5 habits to help you eat better without dieting

Eating healthy has nothing to do with following a diet. A diet plan is often associated with restrictions. We need a better relationship with food to start. So, I preach real food and quality over quantity. Establishing eating habits that sustain health and weight loss is about progress, not perfection, not depletion

As a nutrition coach, I've met many people struggling with weight management for years because "all-or-nothing" resolutions are tiring and frustrating. They are stressed, consuming more processed foods, preparing fewer healthy meals at home, sitting for excessively long periods, and exercising less and less. Then, one day, they want their old strong and fit body back. There isn’t a short-cut. To become the better version of yourself, you should be focusing on making small and sustainable changes.

Take me by example. Although I’ve never followed a diet, I had many misconceptions about what eating healthy meant. If you know me well, you probably remember that every day, after lunch, I used to eat chocolate as dessert. As a teenager, I would skip lunch to eat a chocolate bar (200-ish grams of milk chocolate!) thinking that I was "saving" some calories by doing that - that was my balanced approach to diet. Yet, because I didn’t like fast-food, alcohol, and didn't eat much processed food apart from chocolate, I thought I was a healthy eater. My meals were loaded on refined carbohydrates, though.

At age 27, I was diagnosed with celiac disease. Five years later, I discovered I also reacted to casein (the milk protein). I had to start a diet, a restrictive one. At the beginning, I was only replacing my meals with gluten-free and dairy-free versions of the food I used to eat. It was not working for me to feel better. At that point, I realized I had to improve my eating habits. No fad diet would help me. I put myself out of a restrictive diet with naturally gluten-free or dairy-free food. One step at the time got me back on my feet. I even decided to go back to school to study Nutrition and Lifestyle Coaching to help myself out and be able to help others following a similar health path.

Every day, I try to do better to compensate for all the imbalances I created in my gut and my body overall. I still like chocolate, cakes, and bread. But I don't crave it. And when I do want it, I eat it. Most of the time, I make my cake sugar-free or low in sugar, but sometimes it's good to enjoy chocolate, ice cream, or anything like that freely, without worrying about calories or its nutritional value. That's the real balanced approach to healthy eating.

Here are some steps to changing habits that you can include in your daily routine for improving health, eating better, and managing weight properly.

1. Cut food wisely

Cut out what is bad for your body, but do not change everything suddenly. Make smart substitutions. Start by increasing whole foods, more fruits, vegetables, and legumes while reducing fried foods, fast-food or ready-to-eat food. Replace soda with natural juice, then juice for water. Have fruit as a snack. You can add nuts and seeds to make it crunchy, or nut butter, oatmeal, yogurt to make it more appealing. Educate yourself focusing on including foods first, instead of restricting them.

An almost universal rule among specialists whose focus is healthy eating is not skipping meals. Saving calories by cutting a meal is a big mistake because your blood sugar drops when you go too long without eating. Aim for a breakfast with protein rich-foods and a source of fiber (whole grains, fruits or veggies). For some people, skipping breakfast can compromise their other meals of the day. In the morning, cortisol levels are high. If you support your body when you wake up to slowly release sugar into your blood and keep your energy levels, it will probably have a positive effect on the next meal. These changes will be more sustainable.

2. Set up a food journal

Identify your weaknesses and what works for you. You can start by setting up a food diary. Write down the times you usually eat and the amount of food you take, then come up with a strategy. If you snack when distracted, you might carry healthy foods with you and avoid buying high-calorie and less nutritious ones. If you crave sugar after dinner, think about having fruits as a dessert. If you feel like eating when stressed, go for a walk instead of reaching for a bag of candy. The secret is to know your body and find solutions to critical moments.

3. Cook at least 3 times a week

When you cook, you are in control of the ingredients. Most people consume less than two cups per day of fruits and vegetables, much less than the body needs and less than half of what is recommended by the World Health Organization. To increase this amount, you need to assume control of the ingredients in your meals. Cook nutrient-dense foods, use tricks to leave the dishes tastier. Season your veggies, add garlic, lemon, olive oil and try them in different ways.

4. Read labels carefully

Manufacturers invest in the weakest point of most people worried about their health. They offer more fat-free or sugar-free products, and while they cut one, they increase the other. Remember that healthy foods such as fruits and vegetables do not come with a label telling us that it is healthy. Read labels carefully, paying attention to the ingredients. The longer the list, the more processed that is. Check the amount of fat, sodium, salt, and sugar to the whole package, not portions. And as I mentioned earlier in this article while talking about my health journey, gluten-free doesn’t mean healthy.

5. Choose quality over quantity

Wait, it doesn't mean that quantity is irrelevant if you eat real food. You know it's not true, especially if your goal is to lose weight. What I mean is that focusing on quantity is overwhelming because we often look at food as it was numbers – calories, grams, etc. So, before counting calories or measuring your portions, choose more unprocessed food, whole food. Then, using smaller plates and bowls can help you eat less.

We tend to fill up the dish we are using and then eat it all. But if we serve the same amount of food on a small plate, our brains think we are getting more. Small amounts of food also favor digestion.

Remember to savor your meals and chew your food thoroughly before swallowing. Practice some mindful eating. Besides helping increase nutrient absorption, you will probably consume only what your body needs to feel satisfied. Eating too quickly, in less than 20 to 30 minutes, leads to overeating and feeling uncomfortably full afterward.

You certainly will encounter roadblocks when you start implementing some changes. If you prepare for the obstacles that may get in your way, you are less likely to be discouraged. Just don't try to change everything at once. And when you slip, get back on track, and enjoy eating healthily.