Rethinking your eating habits? Aim for progress, not perfection.

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On Nutrition

It’s the time of the year when many people feel the pull to adopt a new, strict dietary regime: Whole 30, juice detoxes, the ketogenic diet. But not only are these plans unsustainable — unless you enjoy an impaired social life and don’t care about developing nutrient deficiencies — once you throw up your hands and declare “Enough!” one (or more) of three things is likely to happen: You’ll return to your previous eating habits (even if they weren’t serving you particularly well), you’ll feel like you’ve failed (again), or you’ll experience rebound binging, finding it hard to moderate your intake of food forbidden under the regime.

Obviously, there’s nothing wrong with making changes to your food habits if they aren’t supporting your health and well-being. But the answer is not to try to adhere to a diet that increases stress and decreases joy. To paraphrase great philosophers, “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” Aim for progress, not perfection, because the pressure to be perfect — with its trap of all-or-nothing, black-or-white thinking — adds stress that can negate any benefits derived from eating better. Besides, perfection is an illusion — its meaning varies from person to person. If one of your goals for 2019 and beyond is to eat better, test drive these three ideas instead:

1. It’s time for a reality check. Identify the major sticking points in your day-to-day eating habits. Are you skipping meals? Do you snack all evening because you’re too tired to prepare dinner? Do you frequently eat mindlessly to the point of feeling overfull? Do you buy gorgeous vegetables only to have them rot in your refrigerator? Do you find yourself eating up leftover food — off your kids’ plates or out of the pan — as you do the dishes, because you don’t want it to go to waste? Is buying your lunch at work every day taking a toll on your wallet, and maybe your health? Once you tag areas for improvement, choose one to address. This could be the area you feel will reap the greatest rewards, or it could simply be the low-hanging fruit — the one you can address most easily.

2. Differentiate between food quality and quantity. In an ideal world, every meal would nourish the body, hit the marks for taste, texture and temperature, and leave you walking away from the table pleasantly satisfied. We don’t live in an ideal world. In situations where food quality is lacking — catered business lunches, vending-machine snacks, sad airport meals — try flexing your mindfulness muscle. Ask yourself: How hungry am I? When will I next have a chance to eat? How much of the food in front of me do I need to eat to sustain me until conditions improve? Quality may not always be within your control, but quantity is.

3. Work backward. Whatever change you decide to make — whether it’s washing greens and chopping vegetables for an at-home “salad bar,” batch-cooking meals for quick weeknight dinners, or packing work snacks for the week — ask yourself: When will I do the work? When will I shop? When will I plan? For example, if you’ll prep on Sunday, you might want to shop on Saturday, which probably means sketching out your plan and creating a shopping list on Friday.

Making meaningful, lasting changes to how you eat and nourish yourself doesn’t require a strict plan — in fact, it needs the opposite. Make 2019 about curiosity, mindfulness and exploration, rather than authoritarianism and austerity.