutting out sugared drinks is that you will retrain your palate to be more sensitive to sweets. Many things now taste too sweet to me—donuts, cookies, ice cream treats, candy. That doesn’t mean I don’t eat them from time to time, but I can’t eat them mindlessly the way I could before.
- Meal planning is key, but easily overwhelming. If this is a struggle for you, don’t start by trying to figure out dinners. Start with healthy snacks. They are simple and will prevent you from getting too hungry and hitting a drive through or a convenience store. I like apples, popcorn, carrot sticks and store bought hummus, low sodium corn chips and smashed avocado—boring, but convenient. Then tackle breakfast or lunch. These are meals where you can introduce more vegetables, and you don’t have to worry about pleasing other people at the dinner table. I make batches of steel cut oats on Sunday night with frozen berries, honey and almond milk. I typically make three or four mason jar salads for lunch, or a pot of soup. I also like frozen breakfast burritos (they’re homemade now, but I started with the store-bought Amy’s brand). I also chop up an onion, green pepper and a box of mushrooms and keep it in the fridge to make a 5 minute omelet in the morning that I can take to work for a mid-morning snack.
- Pick nutrient dense snacks and sides over processed carbs that will spike your blood sugar and leave you feeling hungry in a couple of hours. I don’t buy bakery anymore, I rarely eat crackers or chips, and I eat far less bread and pasta than I used to. To work on cutting back on those things, I started by changing the proportion of them in my diet. If I want some crackers, I mostly eat cheese and sausage with only a few crackers. If I want bread, I have a piece of toast with avocado, or some French bread with a small bowl of bean soup. Pasta is covered with lots of vegetables. When I’m dying for bakery, I make some cookies with wheat germ, oats and whole wheat flour and cut back the amount of sugar by a third. The result of all these changes is that I can now feel my blood sugar spike whenever I eat something carb heavy, and it’s extremely unpleasant. I’ve retrained my body to recognize that I don’t feel well when I eat processed foods or lots of carbs, so I don’t crave them as much. I still eat them because sometimes emotionally I want a bunch of fries, but I weigh my choices in a different way than I used to.
- Know your temptations and figure out ways to avoid them. I love chocolate, chocolate chip cookies, brownies and chocolate ice cream. I slowly retrained my palate to prefer very dark chocolate, which means that things like a Hershey’s bar or peanut M&Ms taste too sweet and it’s easier for me to pass them by. I rarely buy cookies or other treats from the store because if they are in my house, I will eat them. If I really want a treat, I have to go through the effort of getting in the car and driving to Culver’s, or pulling out my mixing bowls to make cookies. While I was retraining my body to crave less sugar, I would eat grapes and a piece of toast with natural peanut butter in the evening as a way to satisfy my craving for fat and sweet tastes. I still do that some evenings.
- There are times when I eat for comfort or some other emotional reason. Ideally, I should meet those needs in some other way, but I’m not perfect. In those situations, I try to reach for something that is relatively healthy first. I eat an apple and a few pieces of cheese first, wait fifteen minutes, then decide if I really want to make myself a chocolate mug cake. Sometimes I need a mug cake, and that’s ok.
Specific diets that have worked well for patients, friends, and family members
Below are things that have worked well for people I know. These approaches are mainstream enough you aren’t going to hurt yourself by trying one. Remember, these are ways to eat in order to feel healthy in your body, not lose weight.
Meal services like Dinnerly or HelloFresh
It’s easier to have a healthy diet if you don’t mind cooking. If you hate to cook, don’t know how to cook, or live alone and can’t find recipes for one person, these meal services are a great option. You don’t need to commit to it for every dinner. Start with two or three nights a week. I’ve known several people who have learned how to cook this way. It’s not something they did forever, but it taught them a few good skills and helped broaden their horizons.
The Whole 30 Challenge
This has been a solid option for people who are concerned about inflammation in their bodies, and think they potentially have some food sensitivities. It’s also good for people who find it exciting and rewarding to do something more intense. The reason I say that is because this is essentially an elimination diet. The people I know who like Whole 30 use it as a reset for their eating and cooking habits once or twice a year. I think it can help a person feel better, but I’m not sure if that’s as a result of eliminating so many foods, or being forced to cut out highly processed food and start cooking for yourself. This website gives a good overview. https://whole30.com/whole30-program-rules/ If you have a history of disordered eating (and don’t feel badly if you do, it’s much more common than you realize), you might want to give this diet a pass.
16-8 Intermittent Fasting
The people I know who use intermittent fasting are often trying to address an underlying health concern such as type II diabetes, high blood pressure, a cancer diagnosis, etc. There is a wide body of evidence that suggests fasting works very well for some people. A person is free to eat their normal diet, but only during an 8 hour window. Usually, that means eating between noon and 8pm and fasting the rest of the day. I’ve also seen this be a helpful diet for people who have a history of disordered eating. I think that’s probably because there is only one rule to follow, not several, and you’re not restricting any particular food. This can be an effective tool for healthy weight loss, but you will need to stick with it for a sustained period of time, and likely return to it throughout the rest of your life. Check out this website for more information.
I’ve had a few friends and patients try out this web-based service—you might have seen it advertised on YouTube. There is a coaching component and a social aspect to the program that they find supportive. It’s easier to make progress when you have an accountability coach. By keeping closer track of what they eat each day, the people I know who use Noom feel it has taught them to be more mindful about their eating habits. It seems to be particularly well-suited to people who do a lot of stress-eating.
This is the style of eating that I follow. It’s really about nurturing a healthy relationship with food, respecting your body, and paying attention to hunger and fullness cues. You can find information on the “10 Principles” of Intuitive Eating here. My colleague, Kathryn Tollefson, is an Intuitive Eating coach. Learn more about her here.