What habits should you change first to rebuild a healthy diet?
Stephanie writes, “If you need to overhaul your diet, are there some principles that are more of a priority? What’s the best order to tackle the changes needed to rebuild a healthy diet?”
I love this question because it shows that—even if her diet needs a total overhaul—Stephanie understands three very important things: 1) building a healthy diet is an ongoing process, not just a decision; 2) trying to change everything at once is likely to backfire, and 3) some things are more important than others. It’s also a great topic for us to explore.
Of course, it’s a little hard to know what sorts of changes Stephanie should make first without knowing what her current diet is like. But if it looks anything like the typical American diet, the very first thing I’d suggest would be:
1. Eliminate (or drastically reduce) sodas, flavored waters, juice and sports drinks. Why? You know I try to avoid focusing on individual foods, food groups, or nutrients as The Problem or The Solution. But if pressed to identify one thing about the typical American diet that is doing more damage than any other one thing, I think I would have to single out our consumption of refined sugar.
See also: Why Is Sugar Bad?
Most Americans are consuming about twice the maximum recommended amount of sugar--and half of that is coming from sweetened beverages. In other words, eliminate this one category of foods and we’d take care of our sugar problem in a single swipe! Moreover, you lose nothing by eliminating them. They don’t make you feel any fuller than you do drinking just water and they offer no nutritional benefit whatsoever. (And yes, I’m including the ones with vitamins in them. Please.)
I will make an exception for sports drinks but only for folks who are engaging in intense exercise for more than 60 minutes at a time or exercising in extremely hot or dry conditions. These guys really can benefit from the sugar and sodium in sports drinks. But most sports drinks are consumed recreationally and in that setting they are the same as any other sugar-sweetenedbeverage: just empty calories.
My second priority for your dietary overhaul would be:
2. Eat more fruits and vegetables. Why? Fresh fruits and vegetables are the most nutrient-dense foods in the diet, providing more nutrition for the calories than any other kind of food—plus valuable compounds that you just can’t get from other food groups. Even better, they tend to displace other, less healthy foods from the diet. When you commit to eating at least 5 servings of vegetables and 2-4 servings of fruit every day, you’d be surprised how much less room there is in your life for other snacks and junk food.
Besides, when you’re trying to make lasting changes to your diet, I think it’s a lot more effective (not to mention more fun) to focus your attention on the things you should be eating more of than on the things you’re trying to avoid or reduce.
See also: Shift Your Focus to Make Dieting Easier
The next thing I’d suggest you tackle is: