Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been sharing my new approach to being healthy (both in body and in mind) on this blog. This particular post will probably make a lot more sense if you first read On Huge Lifestyle Changes, or My “Holy Hell, I’m Actually Doing This” Journey to Being Healthy. If you’re interested in the fitness side of things, you can check out On Huge Lifestyle Changes: My New Approach to Fitness and Being Active.
As mentioned in the previous posts about this new healthy journey I’m on, I had reached a breaking point a few months ago. Fast approaching my 35th birthday, I woke up most mornings feeling like shit, regardless of how much I slept or if I drank the night before. My back always hurt. My clothes barely fit. I always felt sluggish, unmotivated, and tired. I cried often, though I couldn’t always tell you why. My work and my relationships were suffering for it.
And so I decided to change everything. There have been three major changes I’ve made. The first is that I started being extremely active, going to the gym daily and finding fitness that I truly enjoyed (I wrote about that in the last post in this series). The second is that I minimized the time I spent online to only absolutely necessary levels (that, as well as other changes I made to prioritize my mental health, coming up in the next post). And finally, I completely changed the way I eat.
Long-time readers of this blog will know that I struggled with this. Food and alcohol have been huge parts of my life, and as established in a previous post, I have always been that girl that would say yes to everything (food and drink related, at least). You could always count on me to have that shot with you, to share that pizza with you, to go for a midnight junk food run. Although my parents always made sure I had very healthy food at home, by the time I could ride a bicycle I was constantly off spending my babysitting money on sweets and sugary drinks. When I moved out on my own at 18, I often made poor lifestyle choices, and that continued until, well, three months ago. Travelling, of course, exacerbated this, as it can be extremely difficult to eat healthy while on the road.
This was going to be challenging, but I was ready to make the change. Life’s too short not to have that extra slice of pizza, you could argue, but life’s also too short not to appreciate and prioritize your health.
When it comes to being healthy, especially when it comes to physical health, it is said that exercise is only a small part of the battle; some people have even said it’s 80/20, with food being the 80% factor in staying healthy. I wanted to make sure that, just because I was exercising more, I didn’t fall into the trap of thinking I could then eat whatever I wanted. I wanted to feel healthy from the inside out, and that included things like digestion, cholesterol, and my skin.
And, just as I stated in the last post about fitness, I wanted to avoid all food fads and trends. I didn’t want to deprive myself, starve myself, or follow some person who eats 50 bananas a day and claims it’s healthy (it’s not). I didn’t want to be like some tech bro who thinks extreme fasting (i.e. an eating disorder) is the way to go. I didn’t want to go on some bullshit water fast for weeks at a time that would potentially screw up my health for life (this is actually what some “health” Instagrammers/YouTubers promote, and it’s disgusting). Bottom line, I didn’t want to rely on anything that I couldn’t sustain, so that included any sort of tablet, powder, tea, or meal replacement that would probably just give me horrendous diarrhea.
I absolutely love eating, and I still wanted to eat a lot. I wanted to eat a variety of delicious foods that would also make me feel great. I wanted to eat real, healthy food that would give me energy and taste fantastic.
Again, for the cheap seats in the back: I do not condone, and will never condone, any sort of “miracle diet cure” that apparently melts away pounds or replaces healthy food. As I’ve already stated, I am not a health professional by any means, but the following is what I’ve personally done to feel better and eat healthier.
I imagine most of us have a general sense of what healthy food is and what unhealthy food is. We all know that a Big Mac meal isn’t very good for us. But I think there are a lot of grey areas as well: diet foods, low-calorie snacks, the idea that a salad is instantly healthy, and so on. I also think that many people, myself included, struggle with portion control. What I used to think was one serving of pasta, for example, was probably more like three servings.
Just like I had to be brutally honest with myself about how inactive and out of shape I was, I had to be brutally honest with how much I was eating, and how much of it was unhealthy. I quickly realized that so much of what I was eating was a series of processed, refined food filled with ingredients I couldn’t name. I also realized I was doing a lot of mindless eating in front of the TV and not considering portion control or how much food my body truly needed.
An average day looked like this for me:
In the morning I’d start with scrambled eggs with spinach and tomatoes (with milk and margarine) on toast with more margarine, complete with coffee with cream and sugar. So far, not too bad.
For lunch I’d usually have canned soup and more toast with margarine and cheddar cheese (sometimes 1/3 of a block of cheese). Canned soup can be OK if you choose the right brand, but I was often eating ones filled with salt and sugar.
For dinner, if I wasn’t going out, I’d usually make a huge bowl of pasta with olive oil, pesto, chicken, vegetables, and cheese. I’d often drink a couple of glasses of wine as well. If I did go out for dinner, which was often, I’d have appetizers, a main, dessert, and usually a few drinks.
If I had dessert in the house, I’d eat it. I’m really into baking, but I realized that if I have cookies on my counter, I’d easily eat four or five in a day without thinking.
I’d always get hungry again around 11pm, so I’d usually make toast with peanut butter and jam, usually with a large glass of chocolate milk. If I didn’t have toast, I’ve have cheese and crackers (I’d easily eat half a box of crackers in one sitting). I’d also sometimes make Kraft Dinner (macaroni and powdered cheese) and eat the entire box’s worth, which is actually four servings or approximately 1000 calories. At least twice a week, I’d indulge in Doritos, chocolate bars, soda, and/or sugared candy from the convenience store.
As you can see, I was eating way too many refined carbohydrates (bread and pasta made up the bulk of every meal and snack), getting way too much salt and sugar, and barely getting any fruit or vegetables. I was also totally unaware of serving sizes. In short, I was eating everything I shouldn’t, and barely eating anything I should. I was eating what was convenient and what I thought tasted good, even if it made me feel terrible. On some days, I was easily consuming more than 4,000 calories, more than twice what a woman of my age (one that was extremely inactive, keep in mind) should aim for. I don’t always agree to counting calories, but having a rough idea of what I was consuming startled me into rethinking my eating habits.
Because I’d practiced healthy eating in previous Januarys, I knew the ropes: more vegetables, more proteins, less refined carbohydrates, less refined sugar. What I didn’t realize is that I was essentially aiming for clean eating, which extols ideas like eating food with only one or two ingredients, trying to reduce your carbon footprint, avoiding refined foods and unhealthy trans fats, and drinking lots of water.
I knew I had to make some major changes. This way of eating was leaving me feeling extremely lethargic, not to mention the health risks associated with eating and drinking this way (in a nutshell: diabetes, high cholesterol, cardiovascular disease, and even an increased risk of some cancers).
I woke up and I was tired of treating my body like shit. I was tired of not providing the right fuel to give me energy.
What I did starting on January 1st is so simple that it seems kind of dumb saying it: I started to eat only “real” food, meaning I focused on only eating food that is what it is (so, for example, I eat spinach, because it’s spinach and nothing else). In general, if it has more than one ingredient in it, I don’t eat it, meaning I avoid anything that comes in a package, box, or can (unless it’s a can of a one-ingredient item, like chickpeas or tuna or lentils).
It was difficult to wrap my head around this at first, and I had to really sit down and research what I’d be eating if I wasn’t eating refined pasta or bread with every meal. It also took some extra budgeting, because unfortunately this way of eating is much more expensive; it’s a sad statement, but in North America at least, fresh produce is often very pricey.
The best thing I did from the beginning was realize that batch cooking and meal prep were my friends. On Sunday, for example, I could spend twenty minutes chopping up enough vegetables to fill two baking sheets (broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, Brussels sprouts, asparagus, and bell peppers) and roast those in the oven with a bit of olive oil and pepper. Not only would that be a good base for dinner that night, I would get at least two or three more dinners out of those vegetables. That meant, on Monday, I would only need to spend about ten minutes baking a fillet of tilapia in order to get a healthy, balanced dinner. The same applies for healthy grains like quinoa, freekah, and wild rice; I cook enough for three or four days at a time.
To be clear, I’m still eating a ton of food every day. In the past two months, however, the bulk of my diet is made up of vegetables and proteins like organic chicken, free range eggs, wild salmon and tilapia, Greek yogurt, and legumes (I’m obsessed with black beans, chickpeas, and lentils). I stopped putting sugar in my coffee, and switched from cream to almond milk. I don’t eat much bread or pasta unless I’m out – I still enjoy going out for dinner and eating whatever I crave – but at home I get my carbohydrates from quinoa, brown rice, freekah, and sweet potatoes. I now consume nearly zero trans fats found in foods like margarine, but get healthy fats from olive oil and avocados. The only dairy I consume at home is Greek yogurt, which is also one of the only “unclean” foods I eat (meaning it has some added sugar). I also completely stopped drinking alcohol at home.
That may sound extreme, but the benefits I’ve experienced are out of this world, and they motivate me to keep eating this way. I am honestly shocked at good I feel. Plus, I love trying new recipes; that combined with the batch cooking means I always have super healthy snacks within reach.
Weirdly, the resource I’ve found most helpful when it comes to finding interesting recipes is Goodful on Facebook (it’s a subsection of Buzzfeed, but their recipe videos are really easy to follow). Once I realized I could create a seemingly endless number of delicious meals with different combinations of roasted vegetables, healthy grains, and proteins, it became so much easier to eat well.
Today, my average day looks like this:
In the morning I start with a huge breakfast that I often can’t finish in one go, so I’ll eat as much as I want and then put the rest in the fridge for later. I often make up a bowl that layers raw spinach, one small roasted sweet potato (cubed), half a cup of black beans, a third of a cup of chickpeas, a cup of diced cucumber, a cup of grape tomatoes, and two soft-boiled eggs. I often add a few tablespoons of homemade hummus on the side, and add some hot sauce, too. I’ll have coffee with almond milk. This meal fills me up like crazy and gives me so much energy throughout the day. This is the kind of meal that could easily be cooked and prepped in bulk and stored in the fridge for the work week. Another breakfast favourite these days is two boiled eggs on top of grilled asparagus and mushrooms.
After the gym, I’ll eat a few slices of turkey breast and an apple, or I’ll eat whatever is left of my breakfast. I like to always have fruit in the house so that I can have a quick snack whenever I want. I’ve found I feel best when eating a lot throughout the day, so I focus on two big meals (usually around 11am and 8pm) with lots of healthy snacking in between.
For dinner, I’ll often eat baked salmon, tilapia, or chicken breast with olive oil on a bed of quinoa, freekah, brown rice, or lentils, plus a cup or two of roasted vegetables. I often make a dipping sauce out of Greek yogurt, lime juice, and cayenne pepper (all to taste) which sound weird but tastes delicious. The dinner varies every night, but it always consists of lots of vegetables and a protein.
Another typical thing I do is roast onions, bell peppers, chickpeas, and whatever vegetables I want with a bit of olive oil, then add one small can of tomato paste and lots of spinach and chilli powder. This makes for a great, spicy base for chicken in the evening, or for eggs in the morning.
For a snack (although I find I’m rarely hungry at night anymore) I’ll have carrots and hummus, pineapple slices, a few clementines, or a small bowl of Greek yogurt with berries and/or honey.
The only liquid I consume other than coffee is water or coconut water. I’ve fallen in love with Bubly, a naturally-flavoured sparkling water with no added sugar; I’ve found that drinking a can of that feels no different than drinking a can of Coke, albeit without all the insane amounts of sugar.
When I do go out for meals these days, I still eat what I want, but I make smarter choices; I have only two glasses of wine instead of four, or I don’t absent-mindedly fill up on the bread basket beforehand. When I eat sweets, I try to practice mindful eating and enjoy every single bite (not eating in front of the TV helps with this). Because I’m eating so healthy, I don’t feel the need to take any extra vitamins, though at the moment I drink an Emergen-C if I want a kick of Vitamin C and electrolytes after a workout. I also take Vitamin D drops, because… it’s not summer yet, and I miss the sun.
Essentially, I’m following the brand new Canadian food guide, which places an emphasis on fruits, vegetables, and healthy proteins and carbs.
How do I stay motivated to eat well?
The biggest reason I can stay so motivated to eat well is because I feel so fucking good. Once I passed the hurdle of a few weeks without sugar, refined carbs, trans fats, or much dairy, I didn’t feel like eating those things anymore. It’s not rocket science: if you eat good food, you’ll feel good. The elephant in the room, of course, is that eating this way is more expensive, so I’ve had to change my shopping budget. I also understand that kids might not be as pumped on freekah as I am; once again, I’ll bring up the fact that I live alone, work from home, and have no dependents, so I can cook whatever I want.
I downloaded the MyFitnessPal app. This app isn’t gospel – I’ve found a lot of inconsistencies – but it gave me a rough idea of how many calories I was consuming, how much protein I was getting, and so on. For January and February I logged everything, even the cups of water I drank in a day, because I wanted to learn what healthy portions were and get a good idea of what I should be eating to stay healthy (especially as my activity level increased so much). Again, I would never, ever condone starving yourself or long-term fasting, as I believe in eating a lot of good, healthy foods that act as fuel for an active body. For the record, I am almost never hungry anymore, whereas with my previous diet, I felt hungry all the time.
Similarly, many people love keeping a food and/or exercise journal, so that may work for you.
I’m telling you, start batch cooking and meal prep. I’ll make a huge pot of quinoa, bake five chicken breasts at a time, and roast four sweet potatoes or two trays of vegetables. I make it so that I can put together a healthy dinner using only things in my fridge in under ten minutes. It helps that I like cooking and I have time to cook healthy meals, but on days when I’m too busy or tired, I love knowing I can put together a meal of chicken, vegetables, and quinoa using only my microwave.
I allow myself to eat whatever I want out of the house. As I mentioned above, when I go out, I eat whatever I want. I’m not cutting pizza or chocolate or red wine out of my diet all together; I think if I did, it would be way too difficult to maintain. Everything in moderation! I also find that, when I do eat meals out of the house, I appreciate them so much more than I used to.
This is quite different than the past, when I’d completely eliminate certain vices like alcohol from my life, but that’s not realistic for me in the long run, so it didn’t make sense to do that now. I want this to be for life, not just for a month.
I limit the takeout meals I eat at home. I’ve never really been a takeout person anyway, so this one wasn’t difficult for me. Learning how to cook very easy, basic meals was a plus.
I don’t keep any junk food in my house. If I want to drink a Coke and eat a bag of Doritos, I have to go to the store and buy them. Not having any junk food in my house for the first two months really helped me make healthier choices. For example, my weakness has always been toast with lots of peanut butter and jam (remember, I was usually eating that as a snack every night). Starting in January, I made sure my cupboards were devoid of bread, peanut butter, and jam. That sounds extreme, but I needed to have a clean break and not be forced to face temptation just as I was getting started.
More than two months later, I do have bread in my house again, but I’m only eating it once every five days or so (I keep it in the freezer). For me, bread was the go-to for every single meal and snack, so forcing myself to rethink how to eat without it really helped me find new healthy recipes.
I also learned pretty quickly that, if I’m craving something sweet, eating a piece of fruit really will help that craving. This always sounded like the most boring piece of advice to me, but it truly works. I actually tried to eat a chocolate bar last week, one that I used to love and would happily eat every single day, and I couldn’t eat it… it tasted sickly sweet and so fake.
It may seem impossible to eliminate all junk food, but I found that by avoiding it for two months, I find it doesn’t taste very good anymore. It’s amazing how we can program our minds and our bodies so that they crave healthy food. I know, right? I’m choosing a fucking apple over a Twix?! I’m telling you, stick with it and it works.
I eat a lot. This may sound counter-intuitive, but eating MORE will often be beneficial in the long run. Starving your body will never result in anything good. I try to eat something healthy every few hours so that I never feel ravenous and make poor choices as a result.
I don’t beat myself up for having unhealthy days. In the past, I had the mentality of, “Oh, I ate like such shit yesterday, why bother trying today?” What you did or didn’t do yesterday doesn’t matter today. It is never too late to eat healthy and be active.
I learned about healthy food from credible sources. For the most part, social media is not a credible source to me; how on Earth am I supposed to wade through all the bullshit on YouTube and Instagram to find someone who can truly give me good advice? I googled pretty much every food I was eating or considered eating, focusing on finding their benefits (which vitamins or minerals they provide, how much fibre/protein/carbohydrates they can provide, etc). Knowing why something is good for you makes it so much easier to then choose that food.
I think about the main reasons I’m eating healthy all the time. I actively try to think about why I’m making these healthy choices, and what my ultimate goals are. For me, that means I reflect on how much better I feel, and how eating well is affecting my mental and physical health. It also meant that I addressed my relationship to food; why did I always turn to food as a comfort when I felt bad, for example, even though that food often made me feel worse?
Even after nearly three months of eating this way, I still think about this all the time. I think about all the magnesium and vitamin C I’ll be getting when I eat those sweet potatoes. I think about the fibre, potassium, and folate I’ll get from that serving of black beans. I think of all that vitamin K from Brussels sprouts, and all that protein I’ll get from eggs. Actively thinking about how much good I’m doing for my body encourages me to keep making healthy choices.
As I’ve established, these days I can’t even imagine eating the way I used to; it makes me feel sick. While I’ve tried to be healthy before, this is the longest I’ve ever gone with sticking to eating clean, healthy food that actually benefits my body. Do I still drink whisky? Hell yes. As mentioned above, everything in moderation.
It took me a very long time to get here, but I feel better than ever. I can’t wait to share the results. But first, and up next: the lifestyle changes I made to make sure my mental health was flourishing, too.
Do you struggle to eat well? What motivates you to eat healthy foods?