If there’s one thing I’ve learned about eating healthy, it’s that for the most part, we all know how to do it. We know we need to eat more fruits and vegetables, and that we probably should be choosing chicken more often than red meat. We’re not surprised that donuts should be limited, or that a cheeseburger with fries isn’t considered a balanced meal.
Plus, anything we’re unsure of we can always look up on the internet. Now I know, the internet is littered with unreliable sources and guidance. But if you know where to look, you can easily find reliable information about nutrition science and studies, as well as recommendations by credentialed health professionals.
You’d think with all this knowledge and access, eating healthy would be a piece of cake (pun intended of course)! Unfortunately that isn’t exactly the case. Yes we know how to eat healthy in theory, but making it happen in real life can be extremely challenging.
We may not have enough time to prepare healthy meals, or even enough money to buy nutritious foods. Our social interactions may revolve around food, or we may need to consider others’ preferences when cooking.
And we can’t forget about how easy it is to get less-than-healthy options. Feeling a little hungry on the way home from work? No problem! Stop by a fast food restaurant for some french fries and an apple turnover. The service is quick and you don’t even have to get out of your car!
These reasons all make it challenging to eat healthy, but a lot of them can be overcome in one way or another. However, because we just love making things difficult for ourselves, there are a few additional things we do that make eating healthy even more challenging. Read on to find out what those are, and how to overcome them.
1. We have unrealistic demands
What? Unrealistic demands? All I want are healthy meal ideas. That are easy to make. And taste amazing. And are more interesting than boring old chicken and broccoli. Also, I can’t eat the same thing every day. Or leftovers…
Usually ready-to-go meals have more sodium and preservatives than we’d like, and healthy meals can be pretty simple. And as I’ve written before, simple doesn’t have to mean boring, but sometimes healthy foods just don’t taste that interesting!
We tend to want meals and snacks that satisfy all our cravings, while simultaneously providing us with nutrition. This wouldn’t be a problem if we craved foods like juicy strawberries or savory almonds, but most of the time our cravings are for much less nutritious foods.
Instead of looking for meals and snacks that are easy, healthy and tasty, choose two of those qualities to focus on. Come up with snacks that are healthy and easy to prepare but don’t exactly taste amazing. Test out recipes that are healthy and taste good, but that take a while to prepare. Start adjusting your food expectations and you’ll find that eating healthy gets a lot easier.
2. We focus on perfection
We’re so hard on ourselves when it comes to healthy eating! We may have eaten nothing but fruits, vegetables, lean proteins and whole grains for a week, but once we take one bite of a cookie, we think we’ve failed at eating healthy.
We have this idea that eating healthy means choosing the healthiest option every single time. And when that doesn’t happen, we beat ourselves up over our “lack of willpower”.
Even the words we use reinforce this drive for perfection: slipped up, cheated, got off track. Instead of framing our food selection as merely a choice we made, these phrases communicate that there is a right way to eat. They reinforce our belief that eating healthy means eating only good foods, and avoiding all the bad.
The thing is though, aiming for perfection is setting ourselves up for failure. We’re only human, and wanting delicious, satisfying food is in our nature. Of course ideally we’d choose the healthiest option most of the time, but there has to be space for us to sometimes choose differently.
Instead of thinking that eating healthy means always choosing the healthiest option, start thinking about how to make healthy eating a sustainable part of your life.
3. We forget to be critical
Have you heard that a low-carb diet could shorten your life? What about that high-fat dairy is now considered healthy? There are endless articles out there reporting on results from nutritional studies, but rarely do we take the time to read the actual study. Instead, we take these articles at face value, and start adopting their recommendations into our daily life.
Both articles I mention report on studies that have found some type of correlation. The first one found a correlation between a low-carb diet and early death, and the second one between high-fat dairy intake and a lower risk of cardiovascular disease.
If we were to read these articles (or possibly only glance at the titles), we might conclude that carbs and high-fat dairy products are now “good” for us. We could then throw up our hands and loudly complain about how nutrition recommendations change all the time.
However, it’s important for us to remember the difference between correlation and causation. These two studies found a relationship between low-carb diets and early death, and a relationship between high-fat dairy and decreased heart disease. What they didn’t find is causation. They didn’t find that low-carb diets cause early death, or that high-fat dairy causes decreased heart disease.
Any time a correlation is found, it’s important to keep an open mind about what that could mean. Sure, we could eventually find that low-carb diets do cause early death, but maybe we’ll find that people who follow low-carb diets are more likely to have additional unhealthy behaviors that contribute to an early death.
My college psychology professor gave an excellent example of correlation that I still remember to this day: he said that ice cream consumption is correlated to an increase in instances of drowning. Now, does that mean that eating ice cream causes drowning? No! It simply means that during the summer, people are more like to eat ice cream and go swimming. Ice cream consumption and drowning are connected, or correlated, but there’s no causation.
Thinking critically about what you read makes it easier to disregard outlandish claims. That means it’s less likely you’ll be swept up into the latest diet craze, and more likely to find a way to make healthy eating work for you.
4. We fear failure
OK, maybe we don’t exactly fear failure, but we sure don’t embrace it when it comes to eating healthy. The thing is, eating healthy is all about experimenting and figuring out what works best for us as individuals. There are many different methods and approaches out there, and it takes a lot of trial and error to find the ones that work for us.
However, all that experimenting means that we experience failure quite often. We may find that cutting out dessert causes intense cravings that result in a binge. Or we could learn that meal prepping on Sunday turns a cherished weekend day into one that’s unbearable.
When these things happen, it can be tempting to start thinking that healthy eating is impossible. Instead of viewing our failures as simply a method that didn’t work for us, we become discouraged and wonder why we should even try.
At these times it’s helpful to remember that eating healthy is an ongoing process. Perfection isn’t the goal, and there’s always improvements to make. Keeping this in mind makes it much less likely our failures will completely derail our healthy eating plans.