The Secret to Being Happy With What You Eat

As published in The Zeit on April 17th, 2015.

We all have THAT friend…you know…the one who has a second helping of dessert and still manages to stay thin??!!

When I was struggling to lose weight that I had gained during my undergraduate degree, I remember watching some of my friends with envy. Why did they get to eat whatever they want and I didn’t?

It never occurred to me to ask them what their eating habits were on a regular basis. Years later I found out that those same friends had a secret. When I discovered their secret, I started slowly losing weight and keeping it off.

So what was that secret?

Their secret was pretty simple: they planned ahead. They made it easier to choose healthy food.

Their fridges were filled with yogurt, fruit and veggies. They pretty much ate the same healthy breakfast everyday and always packed a lunch to work. Dinner was usually a variation of lean protein, veggies and whole grains.

By having a game plan for their meals, they set themselves up for success. It was easy to make healthy food choices because they weren’t relying on self-discipline. Of course life sometimes threw a curveball, but for the most part they stuck to their routine.

Starting the day with an empty fridge and nothing planned for breakfast and lunch, means that you have to have superhuman willpower to avoid that coffee shop pastry and the fast food place for lunch. Most days I had used up all my willpower by mid-afternoon. No wonder it seemed so tough to make good choices.

Planning to avoid an empty tank.

Most of us worry more about running out of gas in our cars than running out of fuel for our bodies. We get busy and wait until we are over-hungry to start foraging for food.

The problem with this approach is that we are putting our bodies into crisis mode. Delia McCabe, in Food Matters explains that our brains are “greedy organs” and when we get too hungry, our brain will start diverting nutrients from other organs in our body.

Furthermore, you can cause massive fluctuations in your blood sugar levels when you consume sugar and simple carbohydrates, instead of the lean protein, fibre and healthy fats that prevent this from happening. Most of us have experienced the physical symptoms of low blood sugar levels, such as irritability, shakiness, loss of concentration, etc. When we are experiencing these symptoms, it is almost impossible to choose healthy fuel.

By planning ahead, we set ourselves up for success.

Stop kidding yourself.

When I started to plan my meals ahead, there were two areas that I also needed to give myself a reality check in.

First, you will not “work it off’ with your exercise routine.

You have to walk the length of a football field to burn off one M&M candy. Very few of us will actually get enough exercise to burn off the calories of a caloric splurge. Even if you do, chances are you will feel hungry after such an intense workout and snack heavily afterwards. When I was tempted to veer away from the healthy food I had waiting for me in the fridge, I had to remind myself of this all the time.

Second, take advantage of what brings you the most pleasure.

If you LOVE chocolate, cutting back on your daily calorie-heavy mocha (that you don’t crave nearly as much) so you can enjoy some good quality dark chocolate as an evening treat, might feel like an easy trade.

For example, I LOVE eating brunch out on Sunday morning. This means I have to eat really well during the work week to avoid being derailed by my Sunday morning splurge. By negotiating with yourself to give up something you are only lukewarm about, for something that you truly love, you avoid depriving yourself. It also really helps to make these negotiations ahead of time. Girls’ night out coming up? Totally worth walking past the donuts in the staff room for.

Let go of the “all or nothing” mindset.

We get into dangerous territory when we start to think that we’ve made so many unhealthy choices that a few more won’t matter. Start to congratulate yourself on making the healthiest choice you were able to make at that particular moment. The more you are able to plan your food, the less you will struggle with these choices because you are not starving and you know what foods are worth the splurge for you. But let’s face it, you can’t plan for everything.

For example, if you can’t resist the cookies that your co-worker brought in, you can still applaud yourself for eating only half of the cookie. If you caved and ordered that burger while out for lunch, you can at least skip the fries and soft drink. Ideally you don’t eat either the cookie or the burger, but at least you managed to have a small victory by reducing the calorie damage.

Instead of beating yourself up for making a poor choice, give yourself a gold star when you make a good choice. As you start to adopt better habits, you will find yourself slowly progressing into a series of better and better choices. It’s so much more energizing to say “yay me!” than to constantly be telling yourself, “NO!”

Your challenge this week…

Ask yourself, how can you make it easier to eat healthy? Keep it simple and focus on one tangible step.

Maybe you will start with planning your breakfasts. Or maybe you will cut out that afternoon mocha because it’s not as appealing as being able to indulge in those few pieces of dark chocolate after dinner.

No matter what you decide, make sure that you commit to being your own cheerleader for each healthy choice. We can all use a little more self-compassion.

If you are struggling to make peace with your approach to your eating or exercise habits, check out my Secondhand Therapy 1 hour eClass, Tackling Your Physical Health from the “Introducing You” series.