Every diet has “food police” who insist that all rules must be followed at all times. Who are the food police? Sometimes they are the creators/authors of the diet plan themselves. Other times, they are moderators of online forums or “true believers” who espouse the virtue of a particular diet and insist that the “rules are the rules.” And honestly, some of the diet rules can be rather arbitrary. So what’s a person to do? That, my friend, is entirely up to YOU.
Rules…Rules…and More Rules
If you sense that this post was written after a “discussion” with the “food police,” you are correct! Someone asked a question on a forum about how to stick with Whole30 rules when traveling. I responded that one of my strategies is to to bring my Coconut Nutty Flax Granola on the road so that I can start each day on a healthy note. Mind you, there’s nothing but Whole30-compliant goodness in the recipe: organic whole flaxseeds, cinnamon, almond slivers, unsweetened coconut flakes. And the granola is accompanied by unsweetened coconut milk and topped with fresh blueberries. What more could you ask for in a healthy breakfast? Ah, well… it’s a “recreation of cereal and not compliant.” Really?
In fact, flaxseeds are one of the healthiest foods on the planet. But my granola has similarities to forbidden cereal – as if the granola acts as a “gateway” to Lucky Charms! Indeed, Whole30 insists you avoid “breakfast treats,” which include cereals. Now those of you who subscribe to the Healthy 7 Menus know that flax granola (along with blueberry pear compote made with chia seeds) are the cornerstone weekday breakfasts. So you have a choice to make. Follow Whole30 to the letter and find your own breakfasts, go ahead and enjoy the flax granola, or try the granola AFTER you’ve completed the very strict 30-day program. I’m sticking with my granola, so let’s talk about how to make diets personalized and sustainable.
Adapting the Rules to Make a Personalized Sustainable Plan
Most diets have rules that are “hard and fast.” You just don’t break the rules. EVER! I follow Whole30 because MOST of the rules work for me. I feel better when I eliminate all forms of sugar, alcohol, grains, legumes, and dairy from my diet. And that alone is quite a tough task when we are bombarded with donuts at the office and offers of wine at a friend’s house. But I find that some of the “nitty gritty” and questionable rules – like the no cereal rule – are counterproductive. I want to sustain a healthy lifestyle, so I have to adapt the diet to match my needs. Here are the questions I ask when designing my real-life approach to healthy eating.
Question 1: What are my Weaknesses?
Each of us has different weaknesses. It’s not hard for me to resist cookies and sweet rolls, but put a bag of potato chips in front of me and it’s another story. And I enjoy craft beers. So giving up alcohol for 30 days was tough. I have to keep those weaknesses in check, and that’s not easy either. To help you think about your food weaknesses, just ask yourself the following questions:
- Are there certain foods that control you? It might be those salty potato chips or perhaps ice cream is your obsession. Keep those foods out of your house! You need to decide when or if to indulge in those “off limit” foods. In my case, though Whole30 is my base, I have the occasional cup of ice cream and enjoy a good beer with friends. But I’m very aware that these choices can get out of control quickly and if they do, I have to rein myself in.
- Is portion control an issue? Aside from the foods you just noted above, do you have a tendency to stuff yourself? Do you plow food into your mouth so fast that your stomach has no time to consider whether it’s full? If this sounds like you, then you might need to weigh or measure your food so that you can stick to healthy portion sizes. If you do Whole30, they recommend 1-2 palms of protein, 1-3 cups of veggies, and the appropriate amount of compliant fat for each meal.
- Do you eat your vegetables? Most Americans do not eat nearly enough vegetables (nope, french fries don’t count). Yet the majority of diets require you to eat tons of green vegetables, which can be a struggle for many people. You have to be realistic here. Don’t force down brussel sprouts if you’ve always hated them. But try a variety of vegetables, use a spiralizer, hide your veggies in casseroles and meatloaf, and get creative with salads. Just figure out a vegetable eating strategy that works for you.
Question 2: What is my Lifestyle?
The goal of diets is to change our eating habits. But they have to work WITH our lifestyles. In my experience, there are two key lifestyle issues that dictate our ability to follow and maintain strict diets – travel and work.
- The Traveling Lifestyle. Travel is unpredictable – we get stuck on the tarmac for hours, race through airports, deal with traffic jams, and tolerate time changes. If you are a traveler on a diet, you’ve got to take emergency food with you. When I travel I take my “forbidden” granola, almonds, Chomps Beef Jerky and Rx chocolate sea salt bars with me. The Rx bars are Whole30 compliant, but recently the folk at Whole 30 removed them as an approved partner – some Whole30ers were misusing the bars as candy replacements (yes, they are that good). The Rx bars have gotten me out of travel jams on more than one occasion and whether they are “officially approved” or not, they serve a critical role in my travel lifestyle. If you want to be successful, you’ll need to put together your very own emergency food travel pack.
- The Working Lifestyle. Let’s face it – few of us have the luxury of hanging around the house each and every day. If you have a demanding full-time career like I do, preparing daily meals can be a real hardship. I’m out the door early in the morning and don’t have time to cook breakfast every day. That’s a primary reason why I stick to my homemade granola – I can keep the granola, coconut milk, and blueberries in the work refrigerator and have a healthy breakfast at the office. So before you begin ANY diet, ask yourself how the program fits into your work life. You may need to change your lifestyle to fit the program, or change the program to fit your lifestyle.
Question 3: What can I Sustain?
Whole30 requires 30 days of hard core commitment. Similarly, Lyn-Genet’s The Plan requires three weeks of food testing to identify “bad” foods. Eventually, those trial periods end and you are on your own to reintroduce foods. This is the time when it’s easy to fall back on old habits – habits that you were trying to break in the first place. Any diet that is overly strict is impossible to maintain and only leads to failure. What can you really sustain? Do you want to give up going out to eat with friends because you can’t be guaranteed your meal is Whole30 compliant? Do you skip the glass of wine with your anniversary celebration?
Most diets are “all or nothing,” which leads to feelings of guilt and failure should you break the rule. That’s one of the reasons many of us experience yo-yo weight effects. Up one year. Down the next. And repeat. That’s not a way to live, so you need to figure out what is sustainable for you. I opt for the glass of wine and occasional burger in a bun. I also use intermittent fasting to get my body back on track. It works for me. So think about how you can adapt and build practices to sustain healthy eating over the course of a lifetime.
Question 4: Can I Become a Mindful Eater?
One of the reasons why I like both The Plan and Whole30 is that these plans made me extremely mindful of how certain foods impacted my feelings of well-being, both physically and emotionally. My experiences with mindfulness lead me to believe that the real long-term solution to our weight issues is mindful eating. Pay attention to what and how much goes into your body. In Okinawa, Japan, there’s a concept called hara hachi bun me. It’s a Confucian term that encourages people to eat until they are 80% full. Then perhaps it’s not surprising that Okinawa has the world’s highest proportion of centenarians. While you might be challenged to fill up your stomach to that proportion, it is certainly within everyone’s capacity to slow down the eating process, be mindful of the health properties of the foods we eat, and keep our portion sizes reasonable.
Most diets do not have the flexibility to meet real life situations. They require too many sacrifices that are simply not sustainable in the long term. Diets like Whole30 and The Plan are short-term approaches that promise to increase your awareness of how foods impact your well-being. My approach, the one that is sustainable for me, is Whole30-based. That doesn’t mean it’s Whole30-strict. I eat my healthy flax granola, occasionally indulge in “forbidden” foods, and enjoy my life. Sometimes the rule book needs to be put aside in favor of practicality.