Positive Eating Goals
This May, my theme – as part of my larger “Making the Changes That Matter” project – is “The Art of Addition.”
When we make healthy lifestyle changes, they tend to either be subtraction (removing an old habit) or addition (creating a new and improved one).
It is easy and natural to over-focus on the subtraction-style changes – less junk food, less nighttime snacking, less eating out – as these changes are critical. But, as you have perhaps experienced in the past, if you only focus on the subtraction elements, your lifestyle may start losing some of its recognizable routines, which can be unsettling.
To quote last week:
In the process of optimizing your eating environment, becoming more informed about nutrition, and using smart portion control strategies, it can be easy to get caught in a trap of less… and less… and less… and less.
But health and wellness, as a pursuit, is meant to make your world bigger, not smaller. If you feel your world shrinking, it’s time to redefine what fitness means to you, and how you can re-shape your approach to expand your horizons.
To address this, my blog theme for the month of May is “The Art of Addition” – habits and strategies you add into your life, to balance out and replace the routines and/or foods you may be taking away. It’s incredibly important that your strategies for healthy living line up with your vision for your life. Practicing the art of addition empowers you to make choices about which routines and habits mean the most to you, and are most in alignment with your values.
Last week, we covered exercise as a positive addition. This week, I want to talk about positive food goals, to be used in conjunction with all of the smart strategies we’ve been discussing in the last few months.
I want to point out that this doesn’t replace the essential subtraction goals – instead, these positive additions are meant to be used in tandem with intelligent and mindful subtractions. In fact, I think that they are simply two sides of the same coin – when you take a habit away, it is imperative that you immediately replace it, so that you don’t leave a void open.
If you have dieted before, you know what passively fills that void, if you don’t pay attention – food obsession, cravings, and body image fretting.
Instead, let’s short-circuit that cycle of negativity, and ensure that each time we surgically remove a detrimental habit, we take the steps to fill the empty space with something positive.
Here are five strategies that I highly recommend incorporating into your repertoire of habits:
Strategy 1: Adopt a gamifying mindset
To “gamify” something is exactly what it sounds like – to simply turn it into a game. When we start addressing habits that have gone awry, it’s easy to make the mistake of becoming ultra-serious. This can have the unfortunate effect of making the natural ups and downs of weight loss and habit formation more intense than they need to be.
Instead, making something light, fun, and approachable has the much-needed opposite effect – it smoothes out the edges of your experience of change, and makes the inevitable slips less disastrous.
Gamifying is a strategy that mostly happens in your mindset and in your language. How do you frame your weight loss or health journey? What kind of words do you use to describe your efforts? Is it a fun challenge brimming with possibility, or is it a hamster wheel of frustration that confirms what failure you are?
Gamification can utterly transform mechanical practices like counting calories or planning food. Instead of seeing it as a drudgery of confusion and failure, you have the choice of seeing it as a puzzle or a game – one that you can win, and have fun doing so!
Strategy #2: Make your protein and fiber goals a game to win
Here’s a practical application of the gamification mindset – set yourself three separate goals that have to fit together as a puzzle each day:
- a caloric goal
- a protein goal
- a fiber goal
Don’t even worry about fat or carbs, as this will take care of itself. I call this a “blackjack goal” rather than a “golf goal.” Your aim is not to score as little as possible, but rather to score as much as possible within a target.
So let’s create an imaginary, active woman who’s 5’6″ and 35 years old, and is currently 180 pounds but wants to lose weight at a slow, steady pace. A good calorie goal for her would be somewhere in the 1700-2000 range on any day. So let’s say she focuses on 1800 calories as her average goal.
Then, a smart goal for protein is typically at least half someone’s bodyweight in grams. So because she’s 180 pounds, she should aim for at least 90 grams of protein per day – but ideally higher, because she’s active, doing moderate-intensity strength training four times a week. So let’s aim higher, and say 120 grams of protein per day, so that we can support healthy muscle development, as well.
120 grams of protein takes up 480 calories of her 1800, leaving her 1320 calories to hit her fiber goal of at least 25 grams per day (this is the general recommendation for adult women from the Institute of Medicine). Then, once she’s hit these two goals, she can do whatever else she wants with her budget. This is a manageable and gamified way to approach calorie counting, without getting too hung up on precise macro tracking (or perfectionistic thinking about “good” or “bad” foods).
The addition of a vibrant, abundant vegetables and sufficient protein will hugely impact how you feel about food – these nutrients will not only improve your health, but will also cut cravings and make adherence to a caloric deficit substantially easier, as these slow-digesting, highly-satiating foods essentially crowd out less desirable alternatives.
The art of addition, when it comes to protein and fiber, is a powerful way to transform your relationship to numbers.
Strategy #3: Learn to cook truly delicious meals
In other words, add creative cooking skills to your life.
A mistake that people often make with subtraction-style changes is that they stop getting takeout, but don’t learn how to cook the food that they were ordering.
The resulting feelings of deprivation and self-pity often result in a weekend pendulum swing of over-indulgence and subsequent regret.
Instead of getting into this cycle, make it a goal to master one fun recipe per week. If you love Thai, Chinese, Mexican, or Italian dishes, learn how to reproduce your favorite restaurant meals at home, using higher-quality, higher-protein, and higher-fiber ingredients.
Cutting out extra calories is key for weight loss, but it doesn’t mean you have to cut out enjoyment, too. Not only is learning to cook a fun and satisfying experiment, but it also means that the experience of eating your own cooking with be improved, allowing you to avoid large caloric swings between weekdays and weekends.
Strategy #4: Add flavorful extras to your diet
Add lots of tasty, satisfying, and enjoyable low-calorie foods to your refrigerator, and your life. These include vinegars, salsas, herbs, tomato sauces, citrus juices, and – yes – even salt. I would also include on this list light but fun desserts like ice cream pops or natural fruit pops, which give you that bite of sweetness after dinner without the heavy caloric intake.
A common mistake people make when they “clean up” their diets is to simplify to the point of complete and utter boredom, eradicating flavor, texture, or anything even remotely palatable. Dry chicken breast paired with soggy broccoli is not a good long-term solution for weight loss. You’ll burn out before you see results.
Don’t be afraid to experiment with ways to make any food more interesting, using these low-calorie additions – they make a tremendous difference in how much you enjoy food, which makes a long-term difference in not only how long you can stick with a way of eating, but also in your overall relationship with food and yourself.
Strategy #5: Set hydration goals
This one’s incredibly simple. Just add more water to your life. Often, when someone makes the decision to create a caloric deficit in order to elicit weight loss, the result is feeling hungry and grumpy. While a little hunger is often part of figuring out the best way to distribute your food throughout the day, some stomach growling is hydration masquerading as hunger.
Make it a positive goal to drink several glasses/bottles of water between each meal, and you’ll be amazed at how much more satiated you are by your food intake. Being hydrated can significantly cut down on cravings, as well as noticeably boost your energy.
Keep the Biggest Goal in Mind
Finally, when you are playing with the concept of addition, remember to keep the most important goal in mind – to develop and maintain a healthy relationship with food throughout your weight loss experience, and beyond.
Food is meant to be enjoyed, and it is part of what makes life sweet. But one aspect of building a healthy relationship with eating is to realize that food does not represent the full sum of satisfaction that is available to you in your life. By investing a little bit of time and focus each day to ensure that you are aligned with your food and fitness goals, you can “set it and forget it,” and in the process free up tremendous bandwidth for your biggest priorities.
… But more on that next week!
Follow-Up Questions from Last Week
If you want to jump into this free healthy living project (with weekly strategies to try out), sign up on this page to get these questions delivered directly to your inbox each week!
Last week in “Exercise, but not for the Calorie Burn,” we explored the positive effects that add up when you introduce regular exercise into your lifestyle.
Answer the following questions about your experiences with last week’s post:
- Question 1: Have you ever had fitness goals that were too intense or demanding for your lifestyle? How can you “lower the bar” to ensure that you exercise on a regular basis?
- Question 2: What types of exercise/movement do you really, truly enjoy?
- Question 3: Have you ever gotten caught in the calorie-burn trap – what I call the “insane arithmetic” of justifying your eating with exercise? What impact did this have on your exercise and eating?
- Question 4: What are your current exercise goals?