Building the right healthy eating habits is important for maintaining a healthy weight, protecting your heart health, and fueling an active and energetic lifestyle.
When it comes to healthy eating, there can be a big difference between “knowing” and “doing”.
Most people know that rolled oats are healthier than doughnuts for breakfast, or that a chicken salad is healthier than a takeaway burger for lunch, or that pan-fried fish with roast veg is healthier than pizza for dinner.
But knowing all of that doesn't always make it any easier to do, right?
To get you into the “doing” mode, here are some practical strategies to help you build healthier eating habits and grow your wellbeing. These small, manageable changes add up over time to make a big difference
1) Do a kitchen makeoverYou are more likely to eat whatever food is around you, good or bad.
- If you choose to keep lots of junk food around… You are more likely to eat it.
- If you choose to keep lots of healthy food around… You are more likely to eat it.
This is not about how much willpower you have, whether you feel motivated or not, or what kind of genetics you have...
It’s environment design and whether you are setting yourself up for success or failure by default.
Doing a kitchen makeover will immediately give you an advantage when it comes to growing your wellbeing.
For example, one person might walk into their kitchen and have a jar of rusks displayed on the table, while another might have a bowl of fruit.
How to improve your kitchen environment:
- Put healthier foods at eye level in your fridge and cupboards. Make them noticeable.
- Put healthier foods in transparent containers and in obvious places. Make them visible.
- Put healthier foods at the front and within easy reach. Make them accessible.
- Do the opposite for less healthy foods. Either get rid of them as much as possible, or at least make them less noticeable, less visible, and less accessible.
Most importantly, what you choose to buy at the shops and bring home is what you choose to eat. Sometimes it’s easier to make better choices while out shopping than it is to make good choices when you’re hungry at home.
2) Dietary displacementDietary displacement is all about helping yourself feel fuller and more satisfied.
Most processed junk food doesn’t take up much space in our stomachs, so we don’t feel physically full.
It’s designed to be easily digested so that you just want more and more and more.
When you eat lots of junk food that doesn’t properly fill you up, it generally leads to constant hunger, eating too much, poor nutrient intake, loss of lean muscle mass, increased body fat, and low energy levels.
Minimally processed healthy foods, on the other hand, tend to take up a lot more space.
They are often full of water, fibre, protein, and slow-digesting carbohydrates which help us feel fuller and more satisfied.
When we fill up on the “good stuff”, there’s less room for junk and it generally leads to consuming appropriate amounts of food, feeling full and satisfied after meals, healthy levels of nutrient intake, lean muscle and strength development, lower levels of body fat, as well as high and sustained energy levels.
Aiming to eat more filling and minimally processed foods (especially ones that you actually like) is a great way to automatically eat less junk food as a result.
3) Healthy substitutionsPick out one or two of the most common junk foods that you eat and replace them with healthier substitutes.
What you want to do is replace the worst offenders that are likely causing the most trouble between you and your goal of growing your wellbeing.
Substitutes could look like:
- An orange rather than orange juice.
- Steel-cut or rolled oats rather than sugary breakfast cereal.
- A frittata egg muffin rather than a chocolate chip muffin.
- Fresh chopped chillies rather than sweet chilli sauce.
- Homemade burgers rather than fast-food takeaways.
Look for an unhealthy food that you’re currently eating a lot of and see how you could make it healthier.
By doing this, you help you create your “new normal”.
In the past, your go-to breakfast might have been sugary cereal and orange juice. Now it’s rolled oats (maybe some protein powder mixed in) and an orange.
Or you used to cover your food in calorie-dense sauces, but now you use things like fresh chopped chillies, Tabasco, balsamic vinegar, and herbs and spices to flavour your meals.
The smaller the tweaks the better as you’ll be more likely to sustain them.
4) Break or build the chainMost of us have a “chain of events” that leads to us doing healthy or unhealthy habits.
While many of our behaviours (good or bad) may seem like they’re split-second decisions, very often they’re the result of something that happened possibly even hours beforehand.
Eating poorly may simply be the last link in a long chain of events.
- Event 1: Sleeping poorly.
- Event 2: Feeling stressed and overwhelmed the next day as a result.
- Event 3: Craving sugary foods for quick energy and comfort.
- Event 4: Overeating on junk food.
If you can identify and break the chain of events early on, then you have a much better chance of never getting to that last link.
Similarly, eating well may also be the result of a long chain of events.
- Event 1: Getting a good night’s sleep.
- Event 2: Waking up on time, feeling refreshed, without hitting snooze.
- Event 3: Having enough time and energy to prepare a healthy breakfast.
- Event 4: Eating a healthy breakfast.
Just like how you can break the chain of events when trying to avoid a bad habit, you can also build the chain of events that you know will lead you to good habits.
The better you get at identifying the chain of events leading up to your healthy or unhealthy habits, the easier time you’ll have growing your wellbeing.
Next time you notice yourself doing a healthy habit that you want to do more of or an unhealthy habit that you want to do less of, ask yourself if this is happening because:
- You’re feeling a certain way? (tired, motivated, stressed, etc)
- You’re in a certain location? (home, work, restaurant, etc)
- You’re with certain people? (partner, friend, colleague, etc)
- IIt’s a certain time of day? (6am, 9am, 4pm, 11pm, etc)
Then follow the chain...
Why do you think this happens when you’re tired, or at work, or around a specific friend, or at 11pm?
You’ll eventually identify patterns and develop strategies to decrease the chance of bad habits happening or increase the chance of good habits happening.
5) Only one bad mealJust like how one great meal won’t make you healthy, one bad meal won’t ruin your progress either.
Using the “only one bad meal” strategy is a way to keep your healthy eating on track.
Everyone slips up from time to time, but it’s how you respond that will determine how easily you achieve your goals.
Those who struggle tend to have one unhealthy meal and then let it snowball into days, weeks, or even months of continuous unhealthy eating.
The most successful people, however, get back on track quickly:
- They have one bad meal and then make sure that the next one is a great one.
- Or they have one late night and then make sure they’re in bed early the next night.
- Or they miss one workout and then make sure that they make it up at the next opportunity.
Don’t let one bad meal blow up to be any bigger than it needs to be.
As you work on building healthy eating habits to grow your wellbeing, remember that you don’t need to overhaul your entire diet or wait for the perfect time to get started.
It’s more important to get started as soon as possible using small and sustainable strategies like these to help yourself achieve big results in the long run.