Wouldn’t it be nice if you could just go to the store and buy some self-discipline? Well, in a way, you can.
Each time you visit the grocery store, you have the opportunity to choose foods that promote health, well-being, and excellent performance.
Healthy foods help you stay alert, energized, and productive throughout the day. Unhealthy foods, on the other hand, have the opposite effects.
And that’s why proper nutrition is such a crucial factor in your level of self-discipline. It provides your body with the building blocks and fuel it needs for you to stay healthy and make consistent progress toward your goals.
So, how do you determine what foods to eat?
A Simple Definition of Healthy Eating
There are so many diets out there that it’s easy to get overwhelmed and stuck before you even get started. The Mediterranean Diet, the Atkins Diet, the whole-food diet, the Whole30 diet, the Paleo Diet, the vegan diet, the raw food diet, and the low-carb/high-fat diet are just the tip of the iceberg.
With so many options to choose from, how do you know where to start? In my experience, it’s best to keep it as simple as possible. A diet is healthy if:
- It gives your body the nutrients it needs.
- It does not give your body too many calories.
- It does not contain a lot of unhealthy stuff, like trans fats and harmful chemicals.
So, a helpful definition to keep in mind is to eat foods with “a good nutrient-to-calorie ratio without a lot of the bad stuff.”1
A List of Healthy Foods
You have only a few opportunities every day to provide your body with great fuel and strong building blocks. So, don’t waste them. Strive to take every chance you get to give your body what it needs.
Leo Babauta of Zen Habits suggests the following amazingly healthy alternatives1:
- Green leafy vegetables. These nutrient-dense veggies contain a bunch of great vitamins, minerals, and fibers without a lot of calories or unhealthy stuff. Some examples are broccoli, kale, spinach, bok choy, mustard greens, and romaine lettuce.
- Colorful vegetables and fruits. These provide nutrients you won’t get much of anywhere else, such as vitamin A, vitamin C, and potassium. Vegetable examples include carrots, squash, and tomatoes. Fruit examples include bananas, oranges, and mangos.
- Onions and garlic. These are two of the best and cheapest veggies out there. They protect against inflammation, infections caused by bacteria and viruses (e.g., colds and the flu), cardiovascular diseases, and cancer.
- Beans. Black beans, red beans, white beans, lentils, and peas are all excellent sources of minerals, fiber, and protein.
- Nuts and seeds. Walnuts, almonds, cashews, pumpkin seeds, and chia seeds contain tons of protein and healthy fats.
- Proteins. Meat eaters can get their protein from fish and poultry. Red meat—for example, sausage, bacon, corned beef, steak, and hamburger—should be consumed in moderation as it’s been shown to increase the risk of cancer. Vegetarians and vegans can get their protein from vegetables, whole grains, tofu, tempeh, seitan, and nondairy milks like almond, cashew, hemp, and soy.
- Fats. Polyunsaturated fats are especially healthy and seem to lower risks of cancer and cardiovascular diseases. Examples include avocados, walnuts, sunflower seeds, olive oil, fish, and soybeans.
- Drinks. Water is best, but black coffee, tea, and green juice are great, too. You should try to avoid drinking sugary drinks and too much alcohol.
Take a Gradual Approach
It can be tempting to try to overhaul your diet overnight, but if you’ve tried that in the past, you know how difficult it can be. It quickly becomes a lot of work to learn a bunch of new recipes. Social situations become an issue as you’re unsure what to eat when you go out.
Soon, you’ll start getting overwhelmed and begin to miss your old diet. And before you know it, you’re back where you started.
To avoid that scenario, I highly recommend a gradual approach. Instead of creating a big, abrupt change in your diet, make just one small change every week.
That will help you transition much more smoothly into your new diet. You’ll be a lot less overwhelmed and have a lot more fun doing it. Here are some examples of gradual changes to make:
- Have a piece of fruit with breakfast.
- Remove sugar from your coffee.
- Add a vegetable to your lunch every day.
- Switch to a healthy dessert, like a small square of dark chocolate or some maple syrup–glazed walnuts.
- Eat fruit for an afternoon snack.
- Add a vegetable to your dinner every day.
- Don’t eat after 8:00 p.m.
- Cut back on one alcoholic drink at night.
- Learn one new healthy recipe.
- Prepare weekday lunches on Sundays.
You get the idea. Keep making small changes like these every week, and you’ll be surprised at how quickly you’ll transition into a healthy diet.
Nudge Yourself Toward Healthy Eating
Another powerful strategy for changing your diet is to change your environment. In his book Mindless Eating2, Cornell University professor Brian Wansink recommends the following strategies:
- Use small plates. Big plates mean big servings. And that means you eat more. If you start serving your dinner on 10-inch plates instead of 12-inch plates, you’ll eat 22 percent less food over the course of a year. So, if you want to eat less, smaller plates are a great investment.
- Use tall and slender glasses. Our brains tend to perceive taller drinks as bigger than round, wide mugs. And that makes us drink less from taller glasses. In fact, you will drink about 20 percent less from a tall, slender glass than you would from a short, fat glass.
- Put healthy snacks in prominent places. For example, you could put a bowl of nuts or fruit near the front door of your house. That will make you much more likely to grab a healthy snack when you’re leaving the house.
- Hide unhealthy foods and let healthy ones show. Wrap unhealthy food in tinfoil and store it behind other stuff in the fridge. Wrap healthy food in plastic wrap and store it at the front of the shelf. That will nudge you toward healthier choices.
By proactively making changes like these to your environment, you can nudge yourself toward healthier eating decisions. And, as a result, there’s a good chance you’ll improve your diet without even noticing it.
How to Eat Healthy, In Summary
- Each time you visit the grocery store, you have the opportunity to choose foods that promote health, well-being, and excellent performance.
- A helpful definition to keep in mind is to eat foods with “a good nutrient-to-calorie ratio without a lot of bad the stuff.”
- Take every chance you get to provide your body with nutritious foods.
- Instead of creating a big, abrupt change in your diet, make just one small change every week.
- Nudge yourself toward healthy eating habits by changing your environment.
Choose Healthy Foods
✓ Base your diet on foods with “a good nutrient-to-calorie ratio without a lot of the bad stuff.”
Take a Gradual Approach
✓ Make just one small dietary change each week.
Nudge Yourself Toward Healthy Eating
✓ Shape your environment so that it supports the eating behaviors you want to practice.
This article is an excerpt from my book The Self-Discipline Blueprint.