I refuse to go on another diet. I spend weeks eating miserably while convincing myself that the trade will pay off, only to rebound once the slightest distraction comes my way. And all that effort in restricting calories or scorning food groups has never truly paid off. It’s not a sustainable way to eat, let alone live. That’s why nutritionists and health experts speak of “lifestyle changes”: changes that focus on the big picture goals of getting healthier and feeling happier based on smart, permanent choices. With that, I feel that I’ve finally found a way to eat what I enjoy and manage my cravings. I’m calling it my “Food Swap Plan”.
This is stating the obvious, but I am not a nutritionist or physician. Before starting a new routine it is always advised to speak to your doctor in order to choose the best and safest approach. I can only say that, so far, this approach has been working for me and others. Of course, there are several great resources you can find online that will teach you more about nutrition. I suggest you take a look at them in order to better understand your health. I will share some of my favorite sources with you in a future post.
So here’s the idea: swap your normal diet for progressively healthier variations on your favorite dishes. While “healthy” foods can sometimes seem bland or unappetizing, if they are based around your cravings and preferred foods they become much more palatable. And by making gradual changes that integrate with your existing lifestyle you can enact sustainable routines. Swapping out versions of meals and cooking methods lets you still eat what you like without barring your efforts to get healthy.
Example: this week I was craving chicken tenders and fries (one of my favorites). That would be a 760 calorie meal from McDonald’s (3 tenders, medium fries) or a 1,110 calorie meal from Applebee’s (chicken tenders basket). Instead, however, I made baked chicken nuggets with polenta fries. I had a full plate for only 450 calories, not to mention all the sodium and fat savings. And the best part was that I didn’t feel deprived; my craving was abated and I felt awesome knowing I could enjoy my meal without guilt.
Here’s how to get started:
1) Start a food journal – even if it’s only for a week or two, logging your meals helps you to be fully conscious of what you’re eating now. Make sure to include amounts and detail what your situation and emotions were at the time, particularly for snacks. My Fitness Pal is a great app for keeping track of your intake.
2) Identify your typical cravings and favorite foods – make a list by meal so that you know what types of new recipes/strategies you’ll need to find.
3) Identify your dietary needs – work with your doctor to determine your nutritional requirements (calories, proteins, fats, vitamins, etc). This will help you establish your goals.
4) Research your food swaps – Think of your favorite foods and find healthier versions of those meals (e.g. baked for fried, herbs for salt, diet or water for soda). If making a big change isn’t appealing just yet, focus on incremental ones (small order of fries instead of medium, one less slice of pizza). Any progress is additive, so take on a challenge within your reach.
5) Create meal “menus” – list a few of your favorite healthy options for breakfast, lunch, and snacks. Doing this helps me focus my energy on varying dinner, while maintaining easy routines for my other meals. For example, for breakfast I rotate between an English muffin with light cream cheese, oatmeal, or scrambled eggs. I don’t have to think much about my morning intake because I just pick one of those off the menu.
6) Find new recipes! – Look for healthy recipes you’re actually willing to try and have time to prepare. There’s no excuse – the web is full of sites with easy instructions for all types of foods. Start by looking for variations on your favorites and do your homework to ensure that they’re actually better options. Store them where you can quickly find them (check out my post on organizing your Pinterest recipes). If you’re excited to try a recipe, you won’t mind missing out on a bit of the bad stuff.
Taking this approach has helped me lose nearly 10lbs in the past six weeks. My husband has lost even more because he combines it with plenty of exercise. And like I said, we don’t feel deprived in any way; if we have a craving, we find a meal to satisfy it. Here’s why it’s working for us:
- No food restrictions = no overcompensating. We don’t avoid any food group specifically, so we’re not tempted to overindulge when given the opportunity.
- We focus on eating what we like. I am a notorious picky-eater, so searching out new recipes for my favorite foods instead of force-feeding myself salad greens keeps me happy.
- We maintain a “free day”. On Saturdays (and sometimes Sundays) we loosen up and don’t hold ourselves to our routine. If I find an indulgent recipe that I really want to try, we save it for the weekend (like my homemade brownie sundaes).
- We maintain variety. While we keep mini menus for our other meals, we really try to vary dinner with new recipes day-to-day while keeping a protein + vegetable framework. It gives us something to look forward to at the end of the day.
- It takes advantage of creativity. This keeps us interested, as we’re always finding new ways to make our favorite foods.
- It’s sustainable. We’re content in what we’re eating, so we’re comfortable in this as a long-term effort. That’s what makes it attainable as a lifestyle change.
- It’s not a “diet”. We don’t consider this a “diet” at all (you know the kind I’m talking about), and we don’t expect the fast results that such programs claim to offer. Thus there is no pressure to achieve a quick turnaround and we can appreciate healthy, gradual changes.
Here are a few more tips:
- Add an exercise routine to your program in order to achieve the best results.
- Combine your approach with meal-planning strategies to get ahead of cravings.
- Purge your house of junk food before trying to start these changes (trust me, “out of sight” really does help with the “out of mind” bit).
- If one swap doesn’t work, try another (some people like cauliflower pizza, and others just don’t).
- Collect your recipes in one place for easy access.
- Rotate 3-5 option for breakfast, lunch, and snacks.
- Find “mindless” methods for improving your eating habits, such as portion guidelines and plate sizing.
- Make changes at your own speed. Some people are successful with big changes, while others need to take smaller steps to reach their goals. Don’t lose heart – it all adds up.
I will add posts to the subject of this “food swap plan” as I continue to explore it, including sources for nutritional facts, easy food swaps, and my favorite recipes. Sign up for the email list for more information and ideas. If you have any suggestions, please share them in the comments below!