What Nutritionists Want You to Know Before You Give Up on Your Healthy Eating Goals
Keep these expert-backed tips on standby to help you stay on track.
Chances are, you’ve strutted into the new year with your latest edition of healthy eating goals and are pumped about the progress you’re making so far. But with said progress comes a hint of queasiness as you wonder about the trials and tribulations you’ll inevitably encounter along the way. After all, you don’t have the greatest track record of getting back on track once you’ve been thrown off course.
You’ve already been told a bajillion times that these derailments are nothing to feel bad about, you’re only human, and what matters is that you dust yourself off and try again. As much as you appreciate these words of wisdom, they’re difficult to believe in the moment—you know, the one where you’re surrounded by a landfill of junk food wrappers, complete with cookie crumbs down your shirt and chocolate smudges on your face, wondering where it all went wrong.
Instead of feeding you more inspirational platitudes, we went to the experts for concrete advice you can use the next time you’re on the verge of tapping out, so that you can successfully bounce back like the boss that you are:
1. Healthy Eating Shouldn’t Feel Burdensome
If it does, that means you need to assess what you’re doing and make sure that your behaviors are realistic and sustainable, says Boston-based registered dietitian Jillian Greaves, RD. Define exactly why you’re struggling to maintain your healthy eating goals, and the actions you can take to eliminate your resistance. Can’t stand the extra grocery shopping? Have your groceries delivered instead. Does food prep trigger an eye roll? Buy your veggies pre-chopped or choose recipes that don’t contain a lot of ingredients. Each time you feel a sense of dread in the kitchen, get specific about why, and continue simplifying the steps involved in reaching your goals until you hit your sweet spot.
2. Think of Your Body Like a Bank Account
“Some people find it helpful to think of their body like a bank account,” says Suzanne Dixon, RD, registered dietitian with The Mesothelioma Center in Portland, Oregon. “Different foods are the deposits and withdrawals. Ultimately, you want a nice balance in your wellness account.” Think of veggies, fruit, legumes, nuts, seeds, whole grains, and lean protein sources as deposits, and consider cocktails, desserts, bacon, and the other not-so-healthy grub you love as your withdrawals.
For every four to five deposits, enjoy a withdrawal (while watching your portions). This can help curb all-or-nothing thinking, as well as the unnecessary guilt that tends to strike after indulging, since you’ll know that four to five more healthy, whole-food deposits are right around the corner.
3. Put All-Or-Nothing Thinking in Its Place
Rather than picking up where we left off with our healthy eating goals after a small slip, many of us follow up our faux pas with a junk food bender instead. “Too many people say things like, ‘Well, I just ate a family-size bag of chips, so I might as well eat whatever else I want,’ and this way of thinking completely defies logic,” says Dixon. “Would you ever say, ‘Well, I just cut my hand, so I may as well chop off my finger’?” (Let’s hope not.) Black-and-white thinking takes away the joy of eating both healthy and “treat” foods.
“Every single time you make the decision to eat is a new opportunity to make a healthful, nourishing food choice,” says Dixon. No matter what you ate five days ago or five minutes ago, what you’re putting in your mouth right this minute is your next step toward healthier eating habits. It’s the small, accumulated steps we take to improve our health that matter in the long run, she says.
4. Try Approaching Your Goal From a Different Angle
When your healthy eating goal isn’t working, this just means it’s not working in its current form: “Instead of giving up, try a different approach (or two) to reach your goal,” suggests New York-based registered dietitian Michelle Hyman, RD. If nixing desserts cold turkey is proving to be too lofty an aspiration (we feel you), modify your approach—for instance, start by gradually downsizing your portions, then swap out your go-to dessert with a healthier option one day a week, and so forth, until eating dessert is less of a crutch and more of an indulgence. Bottom line: When one approach doesn’t work, there’s always another angle to attack your goal from.
5. Postponing Isn’t the Same Thing as Quitting
A big problem with being all gung-ho about eating healthier is the tendency to make too many changes at once, which can make things like keeping up with the time demands of grocery shopping, finding new restaurants, and looking up new recipes a total grind. You may also find yourself missing too many of your old foods and feeling overwhelmed by too many new foods that you’re unfamiliar with.
If you feel yourself crumbling under the pressure, focus on one or two changes that you’re confident you can do—and are ready to make—and ditch the rest, suggests Kristen Kizer, RD, registered clinical dietitian at Houston Methodist Hospital in Texas. “Start smaller and give yourself plenty of time to get used to the new changes,” she says. You can always come back to the other habits you’d like to change once your first few are established.
6. Put Your Feelings Into Perspective
Eating healthy is hard, and powering through when frustration strikes can be tricky. A simple trick that can help you get past your feels and back to the task at hand is making a pro/con list: In one column, list all the reasons why you want to eat healthier, and in the other, list the reasons why you don’t. “In the end, you’ll likely see that the benefits outweigh the downsides, and this can help redirect your focus,” says Julie Upton, RD, San Francisco-based registered dietitian and co-founder of Appetite for Health.
7. Don’t Underestimate the Power of Quick Wins
When your healthy eating goals end up derailed, it can do a number on how confident you are in your ability to create lasting changes to your diet. If you’re reluctant to start again or pick up where you left off, start with a few easy wins—instead of trying to build a new eating habit right off the bat, make super-tiny, no-strings-attached changes to your next several meals to make them even healthier. “A quick win is an easy way to boost your confidence and get back on track,” says Edwina Clark, RD, head of nutrition and editorial content at Raised Real. For example, swap soda for sparkling water at lunch, or add a single serving of veggies to dinner. Then, when you’re ready, get back to your regularly scheduled programming.