Healthy Eating: Perfect is the Enemy of Good Enough

“I am Superman, and I can do anything.” – R.E.M.

“I wish I were a better person, then everything would be easier – I’d eat better, read more, workout more. If only I were a better person…” I’ve fallen prey to this line of thinking many times in the past: if only I were a better person, all my challenges would be solved. But since I’m not that perfect person, I’m clearly a failure. And since I’m a failure, I might as well give up and go back to being lazy, eating poorly, and generally wasting time.

These are all false ideas, and trademarks of depression’s grip – depression doesn’t want to let go, and the easiest way for it to maintain its hold is to keep you down. Depression can spawn any number of false thoughts that can be debilitating to your self-image and limit progress toward your goals. Getting out of this trap requires small steps, not attempting to become perfect overnight. Perfection won’t happen, and the inevitable failure that comes with attempting the impossible can make the depression deeper.

True success, and a means of limiting depression, is based on gradual improvement: making one small and relatively easy change, and then another, and then another, over a very long time. If you do this, gradually and slowly, when you look back years later you’ll see a very different person in the mirror. And these small changes can provide useful data points that help keep depression at bay.

For me, these gradual changes started with exercising more often, greatly aided by a close group of friends. Exercise led me to a great nutrition and fitness coaching program: Precision Nutrition’s Lean Eating program. Over the course of six months, the program’s coaches helped me build small changes as habits, focusing on behavioral change and always measuring my compliance. This is the key: it’s not about who you are, it’s about what you do. A perfect person isn’t summoned overnight; a better person is built from many small improvements in behavior.

I enjoyed the program so much that I took it twice, two years apart. And many of the lessons have taken hold, better behaviors leading to tangible improvements in my quality of life. I’m now enrolled in the coaching certification program, to deepen my knowledge of nutrition and positive behaviors, so that I can share those lessons. As a starting point, I wanted to share a few tips around healthy eating that have helped me immensely:

1) Find a substitute:

I’ve had a long history of drinking calories, primarily in the form of soda. For whatever reason, drinking water never held the same appeal and wasn’t as satisfying mentally. Drinking calories is a very easy way to put on unwanted weight, and is a habit worth changing. The way I got free of drinking soda daily was by finding a substitute. First, I moved from soda to sweetened teas. In some cases, these had even more calories than soda. But it was a start. I also tried exercise drinks, but these were also sugary. Finally, I moved from sweetened teas to unsweetened and green teas. And this has taken hold – I now cold brew green tea and drink pitchers of it per week. This took years of work and many steps, but soda is no longer in my house. By making it a priority and changing slowly, I was able over time to change a very negative habit into a very positive one.

2) Keep food close at work:

I have no data to back me up, but my guess is that if you have to leave your desk at work to find food, the odds of you eating poorly increase (the vending machine comes into play). If you leave the building, I’d bet the odds go up even more. Even if you have a healthy option like sushi nearby, you probably have more unhealthy options like pizza and burgers.

To make sure that temptation is held at bay, every day I bring a bag of food with me to work. My bag, as an example, holds the same seven small portions every day, with a focus on protein, fruits and vegetables. I bring greek yogurt, sugar-free applesauce, natural cheese, low-salt vegetable juice, hummus with pretzels, one piece of fruit, and one vegetable. These are always within reach at my desk. I may go out for lunch, but I don’t have to. Not only does this help keep me from eating poorly, eating small portions regularly also means I don’t get hungry at work. When you’re hungry, it’s much harder to make good food choices: fast food looks more and more appealing the hungrier you get.

The biggest changes come from the widest scope. I’ve tried to improve my “average day”, which for me (and for most people) is a work day. What are you eating there? If you can focus on bringing good food to work every day, then five days out of every seven, you’ll generally eat pretty well. And if you do this consistently month over month, improvements will come. (You may also end up saving a lot of money, depending on where you work and the cost of food options.) Every day doesn’t need to be perfect, that’s going to be very hard to achieve. Focus on the average day, improving that slowly over time.

3) Learn to taste food:

One of the biggest benefits of weaning myself off soda and fast food has been rediscovering the taste of whole foods. I’ve recently subscribed to the eMeals clean eating recipe program, where for $5/month they send me a week’s worth of recipes and an efficient, itemized shopping list. Having someone else do that planning is a huge boost: I get great recipes with no effort, which helps ensure that I’ll use them. Like paying for a workout plan, it takes thinking out of the equation (which is hard when you’re tired, hungry, or stressed). I’ve really enjoyed the meals they’ve laid out for me, and the flavor combinations have been surprising and new. This, along with shopping at local farmers’ markets, has led to a newfound appreciation for the flavors of fresh food. I’ve tried not to veto any foods that I haven’t liked in the past (like beets) – trying them fresh, and in these interesting recipes, has presented them in a new way that in many cases I’ve loved. All of this has been an incredibly positive boost nutritionally and for my self-image and mood, and also a wonderful way to care for myself and be more mindful of my environment.

These changes have all been built slowly over the course of years from gradual improvements. And I’m always looking for new improvements to add. Life certainly isn’t perfect, but by focusing on small steps, successes are much easier to come by. What small steps could you try?

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