Experiments in Eating Better

Focusing on my health was never really a priority for me. That is, of course, a privilege for which I have been quite lucky. My health has always been good enough that it never had to be a priority. 

However, if I’m spending 2018 working on improving myself, then health deserves some attention. 

Nutrition has always been my weakest area, so we’re starting there.

The Plan

As laid out on Tuesday, my nutrition plan was to gradually phase out unhealthy foods and phase in healthier foods, in addition to cooking at least one healthy dinner per week.

Week 1 would be my same old unhealthy diet, but with only one fast food meal. Week 2 would be only one fast food meal and adding a new healthy food to my repertoire. Week 3 would be one fast food meal, the new healthy food from Week 2, and only one meal with fried food. Week 4 would be all of this plus another healthy food.

This would continue on until I had cut back on fast food, fried food, enriched grains, red meat, processed food, sweets, and butter.

I made the list based on a combination of what was worst for you according to my research and what was heaviest in my diet. Each particular week did not seem too difficult, but all together it would achieve a massive change in my diet over a few months.

Sustainable Changes 

I’ve gone through periods of healthy eating when I’ve wanted to lose weight. The main problem has been that these changes weren’t sustainable. I maintained them until I hit my goal and then fell back into old habits. 

My eating habits are much better than they were five years ago, at which point they were much better than they were five years before that. But progress has been slow. 

I have especially struggled when it comes to fast food. This is where I most often fell off the wagon as soon as willpower got low. 

In college it was easier to grab a burger than to deal with a tiny kitchen shared with a bunch of other people. In law school it was quicker to pick something up than to shop for groceries more frequently and take the time to cook meals. At work fast food was a good excuse to take a walk and get away from the computer. 

These are obviously just excuses, but they were easy to fall back on as justification to myself. 

For this reason, part of the goal was to make lasting, sustainable changes rather than swinging for the fences. 

Perfect vs. Good Enough

I also didn’t want to let the perfect be the enemy of the good. 

A surprising number of times during previous attempts at eating better I have been chided for ordering a Caesar salad.

Caesar dressing is bad for you!

Which…sure. But is it worse than the double quarter pounder and fries that I was going to get instead?

The goal is to eat more healthily. If I can replace the worst stuff with some less bad stuff, then I can come back and build on that foundation later.

Week 1

Week 1 of this experiment coincided with my first week of family leave. This meant that all of my habits and routines were out the window and I was rebuilding in a whole new environment. 

While it might seem more difficult to build good habits while caring for a baby full time, it actually was much much easier having a blank slate. I started out much stronger than planned. 

I cooked a nice salmon dinner. I ate no fast food, no fried food, no red meat, no processed food, and minimal enriched grains and sweets. I tried lots of new healthy foods both that I picked up from the grocery store as snacks and that my wife made for dinner. 

Everything was going so well that I tossed the plan after a week. I was already eating the way I had planned to eat two months in, so why bother easing into it?

Week 2

Week 2 was all good, as well. My wife went back to work, so I was solo with the baby, but things kept running smoothly.

I made stuffed peppers with lean ground turkey and brown rice. I had wings when a friend was in town (Fast food? Fried food? Both?) but ate well the rest of the week.

The plan was to add a specific healthy food during week 2, but I had already added a lot so I didn’t make a conscious effort.

I was feeling good and confident that I had finally turned a corner on my eating habits.

Week 3

Week 3 is when everything fell apart.

The baby started sleeping less at night. This meant I started sleeping less. This in turn meant that my willpower dropped.

The baby was not napping well at home, but would fall asleep in the stroller if I took him out for a walk. We happen to live across the street from a food court. I ended up getting fast food for lunch multiple times. It was easy, required no planning, was filling, and was an excuse for a walk with the little guy.

I also didn’t cook a healthy dinner. This was due to a combination of the baby being more work, my lack of willpower from lost sleep, and my wife working later as she was quite busy.

Maybe this week would have been easier if I had stuck to the plan. At least in that case it would have been more front of mind. Even if I had eaten unhealthy things at home rather than getting fast food I could have counted it as a win according to my initial plan. I could have kept some forward momentum rather than feeling like I was giving up and backsliding.

Week 4

Week 4 was also not good.

My wife was away on business travel, so I was on solo baby duty 24/7 for most of the week. I did not cook any healthy meals. Why bother with all the effort only for myself? This is another instance where I probably would have felt more pressure if I hadn’t already abandoned the plan. Being able to notch a win may have been enough of a motivating factor to get over my other excuses.

I also made the mistake of going to the grocery store without a list. While tired. And hungry. I bought chocolate, pasta, soda, and other things that I had been good at avoiding earlier in the month. And once that food is at home I wouldn’t want to waste it, right? Bad news for nutrition.

Lessons Learned

After that I was off to Japan with friends. I had planned on putting any nutrition plans on hold while traveling so that I could experience the local food without being picky about what it was, so this was as good a time as any to regroup and think about lessons learned.

The first lesson here is to stick to the plan, even when things are going well. It is great to exceed expectations, but I need to keep the expectations in place. This keeps a floor beneath me through which it is more difficult to fall. It allows me to notch wins during tough times and provides milestones to rally around.

Next – plan ahead. On Sunday I should pick a night during the week that I will cook. I should plan the meal beforehand and go grocery shopping to make sure I have everything that I need. Getting the planning and shopping done ahead of time eliminates obstacles that can become excuses.

I also need to figure out a plan to reset my defaults. By this I mean: What is my automatic reaction when I am too tired to actively plan? What is a quick, easy, healthy snack that I should reach for whenever I’m hungry between meals? What is a healthy meal that is easy to throw together? I need to come up with some mindless options and work to make them automatic. 

Relatedly, I need to do more to control my environment. I need to get rid of unhealthy options that are lying around the house. They are just too tempting – if they’re there then I will eat them eventually.

This also means planning ahead for my trips to the grocery store. Yes, I should go with a list. More than that, though, I should plan ahead and go before we actually run out of the things that we need. This would allow me to choose my timing and avoid going to the grocery store when I am hungry, tired, or weak-willed. Controlling what comes into the house means controlling what goes into my body.

Join the Conversation!

I am now back in the country and working to implement these lessons. I’ve put the original plan back in place and am working on getting back on track.

I am eating healthier than I was a month ago, even with all of my setbacks. I probably took 3 or 4 steps forward and then 2 steps back. It’s better than nothing, but I can do better. I’ll keep trying to improve and keep working on this experiment on an ongoing basis during this year of self-improvement.

Do you have any tips? Have you successfully changed your diet? What have you found works for you? Let us know in the comments! 

4 thoughts on “Experiments in Eating Better”

  1. The biggest impact on my diet and food budget is if we went to the grocery store that week.

    At the store, we’ve always been pretty good about buying healthy(ish) choices. Without it, we’re eating out and eating poorly.

    Since my wife has been home from work, consistently having healthy food in the house has been our biggest health win. She’s also gone from a good cook to an incredible one.

    If I had to offer a tip, it would be to set your number one health goal of always having your meals planned and shopped for in advance.
    Jason@WinningPersonalFinance recently posted…I’m Teaching My Preschooler to Play Poker – Here’s WhyMy Profile

    1. Thanks, Jason. I definitely need to be better at planning meals in advance. I can have the best of intentions, but if I’m trying to make decisions when I’m hungry I tend towards the easy option rather than the smart one.
      Matt recently posted…Go To Bed. Seriously.My Profile

  2. Nice job, Matt. Changing eating habits is not easy. I was a horrible eater for 50 years. My dietary renaissance started around four years ago when I gave up bread and sugary drinks. I still have setbacks, of course, but I’ve really done a great job of avoiding refined carbs and sugars. In fact, my New Year’s resolution for this year is no fast food. And I’m happy to report that I haven’t had a lick of fast food to date. I think you nailed it by looking for triggers. For me, a big trigger was late-night TV watching. Whenever I plopped down on the couch at 9 pm or later I would habitually do so with a snack. Once I stopped watching TV after 9, I was able to resist the late-night snack. Well, those are my pathetic experiences. Thanks for sharing your dietary trials and tribulations. Cheers.

    1. No fast food all year is super impressive! I’ve been struggling with avoiding refined carbs, but I’ve been much better at it as of late. Hopefully I can stick to it!

      Thanks for sharing, Mr. G!
      Matt recently posted…Go To Bed. Seriously.My Profile

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