Many people consider a new relationship with food in the weeks following a new year.
But beginning an Instagram-popular diet like Whole 30, or trying to reduce your sugar intake, often seems intimidating with all it requires. Reading and listing all those ingredients. Dedicating time at the grocery store. Cooking regularly.
U.S. News & World Report has ranked the best diets for 2018, tying the Mediterranean and DASH diets on top. Both are flexible and don’t require drastic food-group reductions.
Kathryn McMurry, a nutrition coordinator at the National Institutes of Health, which designed the DASH diet, said it was created to test the effects of nutrition for lowering blood pressure.
(“The DASH diet eating plan is a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, low fat or nonfat dairy. It also includes mostly whole grains; lean meats, fish and poultry; nuts and beans. It is high fiber and low to moderate in fat. It is a plan that follows US guidelines for sodium content, along with vitamins and minerals,” according to dashdiet.org.)
And she has good news — it recommends starting small. You don’t need to clear out the entire pantry or restock the entire fridge.
“What we recommend are small gradual changes,” she said. “Small changes are more sustainable; they’re more likely to stick. You’re more likely to stick with them.”
Here are a few small steps you can take to change your eating habits:
First, decide your goals. “It can really seem overwhelming and confusing because there’s so many different options in healthy eating,” McMurry said. Whether you want to reduce your risk for heart disease or lose weight, different diets exist for different purposes. Taking stock of what you want to accomplish can lead you toward the right food plan for you.
Start with adding in one new food. Buying one new food item at the grocery store is one way Lindsey Smith revised her eating habits. Smith is the author of “Eat Your Feelings: The Food Mood Girl’s Guide to Transforming Your Emotional Eating.”
While seeking a better relationship with food, she experimented with one new thing a week, trying a new recipe or vegetable. Trying too much at once can backfire, she said.
One at a time
“They spend $150 on fruits and vegetables, and they don’t eat half of them.” Avoid wasting time and money by incorporating a bit at a time. With the DASH diet, for example, McMurry recommends that if you eat one or two vegetables a day, add a serving at lunch and dinner. Substitute brown rice instead of white, whole grain bread instead of white.
Be flexible. Find and keep flavors you enjoy. Just because a friend posts perfectly planned meals doesn’t mean that’s your route to food salvation.
If meal planning isn’t for you, don’t force it. Getting rid of everything gluten in your pantry might leave you feeling stressed two weeks later. Steer clear of actions that fill you with guilt.
“Our bodies are complex, and we tend to crave things at different times,” said Smith. “So many of us think that it has to be rigid.” Find flavors you enjoy, and incorporate them. “If you find yourself feeling deprived of foods that you love, then eventually you’re going to rebel and go back to the less healthy habits,” McMurry said. So if you love macaroni and cheese, maybe make it with low-fat cheese and skim milk and eat a smaller serving, instead. You can even try the NIH’s recipe.
If you go big, keep it temporary. Some diets tell people to avoid whole food groups, notes McMurry. “They’re OK for a short period of time, but what we really like to promote about DASH is it’s a heart-healthy eating plan for life and part of a healthy lifestyle,” she said.
Ideally, find something you can sustain. But if you try a diet that eliminates entire food groups, consider it a chance to see how the absence of those foods affects your body during that time. “What we want is something that’s very sustainable,” McMurry said.
Get a buddy or a coach. Someone to share goals and check in with can offer a boost. Consider connecting with a coach, like one with the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, where you can put in a ZIP code and find an expert.
Even meeting with someone once might be worthwhile — these are people, after all, trained in nutrition who can discuss what you like to eat and come up with a plan. Some insurance plans might cover the cost, McMurry said. “If people are trying to do it all on their own, it can be really overwhelming.”