Healthy Eating Pattern 101
You’ve likely heard it a million times: the only sustainable way to lose weight and keep it off is through lifestyle change. It’s true. And it’s slow compared to extreme calorie or food group restrictions, timed-eating restrictions, fasting, and extreme, repetitive sweat sessions. It’s also not very flashy.
Invariably, though, the fast weight-loss practices give way to often faster weight regain and frequently to gaining more than was lost. The restrictive practice is not sustainable because it’s not healthy–we don’t get all the nutrients we need or enough calories to maintain cellular activity–and it doesn’t allow for meeting our social, cultural, or personal needs.
What happens every time you let up on the extreme restrictions? You return to old habits. You do what you did before you went on the diet. The diet didn’t give you much to adopt and maintain or provide good practices. The extremes associated with “dieting” do not provide you with a sustainable eating pattern you can take with you beyond the few weeks or months it takes to lose extra weight.
So what should you do instead of “dieting?”
First, consider why you want to lose weight. Is it for you or for someone else? Is it for an event or for a lifetime? Is it to fit some idealized social construct or to serve what it is you want your body to do for you? Is it for health reasons? To reduce foot and joint pain? Is it to feel better in your body? YOU get to decide!
And, aim to lose NO MORE THAN 1 – 2 POUNDS PER WEEK! (Shouting for those in the back row… and the stubborn.) That translates to an approximate deficit of 500 calories per day (reduce food consumption by 500 calories, increase exercise to burn an additional 500 calories, or combine a reduction of calories in and calories burned–note, this is a general rule of thumb that works in most cases).
Second, what foods do you love and really enjoy eating? Whatever it is, you can and probably should continue to incorporate it or some form of it into your eating plan. Deprivation leads to cravings and difficulty navigating temptations–which often leads to feelings of shame and frustration. These negative emotions lead to further self-defeating behaviors, such as giving up or disordered eating.
Third, whole foods–unprocessed or minimally processed, often unpackaged–provide everything you need for a balanced and sustainable eating plan and is the basis of a healthy lifestyle.
Shop the perimeter of the store, mostly in the produce aisles, then add whole grain pastas, brown rice, quinoa (and other whole grains), whole grain breads or wraps, seeds and nuts, a few cans of beans (garbanzo, great northern, cannelli, navy, black, kidney, pinto, lentils–or the dried versions), tofu and/or tempeh, and non-dairy nut milks.
Supplement with TVP (texturized vegetable protein), nutritional yeast (nutty kind of cheesy flavor, good source of B12), healthy oils (like extra virgin olive oil) for cooking and dressings, and spices and flavor extracts to add flavor and dimension to some recipes.
If you’re not following a plant-based diet, choose lean cuts of meat and eat sparingly, flavorful cheeses that can be used grated or crumbled in small amounts, and more filling greek-style yogurts with little or no sugar added.
But again, the food components you choose, especially to begin with, need to fit your style of eating and suit your culture and taste palate in order for it to be sustainable. You can substitute and move towards healthier choices as you go.
Fourth, find ways to swap out some of the least healthful foods you regularly consume with healthier options. It’s important to not make such a sweeping change that it feels completely foreign and unusual–and therefore undoable–for you (unless you’re the sort who finds it best to just jump in feet first). Here’s some ideas, a few I like better than others–but again, do what works best for you!
Fifth, use oils and healthy fats purposefully and sparingly. Yes, you need fats in your diet! It’s generally recommended that 20-35% of your daily calories should come from fat (more on macros later).
Fats contribute flavor, texture, and satiety (feeling of fullness) to foods. They are also critical to the healthy functioning of our bodies. Choose oils and nuts, etc. that have good doses of omega fatty acids such as found in flaxseed, chia seed, walnuts, and olive oil.
I often sauté a variety of vegetables and tofu in a little bit of water with a splash of amino acids added (or soy sauce or almond milk or a light veggie bouillon, depending what kind of “sauce” I’m going for) and top the dish with walnuts and flax meal.
And for good measure, I cannot say enough good things about walnuts!! I will definitely write an article exclusive to those little golden health nuggets in the future!
Sixth, meet your macros and your calorie needs to meet your micronutrient needs. Counting calories and macros can be a real pain, and it can result in disordered eating for some people, so proceed with caution. The goal in most cases is to reach an equilibrium of balanced eating that incorporates nutrient dense, high-fiber foods in appropriate portions for your goals.
If you know enough about foods to do that on your own, go for it (or start your research here). If you need help and can safely use a calorie and macro/micro counting app, try myfitnesspal or chronometer. For more visuals and guidance, check out myplate.gov or do a google search for “estimating portion sizes with your hand.” And for the best support customized to your specific needs, work with a registered dietitian. (As a certified health coach and certified personal trainer, I can only legally and ethically provide you with basic nutrition information or refer you to a registered professional.)
General macro guidelines call for 45-65% carbohydrate, 10-35% proteins, and 20-35% fats (as percentage of calories consumed per day). Keep in mind that 1 gram of carbohydrate or protein has 4 calories and 1 gram of fat has 9 calories.
The US RDA for protein for adults is approximately half your body weight in lbs times .8/grams, though you can check this and other nutritional recommendations with the USDA dietary reference intakes calculator.
As I stated in another article, if building muscle mass is a goal, you can consume up to 2 grams per kg of body weight (body weight in lbs divided by 2.2 = kg) according to the RDs at MyFitnessPal.
Finally, once you reach your weight loss goal, you can increase portions or add back calorie-dense foods more regularly–just watch how that affects your body composition and physical performance over time. Hopefully throughout this process you’ve also incorporated a healthy and sustainable exercise and activity pattern that helps you balance your energy intake and expenditure over time (so NO, you don’t have to increase your run time to make up for that brownie you had at lunch unless you plan to eat brownies every day and still want to maintain your weight loss).
Takeaway: If you want to lose weight and keep it off, your best bet is to adopt a healthy eating pattern that fits your lifestyle, making it sustainable after you have reached your goal weight–whatever that is for YOU!
Eat a variety of different foods and differently colored fruits and vegetables to cover your nutritional needs. The more “whole” or basic the food is, the more likely it will be filling and nutritious, so shop the perimeter of the store. But you still need to allow yourself to occasionally enjoy foods that meet your cultural and personal palate.
And go well!
The resources and information shared here are solely for informational purposes and aren’t intended to diagnose, treat, or cure any condition or disease or provide any professional advice. Discuss any changes in your activity and eating patterns with your primary care physician prior to pursuing.