Throughout my years of coaching, I have worked with such a wide variety of women, backgrounds, fitness histories and different stages in life. It’s simply beautiful. Yet one thing appears to be consistent across the board: nutrition is the hardest part. It seems unanimous that knowing what foods to choose and then choosing them time and time again is incredibly difficult.
If you have goals for yourself, like losing the baby weight, slimming and toning up, or even reaching a higher level of health, nutrition is the kingpin. You may have heard that losing weight it 20% exercise and 80% what you eat. It’s hard to say what the exact percentage breakdown is, but I have heard ratios anywhere from 50/50 to 90/10. Regardless of what the true ratio is (and I’m sure it’s different for every woman), the point remains…nutrition is incredibly important.
But, boy is it hard.
Why is this? Why is nutrition so hard? There are quite a few factors, but I want to tackle it from a mom’s perspective. Let’s take a look…
It never goes away. When you workout, you have to make that decision, tough as it is, about three to five times per week. The average person eats about 28 meals per week. That’s a big difference in decision making. And for a mom, there are probably far more decisions to be made. I’m sure you are frequently making your children, and sometimes your husband, different meals than your own. This gets exhausting. A client of mine told me one time that she has “decision fatigue”. Ain’t that the truth!
Your hunger and appetite is not just mental. You have several very powerful hormones that signal your hunger pangs and feelings of fullness. For many women, especially those with a history of severe dieting and calorie restriction, these hormones are not functioning properly. Hunger is triggered at all the wrong times, and when this happens your willpower can be useless.
Also, the happy neuro-hormone serotonin actually aids in digestion when our stomach is full, so it’s no wonder that we often associate fullness with happiness. That’s a powerful feeling to work around.
It’s deeply emotional. Food isn’t just food…our feelings can greatly determine what we eat. For many of us food has deep emotional binds. Most often, women tend to be stress-eaters, munching away or sneaking into the pantry when they’re wound up tight. Or perhaps you grew up in a home where food was abused by family members and you’ve carried these emotions with you into your own life. Or perhaps you have abused food yourself, by starving, restricting, binging, purging…you name it, to express control or lack of control over an area of your life. Or perhaps happiness is only known within the context of food…to be truly happy you need a big meal or your favorite candy.
It’s confusing. We are over-informed and can no longer decipher what healthy eating looks like. “Should I be counting my calories and measuring my food? Is gluten a big no-no? What about dairy, should I cut that out too? Everybody is detoxing now…am I supposed to detox, cleanse or juice? Do I skip breakfast, eat breakfast or eat three breakfasts? Do I need to track all of this? How often can I have my cake and eat it, too? And what about my kids? Screw it, I’ll eat my cake.”
There are probably more reasons why healthy eating is so hard, but these four seems to be the most common among women. Let’s shine a little light on each of these obstacles and help you walk away with a big sigh of relief. I want you to say “Ok, maybe healthy eating doesn’t need to be so hard. I can do this.”
Make your meals as automatic as possible. When you have to decide what to eat so often, make the process easier on yourself. You do NOT need to try brand new recipes all the time. I suggest choosing three healthy breakfasts, three healthy lunches and three healthy snacks to rotate through. That’s it for those meals. (For example my lunches are always either dinner leftovers, bagged salad with chicken, or a smoothie as my fallback.) Then you can collect about 14 healthy dinners (two weeks’ worth of variety) to cycle through. Write these all down and even schedule them all out onto a meal planner. Once it’s on a meal planner, your decision making is done for the week. No more decision fatigue. Phew!
Get your hormones under control. This is a lot harder than it sounds, and it even sounds hard. This process can take a while. Begin by stepping off the diet train (just stop!) and re-educating yourself on what healthy eating truly looks like (more on that later). No more crash dieting, calorie restriction or even detoxing. Every single time you do this your appetite hormones get confused, so you will suffer in the long run.
You need plenty of good nutrients on a consistent basis that encourage your metabolism to run at a high rate. (Building muscle on your body helps significantly, too.) Slowly, over time, your body’s natural signals will adjust. A healthy, well-nourished body rarely feels those deep, gut-empty hunger pangs. There is a normal ebb and flow throughout the day…but no spiking, no diving. Be patient with the process. You might not lose weight quickly, but you won’t ruin yourself either.
Identify your emotions. I wish food could just be food (and it is for some), but the underlying feelings tied to food can be very powerful. If you have a deep emotional connection with food (you eat when you’re stressed, when you’re happy, when you’re sad, when you need to feel control), you must recognize these eating habits for what they are.
If you’re a stress-eater, pin down what’s causing your stress and then implement stress-reducing strategies, like deep breathing, a change of environment, praying or talking with a friend. If you eat to feel happy or you eat when you’re sad, notice that you do this and look for other outlets for these emotions. Many emotional connections with food are far beyond the scope of this blog post, so if you’re realizing that this may be a big thing for you, please seek counseling and more support.
Wipe the slate clean and start over. You need to be re-educated on what healthy eating needs to look like. Don’t worry about any fancy fads until the foundation of your diet is real food, and you’re eating it consistently.
Start with lots of lean protein, making sure you’re eating it with every meal. Good options are chicken, eggs, turkey, fish and even beef. Next, eat lots of fresh produce, especially vegetables. You should have a couple handfuls of fresh produce with every meal. Then, include some form of healthy fat, like avocado, olives, nuts and seeds. Don’t always pick the same thing…variety is key with fats. Finally, eat whole grains sometimes, but it doesn’t need to be with every meal. And then, of course, drink lots of water.
Now, this sounds overly simplified, but that’s the point! We’ve made it too complicated! Bring yourself back to these basics, and do it consistently for a while. It’s ok to deviate a little from time to time, but always come back to protein, produce, healthy fats and some whole grains. Once you have mastered these basics, THEN decide if you need to tweak it a little more. I guarantee that you’ll never need to detox or cleanse or track or count or fall off the wagon again.
Nutrition is hard, I know. Making it easier does not happen overnight, and you will probably be resistant to changing your ways, especially your mindset.
One of my favorite quotes is “Easy is Earned”. If you want nutrition to be easier, you need to earn that. You might need to plan and create strategies to make healthy eating more automatic for you as a mom. You may need to work through some issues that you have with food. You might need to take the time to reset your hormones and re-educate your body on how it should function. And you might need to de-gunk (new word!) your brain of all the extra information that is not helping you right now. Keep it simple, go back to the basics, and take it one meal at a time.
Before long, you will realize that consistently eating healthy is much, much easier.