“The second day of a diet is always easier than the first.
By the second day you’re off it.”
So, are you thinking about starting a new eating plan? Whole30, Paleo, 21-Day Sugar Detox, Mediterranean, or ketogenic? Good for you! But maybe you’re a little worried because of past experiences you’ve had starting — and stopping — a new diet.
(Impatient? Jump straight to the quiz.)
Oh, those optimistic first few days of a diet! This time, you think, this time will be different. I’ve got this! I’m going to change all the things! I’m never going to eat sugar again! I’m going to eat salad every day!
And then, in a few days, reality hits…
Often, at least part of the problem is we’ve attempted a plan that really isn’t well-suited to the reality of where we’re at right now. This is especially true if you’re making a giant leap from a no-restrictions lifestyle to an eating plan that’s very restrictive, such as Whole30 or keto. Choosing a diet that;s a step or two in the right direction — rather than a giant leap or two or twelve — will help ensure both short-term and long-term success.
My own eating changes happened by trial and error, in steps small and large, over the course of many years. And I ultimately landed on a plan I can live with pretty much every day, forever. I love mostly Paleo, with a few accommodations that make it more livable. And “livable” is the big factor for long-term success.
Dr. Walter Willet, Chair of the Deptartment of Nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health, says:
“The real issue is not losing weight—people can lose weight on almost any diet—but [the real issue is] keeping weight off over the long run. Thus it is more important to find a way of eating that you can stay with for the rest of your life. For this reason, any eating plan you choose should be satisfying and allow variety, and should also be nutritionally sound.”
So what’s “nutritionally sound,” and also satisfying? There are a number of diets that fit the bill, I think. (Low-fat isn’t one of them. You need fat for the assimilation of vitamins and for building cell walls. And a low-fat diet tends to not be very satisfying.) But what all nutritious, livable plans have in common is that each of them is a “diet” (by which I really mean a permanent way of eating for life) that focuses on real food: whole foods that haven’t been messed with in a lab or factory. Making sure there’s protein, healthy fats, and plenty of veggies included daily. Whether and how much fruits, grains, and dairy are included depends on each person’s individual tastes and biology.
I’ve landed on a mostly-Paleo approach that allows for some accommodations that keep it livable for me, without triggering junk food cravings. It’s a far cry from how I ate 10 years ago, but I didn’t get there overnight.
I thought about those steps that I took over the years and I’ve broken them down here for you. And created a flexible approach that lets you pick and choose which steps are most pertinent for you, right now.
You might take two steps for now, really work on those for two weeks, or a month, or more, then come back and add a couple more for another round. And repeat until you find what works for you.
Or maybe you work on changing your breakfast habits for two weeks, then your lunch and snack habits for two weeks, and then tackling dinner.
So here are the questions to help you get started. First, there are four questions to help you sort out what your most pressing needs are, and suggest some various starting places, based on your answers. Then, there are three questions to help define what time period you want to commit to this project, and what you’ll do afterwards.
CHOOSING YOUR FOOD PLAN:
Please honestly answer questions 1 through 4:
1. What is your current health status? I am overweight, and/or I have one or more of the following: metabolic syndrome, pre-diabetes, diabetes (either type 1 or 2), heart disease, enlarged liver, and/or I have had a stroke.
__ A. False
__ B. True
2. How do you do with sweets/carbs/junk food? Tally up how many of the following are true for you. (Or more often true than not.)
Note: “Sweetened drinks” include anything sweetened with sugar, corn syrup, agave syrup, OR artificial sweeteners: lattes, smoothies, pop, sweet tea, and energy drinks. Also, most liqueurs or alcoholic cocktails with a sweet or sour taste: Amaretto, Kahlua, Bailey’s, margarita, mojito, Moscow mule, sangria, etc. Also beer, because of the maltose.
• I plan to eat just a small portion of a treat and end up eating the whole package/thing.
• I crave simple carbohydrates daily: sweetened drinks, chips, cereal, rice, pasta, bread, granola bars, etc.
• I’m likely to over-eat sweet or starchy foods.
• I’ll eat large quantities of sweets or carby foods even if I’m not particularly hungry,
• I turn to carby food or drinks (sweetened drinks, beer) when I’m feeling emotional — up and/or down.
Check your total:
__ A. 0 – 1 out of the 5
__ B. 2 – 5 out of the 5
3. What are you drinking? I drink sweetened beverages most or all of the day, and/OR I drink beer or sweetened alcohol at least five days a week. (Sweetened beverages = same list as in question 2.)
__ A. False
__ B. True
4. What are you eating? This best describes how I’m currently eating most of the time:
__ A. No real restraints, or alternating between severe restriction and the-hell-with-it
__ B. Low-fat, restricted calories
__ C. Lots of fruit, grains, potatoes, and beans; less meat, protein, and veggies
__ D. Low-carb, little to no sugar, few veggies
__ E. Low-carb, little to no sugar, lots of veggies
Scoring so far:
Following is a list of possible food boundaries you can choose from, divided into Level 1 and Level 2. Which level you choose from depends on how you answered the questions above.
If you answered B to question 1 and B to either or both of questions 2 and 3, you should start with one or two items in Level 1. After this round, come back and add another option or two. Small steps add up! (You can skip ahead to read Level 1 now.)
If you answered A or B to question 1, but you answered A to both questions 2 and 3, read on regarding Question 4….
If you answered A to question 4, start with one or two items from Level 1 for this round, then plan on adding more for your next phase.
If you answered B or C to question 4, you should start with two or more items in Level 1, then plan on adding more for your next phase.
If you answered D to question 4, you can focus on adding more non-starchy vegetables to all your meals, and if you like, also choose one or more options from Level 2.
If you answered E to question 4, select one or more options from Level 2 that will build on your already good diet.
Check off the items you would like to tackle now. You can always add others after this round:
Nutrition isn’t just about what you don’t eat: it’s also very much about what you do eat that adds to your health. So don’t overlook these first items that involve adding something you’re not currently doing. They’re all designed to satisfy nutritional cravings your body has (even if you’re not aware of them), and they help balance your blood sugar, which will also reduce sweet and junk food cravings.
__ If you’re not already eating low carb, aim for a visual balance between protein and carbs in all meals and snacks
__ If you’re eating low fat, add protein and healthy fats to your meals and snacks
__ Add non-starchy veggies to your meals and snacks (all veggies except regular potatoes, winter squash, and starchy beans)
__ Eliminate anything made with white flour (this includes anything battered and fried)
__ Eliminate sweets and all forms of sugar in food and drinks* (corn syrup, dextrose, maltose, etc. See Other names for sugar.)
Nutrition isn’t just about what you don’t eat: it’s also very much about what you do eat that adds to your health. So don’t overlook these first two items that involve adding something you’re not currently doing. They’re designed to satisfy nutritional cravings your body has (even if you’re not aware of them).
__ Add protein, greens, and/or healthy fat to your breakfast, if lacking
__ Add protein, greens, and/or healthy fat to your snacks and other meals, if lacking
__ Eliminate all wheat, corn, and soy
__ Eliminate most or all dairy (many people find this helps with skin, gut, and joint issues)
__ Reduce or eliminate alcohol
Or choose one of the following:
__ Transition to a “real food” plan. Eliminate all super-processed foods, stick to whole foods (meat, eggs, fish, veggies, fruit, dairy). More info in the notes.*
__ Follow the Mediterranean eating style*
__ Follow a strict Paleo approach* (If you do this for 30 days with no breaks, that’s “Whole30”.)
__ Define your modified Paleo plan* – Paleo eliminates all sugar, syrups, and sweeteners; all grains and pseudo-grains; all dairy; all alcohol; and all legumes. To modify it, choose those parts that you’re willing to commit to for this time period. You can choose this option as a trial run before doing a Whole30, OR use it to define what “food freedom”* is for you afterwards.
__ Another way of eating that suits your particular health needs right now. E.g, low histamine, AIP, low FODMAP, etc. (These are designed for people with specific health problems. If you’ve tried strict Paleo and still have allergy, autoimmune, or inflammation issues, or migraines, you may need to look into one of these elimination diets. If you don’t have any of those issues, you don’t need this.)
CHOOSING YOUR TIME PLAN
Now, thinking about your temperament, and how much time you have in your calendar for the coming weeks, answer the following…
5. Will you allow for breaks, or not? Answer the following:
– I tend to be more successful and less stressed when I:
__ A. Follow clear-cut rules all of the time, eliminating the need to make decisions as I go.
__ B. Follow rules most of the time, with a few loopholes built in so I don’t feel deprived.
If you answered B, decide which ONE of the following patterns you’ll adhere to for this round:
__ For now, I am just going to work on changing one meal a day, seven days a week, and that meal will be: ______________________.
__ I will stay in my food boundaries all the time except for one day a week, and that day will be: ______________________.
__ I will stay in my food boundaries, except for three meals a week, and those will always be: ______________________.
__ I will stay in my food boundaries, except for one meal a day on weekdays. That meal will be: ______________________.
__ I will stay in my food boundaries, except when eating out with others, and then I will modify it by: ______________________. (Limit this to five meals a week, at most)
6. What will your starting and ending dates be?
Note: the 15-day option won’t give you radical results, but it might be a good time period for baby-stepping your way to a bigger goal. For example, a good strategy would be to add protein and healthy fats to your meals for two weeks before you start eliminating sugar.
– I would like to commit to this changed way of eating for:
__ 15 days (if you’re choosing this option, you’ll see more benefits if you follow your boundaries 24/7, with no breaks)
__ 21 days
__ 30 days
__ 40 days
– I am going to start on: (date) _________________________
– So my ending date will be: (date) ______________________
7. What’s your end game? If you’re doing any of the items that involved adding something healthy to your diet, there’s no reason to quit that. If you’re doing any items that involved eliminating something from your diet, you can choose at the end whether to continue that strictly, to drop that restriction, or to create some new boundaries for yourself that keep the not-so-healthy food in sensible doses.
For example, if you were eliminating dairy and found that some of your health issues improved, you might want to test one type of dairy at a time (aged cheeses, fresh cheeses, cream, yogurt, butter) to find out whether one or all of them are the culprit, then adapt your long-term diet accordingly.
Or, if you chose a baby step for this round – say, adding protein for 14 days – your end game should define which step you’ll choose next. Or, at least, that you’ll come back to this post and walk through the process again to decide on your next round.
My end game is: _____________________________________
Put a note in your calendar now for your starting date. Also write one on your ending date, reminding yourself what your end game / next step is. Review and learn from your struggles and successes, and make a new plan for your next round, or for life forever.
How can I help you?
I send out a short email once a month, pointing to some easy, healthy recipes and sometimes other helpful resources. And when you subscribe, you’ll also get a couple e-books I wrote:
- 10 diet hacks anyone can do to cut down on sugar and carbs
- The meal plan for people who hate to meal plan!
Go here to learn more.
Oh, and here’s another thing that might help you start and stay strong: Get your “but” out of the way!
I hope you’ve found this process helpful. If you have any questions, please comment below, and I’ll answer them if I can.
*Notes about food plan options
Quitting sugar; adding fat
For more detail about whether or not you need to quit sugar completely, see this post.
Why low-fat is not all that and a bag of chips: Eat fat, scientists say.
Real food, Mediterranean, or Paleo?
A “real food” approach doesn’t provide a lot of specific parameters, other than just avoiding processed food. If you’re more comfortable with a little more structure, the Mediterranean and Paleo approaches to eating are a couple I think are worth looking into. If you don’t like red meat so much, and/or if you can’t live without wine, you may prefer the Mediterranean way. If you want more meat in your diet (there are still a lot of veggies; it’s not all meat), consider Paleo or Whole30. Or a modified Paleo, where you allow what works for you.
Here are some tips I wrote that will help you start strong. I originally wrote it with the Paleo diet in mind, but most if not all of it is applicable for any real-food diet: 15 tips to make eating healthy easier
What is this “real food” you speak of?
Real food defined
Why cut processed food
More info about the Mediterranean diet
Better results than a low-fat diet
What’s in and out on the Mediterranean plan
8 tips for transitioning to Mediterranean
12 Mediterranean recipes to try
Info about the Paleo diet and Whole30
A post about Paleo: What is the Paleo diet and should I try it?
Success stories from people who found the Paleo diet changed their relationship with food and, for some, improved their autoimmune symptoms.
In case you missed this comment earlier, “Whole30” is 30 days of eating strict Paleo, with no breaks or cheats. It will make more sense and you’ll have a higher chance of success if you read the definitive book first: It Starts With Food
Set realistic expectations for doing a Whole30: The Whole30 Timeline
After you’ve determined which foods are good for you and which aren’t, you’re ready for food freedom: