When you set out to make “healthy” nutrition and lifestyle changes, it’s easy to think in negative terms. For example, you might start “shoulding” all over yourself — “I should do this” and “I shouldn’t do that.” You may even set goals that are restrictive or even punitive. But leading with the stick rather than the carrot can backfire if it leads to feelings of guilt, shame, deprivation and failure. Thinking in positive terms, on the other hand — the carrot — can help you make changes that are sustainable and make your life better without waiting to reach some far-off goal. Here’s some food for thought:
Add rather than subtract
It’s easy to think in terms of subtracting things from your life (late-night snacking, that second or third glass of wine, “just one more” episode of that TV series). Why not reframe changes in terms of what these they add to your life? Think: better sleep, more energy, more mental clarity.
Let go of the idea of “good” and “bad” foods
Yes, some foods are objectively more nutritious than other foods, but labeling some foods as “good” and others as “bad” has an insidious way of becoming less about how nutritious a food is, and more about how virtuous we are based on our food choices. Feeling guilty about your food choices can lead to shame, and shame is not a positive motivator for change. Instead …
Focus on how your food makes you feel physically
Looking to an impersonal set of external rules about what to eat or not eat can backfire if you find the rules unsustainable and end up “falling off the wagon” — or actively rebelling. Odds are you have a fair sense of both the current state of your eating habits and areas that are ripe for change. Choose a few relatively easy changes to make, then observe how making those changes feels in your body. For example, let’s say you decide to eat more vegetables at lunch and dinner. How does this affect the sensory quality of the meal (color, texture, etc.)? Do you notice any benefits for your digestion after the meal, or in general? When you do make changes that make your life a bit better, that can motivate you to maintain your new habit.
Use curiosity instead of judgment
When you make a choice that doesn’t feel good — such as eating to the point of uncomfortable fullness or doom-scrolling on your couch instead of going for a walk — rather than beating yourself up, get curious about why you made that choice. Is there a tangible obstacle, such as lack of time (or maybe a perceived lack of time due to procrastination)? Is there a mental obstacle such as fear of failure or rebelling against perceived rules? Are you simply operating on autopilot (aka, mindlessness)?
Go for “good enough”
Put your hand up if you are a perfectionist. It may seem counterintuitive, but perfectionism can hinder more than it helps. Not having the time or energy to prepare a “perfect” meal turns into ordering pizza. Not having an opportunity to go to the gym for a “perfect” workout turns into not exercising at all. Let a simple home-prepared meal or a walk around your neighborhood be enough when that’s all you have the time and bandwidth for. Doing something is better than doing nothing. Don’t let perfect be the enemy of the good.