Going from picky eater to healthy diet
As I have already mentioned in previous blog post I was a fussy eater growing up. As with most picky people this means my diet was seriously lacking in nutrients and consisted of large amounts of processed food. My plate was generally beige in color and bland in taste. Chicken and potatoes. Bread and cheese. Sausages and chips (fries). Chicken in bread rolls.
Over the past decade or so that has shifted drastically in the complete opposite direction. I'm now on a whole food plant based diet and will happily eat pretty much any fruit or vegetable that is put in front of me. My diet is more diverse, flavorful and nutrient dense than it has ever been, though I didn't make it easy on myself, or my girlfriend for that matter, whose encouragement often lead to greater resistance from me.
In this post I will go through how I managed to change my diet for the better. It's worth mentioning that I didn't plan any of this, it just kind of happened over time. Looking back on it now I can identify a few key things that changed my mindset when it came to food. But first here are a few observations about my own struggle to adopt a healthier diet and lifestyle:
It's all in your head
The hardest barrier to get over is often the mental one, I would look at some foods and just decide that I didn't like them. I knew that the food wouldn't kill me but I refused to even try it. It was a mental barrier that I had built up over decades. This is a real psychological phenomenon so don't trivialize it by thinking 'Oh I'm just picky', it's not easy to get over so don't expect it to be.
It's not just taste, it's texture
Often times my issue with certain foods was not how it tasted but how it felt in my mouth.
It's you vs. the global food industry
Don't be too hard on yourself if you are struggling to make healthy changes to your diet, it's an uphill battle. The food industry uses all sorts of psychological tricks to get you to buy their processed, sugar and fat laden foods. Couple that with the modern busy and stressful lives many of us lead it's harder than ever to eat healthy.
Now, lets get on to some more practical advice around how to make some healthy changes to your diet.
Learn more about food and how to cook
The one thing that I to be the most effective tool in the fight against an unhealthy lifestyle it was learning more about food and nutrition. This happened for me when I moved out of my house and had to start cooking for myself. Thankfully I didn't just resign myself to frozen dinners and takeaway for life, I started to prepare food myself.
Pretty quickly I got bored and want to try some new dishes, so I had to learn more about food. When I did I quickly discovered that I really enjoy cooking. While I find it to be somewhat cathartic I appreciate that this won't be the case for everyone. If you really can't stand cooking I would suggest that you find four or five quick and easy main dishes and cycle through them week to week. Over time you will get confident enough to start making tweaks and experimenting with new things. These were my go to dishes for a long time:
Stir fry - can't get much easier than this.
Wholegrain Pasta with mixed vegetables - once you can make a decent sauce you can use it for a variety of dishes. Avoid store bought sauces as they are often filled with sugar.
Curries & stews (Pot cooking in general) - get yourself a decent dutch oven, pot cooking is super easy and can produce amazing results. I'll include some links to recipes at the bottom of this post to get you started. A good dutch oven is also a purchase that will last you for life so don't be afraid to spend the money to get a good one.
Soup - can't beat soup during the winter. Embarrassingly I didn't start eating soup until I was in my mid-twenties. You can make your own healthy soup just by throwing a bunch of veg in water and boiling it for a while.
I found that once I started cooking food I also started to pay attention to the ingredients in store bought processed foods. I began to wonder why all that extra crap was in there and why I never needed to add things like ' Silicium Dioxide' or ' Dextrose' to my own dishes (what ever the hell they are).
Introduce new healthy foods gradually
Don't try to take on too much at one time, this is a great way to set yourself up for failure. Give yourself reasonable short term goals and loftier long term ones. This idea is effective and can be applied to any goal you want to achieve, but it requires consistency and persistence. Nothing worthwhile has ever happened over night so recognize that you need to be in this for the long term.
Instead of sitting down one Sunday night and saying to yourself 'this week I'm going to eat only healthy foods', you can try to introduce one new healthy food to your diet each week. One week you might try to make sure you eat a piece of fruit every day. Maybe the next week you try to drink more water and less sugary drinks. The next you can try at least one new vegetable during the week. Focus on what you are adding rather than what you are restricting.
If you have a bad day full of junk food, so be it - just try to eat a little healthier the next. The worst thing you can do is set yourself unrealistic goals and then beat yourself up for failing. That will bring shame and likely a return to bad habits.
If you're a complete veggiephobe like I was there are some vegetables that are a lot easier to start with than others.
Bell peppers (also known as a Capsicum)
Bell peppers are nice and sweet, with a great crunch if you don't over cook them. The sweetness and crunch means they will be familiar in terms of flavor and texture making them a great vegetable to start with.
Steamed or stir fried carrots don't have an overpowering flavor, are a little sweet and will have a nice crunch if not over cooked. Similar to peppers they are a great vegetable to start with.
Spinach is easily the best green leafy vegetable to start with. It has a very mild flavor, goes with anything and is nutrient dense.
If you cut up broccoli florets and stir fry them they are very inoffensive to your taste buds. They are generally regarded as a 'super food' because they are so nutrient dense. Broccoli is part of the cruciferous family of vegetables, meaning they seem to have some anti-cancer properties. It's hard to think of any reason why everyone shouldn't start eating broccoli.
These were my staple vegetables for a long time and are a solid foundation to build on. One you are comfortable with spinach it is easy to branch out to all manor of salad leaves. Once comfortable with carrots you can try out other root vegetables like beetroot.
It takes time for your palette to change so be patient, introduce vegetables slowly - doing something is infinitely better than doing nothing so there's nothing wrong with slow and steady as long as you are consistent. Cut out junk and slowly introduce fruit and vegetables and your tastes will change in a matter of weeks, as will your body and health.
Bring your will power to the supermarket, forget about it at home
There are two parts to this point:
It is easier to say no once in the supermarket than ten times at home
If you only have healthy food in your house then you have to eat healthy. On the other hand if your house is full of junk food you have to constantly fight the urge to eat it. If, for example, you buy a pack of ten of your favorite chocolate bars because they were on special offer it means you have to try and resist that urge ten times at home. However in the supermarket you only have to resist that urge once. When you're at home you might regret not buying them but if you're trying to stay away from that sort of thing then you'd regret eating it a lot more.
Don't shop on an empty stomach
I think this is just good advice in general. If you are starving while cruising the aisles you will buy more and it won't always be healthy. Special offers for oven pizzas or sweet snacks will be harder to resist if both your stomach and your brain are screaming at you to buy them.
Hunger is the best sauce
Avoid snacking so that you are good and hungry for your main meals. This is more important in the early days - if you are properly hungry then you will eat anything, even those vegetables you thought you hated. This can be hugely beneficial provided that anything you are eating is nutritious healthy food. I'm not suggesting that you starve yourself, but if you eat three decent square meals a day and include some moderate level of activity in your daily routine then you will be less picky with your food. The key is to be hungry and limit your options.
In a previous blog post I recommended trying a vegetarian diet for one month purely for the sake of limiting your options. If you go to a restaurant and they only have one vegetarian option then you have to try it. This can be an effective way of broadening your horizons as you are forced to adapt and change the way you are eating.
Texture takes time
Most vegetables don't actually have that strong a taste. We are a lot more sensitive to sweet tasting fruits or the spices we add to our cooking. Once I realized this I was a lot more open to trying new things. Texture however was a different story and it's something I still struggle with.
Take bell peppers for example. I love them raw, cooked in a sauce or stir fried. If you roast them however they lose their appeal entirely. Roasting makes them more flavorful and sweet - they taste amazing - but it also changes their texture. It makes them soft and a little slimy. This is where my problem lies. The same goes for aubergine (or eggplant) and even tomatoes. I love the taste of tomatoes but have to cut away the slimy center portion.
Remember that there are a lot of different ways to prepare vegetables, so even if you think you don't like any given vegetable you can try preparing it in a different way. I found that stir frying generally yielded a texture that I liked, this may or may not be the same for other people.
Just remember that texture and taste are two different things. This battle is fought on two fronts, and in my opinion texture is the tougher mental battle. I'm still working on texture myself and have become more open to roasted peppers, which I hope will be a gateway to other vegetables and preparation methods that produce similar textures.
Food and fitness go hand in hand
If there's one thing that I think helps the most when it comes to starting and maintaining a healthy diet it is physical fitness. I remember when I first decided to improve my fitness. I wasn't thinking about diet or lifestyle or anything like that. It started when I had to run for a bus one day. It was 40 foot sprint to the bus that left me a sweaty, panting purple mess. The bus journey was 20 minutes long and it took basically that entire time for me to get my breath back. I was around 20 years old at the time, which means I had been smoking for about four years. This was a bit of a wake up call, so not long after that I started walking.
I would walk to and from college (around 5km) and pretty soon I started to notice a change in my physical appearance. It didn't last however. Once I finished college I started driving to work and with that the only exercise I ever got went out the window. That is until a couple of years later I noticed I was putting on some weight and wasn't happy about it. I remembered back to my college days and my daily walk and decided to start walking again. Walking turned to running due to my own impatience. Walking 5km could take an hour, where running it would take significantly less. Before long I was running regularly and even got up to 15k.
One day after one of my runs I went outside of my house to have a cigarette and realized just how absurd and counter productive my smoking was. How could I go run 10km and then head straight home and light up a cigarette? Just writing that now makes me feel like an idiot for ever having done it. I quit smoking cigarettes There and then, and soon after dietary changes followed.
When you start to enjoy exercise and give yourself some fitness goals, whether it's to run a marathon or deadlift 200kg, you quickly realize that you need to get your nutrition in order if you want to succeed. Fitness goals create nutrition goals. Without the proper nutrition you cannot get your body performing at it's best.
Basically I'd recommend doing any sort of exercise so that when those cravings for unhealthy food appear you have a counter balance. You have a reason not to succumb. That ice-cream or piece of chocolate will wipe out anything you may have gained from today's 5k run. You will be motivated by your own actions - and that is sustainable.
That's about it for now. I may revisit this topic in the future if I think of more things that helped me change my diet and lifestyle for the better. If you have any thoughts, questions or tips of your own feel free to leave a comment, thanks for reading!
All of the recipes listed below contain ingredients that even a fussy eater can get behind, such as potatoes, chickpeas, peppers and onions. They are all healthy, nutritious and super simple to throw together. They also keep really well in the fridge so you can make a batch that will keep you eating healthy for days.