Getting back to eating healthy — whatever that means to you — can be tricky after time off. But whether you took a break from certain habits over the holiday season or you’re simply looking to refresh your nutrition habits moving into a new year, getting your head in the game is key. After all, getting “back on the wagon” can feel like a big mental challenge. Luckily, there are ways to adjust your mindset that can make it easier to wrap your head around making some positive changes. Here, dietitians share their top tips.
Consider all the things you want to eat rather than what you’re aiming to remove from your diet. That way, working your way toward healthier habits is likely to feel less daunting. “Instead of saying, ‘no sweets, chips or pizza,’ try adding a serving of fruit or vegetables with your meals,” suggests Amy Goodrich, a registered dietitian. “Pizza with salad is more balanced and may help you eat less in the long run because the salad will help fill you up rather than reaching for another piece of pizza.”
“I once heard, ‘It’s not what you eat between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day that makes a difference; it’s what happens between New Year’s Day and Thanksgiving,’” says Kayla Girgen, a registered dietitian. “I love this! The holiday season is a busy time of year. Enjoy the foods that are worth splurging on and move on. You aren’t serving yourself if you dwell on the past. Look ahead, set realistic goals, and get moving!”
The start of a new year tends to be a time for unsolicited nutrition and diet advice, points out Jenny Champion, a registered dietitian. “The best thing to do is what’s best for you. If that means saying no to mimosas at brunch this weekend to stay on track, don’t ever feel pressured into eating — or drinking — something that could potentially sabotage your personal goals.” And likewise, just because you know someone on a super restrictive diet doesn’t mean you have to do that, either.
Getting back on track can feel intimidating if you’re afraid to mess up your diet. So it can help to acknowledge that you’re definitely going to “slip up” or splurge at some point, and that’s OK. “Plan for setbacks by identifying which areas you struggle with most,” Girgen recommends. “Is it exercise, consistency, eating out with coworkers, drinks on the weekends? Do your best to plan for these occasions. Aim to have setbacks happen further and fewer between. Recognize that progress, not perfection, is the goal.”
Another obstacle to changing how you eat is worrying you’ll never be able to eat your favorite foods again. Try to keep in mind that you’re making changes now, and that may take some sacrifice. But once in a while you can (and should!) treat yourself to foods you love, notes Su-Nui Escobar, a registered dietitian. Plus, as you get closer to your goals, there may be even more room for those foods you love. “Knowing that you will eventually be able to enjoy foods you love more often makes it easier to stay on track,” Escobar adds.
“It may seem counterintuitive, but I suggest never starting a ‘diet’ with calorie cutting,” Champions says. “If you’re not eating the right balance of nutrients to actually satisfy your body, trying to restrict to a smaller amount of unsatisfying food is a recipe for failure.” Instead, she recommends focusing on food quality (i.e. choosing more nutrient-dense and less processed foods) and learning your hunger and satiety cues, which sets you up for major success when you do start watching portions.
“There are no forbidden foods — everything fits into a healthy diet,” Escobar says. “The only thing you have to do is to choose what and how much you eat. Do you love ice cream? Go ahead and eat it. It’s just a matter of controlling your portion size.” Remember the foods you love are easily available and not going anywhere.
“I tell my clients all the time to give yourself a break: You’re human!” Goodrich says. “The fewer restrictions and rules you can place around food and exercise, the better your relationship with food and exercise will be.” As long as you keep focused on balancing your diet with protein, carbs, fruits and vegetables, you’ll be making progress.
It can be really tough to feel like you’re starting from scratch after some time away from your usual nutrition habits. But with a few small mindset tricks, getting back to your usual programming doesn’t have to feel so daunting. Avoid extremes, practice moderation, keep looking forward, and you should be good to go.